On April 28, the Government will start borrowing more to borrow less

With Universal Credit, the Government is trying to invest in the future. Why can't it do that elsewhere?

You wouldn't know it from their criticism of Labour, but for the last year, the Government has been borrowing more to borrow less.

If its plans for Universal Credit come to fruition, spending on welfare will be reduced by millions, both through efficiency savings and reduced payouts. There will be a knock-on effect, too, from the changed incentives Universal Credit creates. With a smoother phase-out of benefits as claimants' income increases, the hope is that fewer people will find themselves in the situation where working more leaves them with less disposable cash. More people in employment means more tax revenues, fewer benefit payouts and faster growth.

But Universal Credit, the first "pathfinder" of which is starting in Manchester this month, has required an enormous outlay to get off the ground. Because it integrates six different benefits, the software required to calculate the correct payout is costly, and has had to be specially commissioned at great expense. It's made more complex by the fact that it is supposed to synchronise information out-of-work benefit claimants with Job Match, a job-search site. On top of that, the commissioning appears to have been done ineptly; as the Guardian's Patrick Wintour writes, "suspicion remains that the software is not ready".

But even if it's been performed ineptly – and incorporates a number of punishing reductions in transfers to poor people – the idea behind Universal Credit is sound. A massive initial outlay to modernise the infrastructure which underpins our social safety net, which will lead to reduced expenditures in the following years, ultimately contributing to the deficit reduction programme. Or, in simpler terms: Borrowing more to borrow less.

The Conservatives know that reducing the economy to glib talking points plays well in PMQs and TV interviews, and so can't quite drop that handy stick with which to beat Labour. But they also know, and demonstrate through their actions, that borrowing more to borrow less is an entirely sensible course of action for an economy like ours. Some infrastructure is falling apart; some more has glaringly obvious modernisation opportunities; and yet more won't be fit for purpose when (if?) the economy begins to return to growth.

Investment is a sound economic strategy. It's what the Government is trying to do with Universal Credit, and it's what they should be doing with a lot more projects.

IDS, Universal Credit's creator. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.