History has reduced David Cameron’s modernising phase to gay rights and greenery. “White-collar liberalism” was pursued to the neglect of “blue-collar conservatism”. Yet in his quest to make his party electable he roamed more widely than is commonly thought. He unambiguously committed the Conservatives to a free NHS, pledged to match Labour’s public spending plans for three years and vowed to end the “moral disgrace” of poverty. In his 2006 Scarman Lecture, the then opposition leader declared, “I want this message to go out loud and clear: the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty . . . Poverty is relative – and those who pretend otherwise are wrong . . . Even if we are not destitute, we still experience poverty if we cannot afford things that society regards as essential.”
His words were a repudiation of the Thatcherite belief that once a minimum standard of living has been attained, the level of income inequality is irrelevant. After tripling under the Conservatives from one in nine children to one in three, child poverty fell by 800,000 under Labour. To date, Cameron has been able to boast that this progress has continued during his premiership. Child poverty fell by 300,000 to 2.3 million in 2010/11 as middle-class earnings declined and benefits protected the incomes of the poorest. It then remained flat for the following two years. Against expectations, the figures published on 25 June for 2013/14 continued this trend. But the panoply of austerity measures imposed – the household benefit cap, the bedroom tax and the 1 per cent cap on benefit increases – and the nascent recovery in average incomes means it is unlikely to endure. It is forecast that by 2020, the year that Tony Blair earmarked for its abolition, child poverty will have increased by one-third to one in four children.
Just as it was the provision of welfare that enabled the fall in child poverty, so its removal precipitated its rise. Few Conservatives expected to be in a position to impose the £12bn of cuts they promised during the election. The Lib Dems privately planned to negotiate the figure down to £9bn or £10bn in the event that the Tories fell short of a majority – a deal that some Tories willingly would have accepted. The confirmation by George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith that they will indeed use their mandate to make £12bn of cuts likely guarantees increases in child poverty. Because of Cameron’s decision to ring-fence all benefits for pensioners, the axe will inevitably fall on families and the working poor. The cuts announced so far – a two-year freeze in working-age benefits, the reduction of the benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000 and the removal of housing benefit from 18-to-21-year-olds – amount to just £1.5bn. The remaining £10.5bn will not be itemised in full until the Spending Review this autumn.
After £21bn of cuts in the last parliament left few low-hanging fruit, it is tax credits that are viewed as the weakest link. They are the largest of the unprotected areas (accounting for £30bn) and have long been regarded by the Tories as emblematic of Labour’s statist meddling. Cameron denounced the payments as a “ridiculous merry-go-round”; Duncan Smith accused the opposition of using them to “buy votes” while in office (his party has performed precisely this trick in the case of the elderly, 47 per cent of whom voted Tory in May). In recent days, Cameron and other Conservatives have sounded like their Labour counterparts as they have denounced companies for failing to pay their employees higher wages. Sarah Wollaston MP told me that large firms were “taking us all for a ride” by forcing the taxpayer to “subsidise their profits” through the welfare system.
Cameron has identified a problem but he does not yet have anything resembling a solution. Unless the Tories annex Labour’s policy of “make work pay” contracts (as some opposition MPs fear they will), which would provide a tax rebate to companies that sign up to become living wage employers, they have no means of ensuring higher salaries. Mere exhortation will not suffice. The fashion for deriding tax credits on the left and the right elides the reality that they are a policy for an imperfect world. Neither salaries nor the personal tax allowance, for instance, take account of family size.
The relative poverty measure that Cameron lauded when it was in his interests to do so is now derided as meaningless. He cited “the absurd situation where if we increase the state pension, child poverty actually goes up”. Yet that example reflects precisely the fiscal gerontocracy that troubles so many. Relative to the old, the young are unambiguously worse off.
Conservatives fear that the rise in child poverty and the coming raid on tax credits will provide a depleted Labour Party with vital ammunition. But the opposition has its own problems to contend with. If the Tories are thought to be too unwilling to spend money on the poorest, Labour must counter the impression that it is all too willing to do so. The shadow work and pensions secretary, Rachel Reeves, fought hard in private to ensure that the party committed to voting for the reduced out-of-work benefit cap. A sharper distinction between welfare for the employed and for the unemployed is regarded as an unavoidable consequence of Labour’s defeat. As the working poor lose tax credits, they are even less tolerant of those perceived to be gaming the system.
Even in this case, however, Labour will not prosper if it is viewed merely as a repository of protest. It must convince voters that it is as devoted to saving public money as the Tories. As Cameron’s 2006 speech showed, uncharacteristic clothes must be worn in opposition – even if they are later discarded in government.