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17 July 2023

Why is Keir Starmer backing the two-child benefit cap?

The Labour leader is supporting a policy that he previously declared should be scrapped.

By Freddie Hayward

No extra benefits for those with three or more kids. That’s the line Keir Starmer pushed on the BBC yesterday (16 July), confirming that Labour would not scrap the two-child benefit cap, which prevents parents claiming benefits for their third or subsequent child.

There seem to be two core reasons for the move. First, the policy is broadly popular with voters. A YouGov poll from last week found 60 per cent of people want to keep the limit in place, including Labour voters by 47 per cent to 35 per cent. Second, the leadership wants to close down any debate over policy that would require spending commitments, even if scrapping the cap would only cost £1.3bn a year. The strategy is to follow the opinion polls, strive to be known as the party of fiscal responsibility, and pre-empt Tory attacks on profligacy.

The polls suggest this strategy has been relatively successful thus far. But one clear problem with Starmer’s latest announcement is that the shadow cabinet has spent the past few years lambasting the two-child policy as immoral and inhumane. In 2020, Starmer himself tweeted that the “two-child limit” should be scrapped. Such hypocrisy/adaptability (delete according to taste) feeds the growing narrative that Starmer is inconsistent at best, dishonest at worse. It’s curious that he didn’t simply say “we are looking at the policy”, particularly when keeping the cap could provoke a revolt within his party – if not before the next election then potentially once in government.

In any case, the shift suggests Starmer does not intend to restore social security to pre-austerity levels – a time when New Labour put cutting child poverty at the centre of its programme.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

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[See also: What could go wrong for Keir Starmer?]

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