Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
5 August 2014updated 23 Jul 2021 9:05am

Labour continues tough line as it condemns Tories for ballooning housing benefit bill

The shadow work and pensions secretary is to slam the Conservatives for welfare spending, which follows her tougher stance on EU migrants.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Today, the shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves will predict that the housing benefit bill is set to double from its 2010/11 level by 2018/19, and will slam the Tories for its spending in this area.

It seems like an innocuous bit of summer oppositionery but there is more to it than that. Labour – which has been spooked by recent research highlighting Ukip’s threat to its vote in blue-collar areas, and is also aware in general of the popularity of tough stances on the welfare state and immigration – appears to be moving in a more hard-line direction this month. And Rachel Reeves is the messenger.

A few days ago, she suggested that migrants from Europe should be denied welfare until they have contributed tax. This is an idea that outflanked the Tories on immigration benefits, going one further than David Cameron’s announcement that EU migrants would only be allowed to claim benefits for three months. This is a tough line, and arguably Labour’s clearest message yet that it is facing up to the sensitive, yet electorally pivotal, subject of immigration.

Housing benefit is a subject similarly fraught with feeling among voters. This is mainly due to the coalition’s widely-reviled “bedroom tax” policy, which stirred up the public’s feeling against the government tinkering with welfare spending many of them rely on during their day-to-day lives. Yet bringing down welfare spending is undeniably popular with the electorate.

Housing benefit and bringing down the welfare bill is a tricky one for the Labour party, particularly as it voted against the government’s housing benefit cap. Ed Miliband has pledged to scrap the bedroom tax and the popularity of this could be seen as enough to inform his party’s messaging on housing benefit for the time leading up to the election, without specifically addressing how it would bring down the housing benefit bill itself. In other words, Reeves need not have said any more about it for the time being.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

However, blasting the government on its welfare spending reveals Labour’s tougher new direction. It may just be tentatively tough at the moment, but it’s clear the party is willing to face the politically sticky subject of welfare spending, with Reeves to condemn the government’s record on welfare spending as one of “failure and waste”. She will also claim that the extra cost of the government’s hand-out between 2010 and 2018 will be £12.9bn – or £488 for each household in Britain.

Labour also makes itself vulnerable to the question: what is its solution to this ballooning bill? Reeves proposes an increase in the minimum wage and advocates the living wage to bring down the bill. She links the increased housing benefit spending to the coalition’s inability to solve the “cost-of-living crisis”; people in work still have to rely on state hand-outs to live. It’s a bold move for a party usually associated with being “soft” on welfare to open itself up to scrutiny on how it would bring the bill down itself. It will be interesting to see whether Reeves and her colleagues continue throughout the summer to ask some of the more difficult questions for the Labour party, as well as attempting to answer them.

Content from our partners
Executing business ideas is easier than ever, and it’s going to kill a lot of companies
Creating an industrial strategy fit for purpose
“A third runway at Heathrow is not a silver bullet”