Why Conservative defensiveness over Universal Credit shows how politics has changed

Welfare, once an issue that raised Tory spirits, is now a source of gloom.

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Labour has a number of opposition day debates today – most importantly on the looming end to the Universal Credit uplift, a topic that is politically painful for the Conservative Party.

The Conservative response to today’s debates is fascinating because it says a lot about how politics has changed since 2010 – both in mechanical and policy terms. The line to take for Tory MPs is that opposition day debates don’t matter, they are non-binding and that Labour uses them to put issues on the table that are politically advantageous to them. CCHQ has shared a short video made by the Conservative MP for Mansfield, Ben Bradley, which outlines those criticisms.

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And to be fair, two out of three ain’t bad: opposition day debates are non-binding, and Labour does use them to increase the profile of issues that are politically beneficial to them. During the last period the Conservatives were in opposition, they themselves made frequent use of opposition debates on questions that were useful to them, whether in using them to discuss the case of Tony Martin, the British farmer who spent three years in prison after shooting a burglar dead, the party’s commitment to increasing foreign aid to 0.7 per cent of GDP, or any number of other issues.

It is, however, untrue to say opposition debates "don’t matter": New Labour’s own criminal justice measures were, in part, about responding to the law and order attack lines of successive shadow home secretaries in the late 1990s and 2000s. And here in the present day, the former welfare secretary Stephen Crabb and the Northern Research Group of Conservative MPs are calling for the uplift in universal credit to be extended, partly because they believe it to be right but also because the issue has been driven up the agenda by Labour’s use of opposition day debates.

On to the mechanics of politics: what has changed since 2010 is twofold. The first is that opposition day debates feel new to the average Conservative MP because the average Conservative MP has never been on the opposition side of them – the majority of the parliamentary party came in either in 2010, 2015, 2017 or 2019. The Conservative Party in 2019 has a greater proportion of “government only” MPs than any governing party has ever had: fewer Tory MPs today, both in absolute and percentage terms, have direct experience of life in opposition than the parliamentary Labour Party did in 2010 or the Conservative parliamentary party in 1997 – the two longest stints either party had spent in office in the democratic era.

The second is that social media makes the connection between politicians and the public more immediate: the Conservative use of law and order in their opposition day debates did result in unpleasant rhetoric towards Labour MPs, but as one veteran MP reflects, it “took longer to arrive, and was at a lower volume”.  

Politics is conducted at a greater speed than it has ever been before – though it has to be said as far as the average voter is concerned, they don’t follow politics at anything like the pitch and frenzy that the average MP experiences it, particularly if they run their own Twitter feed.

But the more important change is about the policy debate. The central policy argument made in Bradley’s video is that the problem with opposition day debates is that they allow Labour to advance “uncosted” spending commitments, and this makes the Conservative case harder, perhaps even impossible, to put across. This causes Conservative MPs to face horrific abuse, online and offline.

There are two points I think are worth thinking about here. The first is that Bradley’s preferred electoral strategy is that the next election is fought not on issues of economics, but of culture. I am dubious about the electoral or political desirability of that approach from a Conservative perspective, but it is hard, to put it mildly, to see how an election fought on those issues would be a more pleasant one for either “side” than one on whether to increase Universal Credit by £20 a week. Elections on culture war propositions are inevitably divisive and more fraught because they are zero-sum. (They’re also poorly suited to our existing political system: there is no resonant culture war issue on which the divides within the big two parties aren’t as important as the divides between them.)

It’s worth also thinking about what the reaction in Downing Street in say, 2013, would have been if they heard that the Labour Party was going to argue for an uncosted increase in welfare spending. They would have been jumping for joy: back then, they would have regarded today’s opposition day debates as ones designed not to maximise Labour’s advantage, but their own.

Why is that? One read is that what it shows is that Ed Miliband’s leadership was too cautious and that if the Labour Party had been as vocal in opposing the cuts to welfare 2010-15 as it was 2015-20 public opinion would have moved faster. Another is that what has changed is not the political positions of the parties themselves but the lived reality of welfare cuts. I think in truth the answer is that the two are inextricably linked: although Labour fought the 2017 election pledging to retain the welfare cuts, rising opposition to the cuts was a core component of why Jeremy Corbyn became and remained Labour leader, and a general sense among voters that he would “do something” about the cuts was more important than anything actually written in the 2017 manifesto. The smell and feel of it was more significant that the text.

But the real story of Conservative unease about today’s debates is not that politics is getting faster, or that the average Tory MP has no experience and therefore no ability to really understand the politics of opposition, but that the political argument for cuts is becoming harder to advance because of the policy reality of what those cuts mean. It has become to the modern Conservative Party as immigration became to Labour by the middle of the 2000s: an issue they can neither dismiss, tackle or find a way to avoid. The immigration issue ultimately not only helped lead to Labour's successive electoral defeats but also to Brexit. That welfare may be becoming a similar source of Conservative trauma has far bigger implications than just one opposition day debate.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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