March 2012 saw the passing of the Welfare Reform Act, a bitterly divisive piece of legislation which was designed to set citizen against citizen in a race to the bottom regarding who was “deserving” of benefits. This, it has to be said built on the foundations laid by New Labour in their last years in office.
In 2008 then DWP Secretary and leading Blairite James Purnell introduced a similar restriction the private rented sector claiming it was right and proper for the Government, “to provide an incentive for those on Housing Benefit to find cheaper accommodation.” Purnell was also responsible for the scandalous introduction of private pirates ATOS into the welfare system when in that same year he tasked them with conducting the cruel and unsuitable Work Capability Assessments (WCA). In April 2010 his successor at the DWP Yvette Cooper approved measures for ATOS to make the WCA tougher despite 40% of those kicked off benefits having them restored on appeal.
Nevertheless what Tory DWP Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith had devised regarding Housing Benefit was so extreme that many on the left believed that the new Spare Room Subsidy arrangements would be the own goal that they had been praying for; a measure so patently unfair that it would unite the UK population in a way not seen since the Poll Tax rebellion which helped drive Mrs.T from power in 1990.
IDS was hoping to appeal to the lowest common denominator regarding how people felt about benefits claimants. He wanted to paint a picture of the unemployed living in big council funded houses, whilst the “strivers” worked long hours for the minimum wage and were squeezed into over crowded accommodation as a result of their feckless neighbours.
The National Housing Federation calculated that on average affected households would be £14 per week worse off. On February 9th 2013 the Daily Mirror reported that 660,000 people would be directly affected and lose benefits.
The Bedroom Tax provided example after example of needless suffering and the fact that it came into force on the same day that millionaires received a £40,000 per million tax rebate only added to the sensation that the Nasty Party was still alive and kicking despite David Cameron’s efforts to detoxify the Tory brand.
But the real story for us is the Labour Party’s response. It should have been the gift that kept on giving for Ed Miliband and his Shadow Cabinet. A blatantly unfair and cruel move by a hopelessly out of touch Cabinet of millionaires residing in London who had designed a saving that set out to target the most vulnerable in Society. But Labour became mixed up and paralysed, lacking the courage to state the obvious; that they would repeal this tax immediately and with out equivocation when they took power in 2015. It took until September 2013, a full six months after the tax came in to force for Ed Miliband to announce what should have been said when IDS announced this ludicrous move.
In the run up to the 2013 Labour Party Conference in Brighton Miliband told the media that an incoming Labour Government would axe the tax. “The Bedroom Tax is cruel and unfair. It has taken money from the pockets of 660,00 people, most of whom are disabled and have nowhere else to move to. The Bedroom Tax stands as a national symbol of an out-of-touch, uncaring Tory-led government which can always be relied on to stand up for the rights of privileged few – but never for you.”
But further reading of the Labour Leader’s interview with the Sunday People revealed the truth behind the flip flopping and uncertainty that had a back bench Labour MP telling a UNITE meeting in July that he could not say whether or not the tax would be reversed in 2015, to absolute uproar from a room full of core Labour voters who left dejected and cynical about their Party’s ability ever again to make a difference.
“I have to explain where the money will come from to get rid of it. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve waited until now to make our promise about scrapping the Bedroom Tax.”
Instead of taking a principled stand at the outset, Miliband seemed driven by a fear of the Tory press. So the voters affected and living in fear of rent arrears (61% of Hull City Council tenants were behind with their rent by the time of Miliband’s announcement) were left in limbo with no sense that the Labour Party was on their side on this issue.
The panic at the heart of Miliband’s team was exemplified in March 2013 when a coalition of groups called for street demonstrations across the UK. 25,000 people turned in 39 locations on Saturday 16th March. The night before Labour MPs were instructed to attend their local events but could not deliver a promise to reverse the tax which caused demoralisation for everyone concerned, not least those facing the fear of what could unravel over the coming months. The sight of activists and Labour MPs sharing a platform seemed to symbolise the disconnect between the Westminster Bubble and what Labour members were facing day by day on the ground as they campaigned on this key issue.
The Tories made hay over Miliband’s inaction. He was taunted in the Commons and portrayed as having to wait on his Chancellor ED Balls, and his Trade Union “paymasters” before he could make a decision. This dismal performance was confirmed by a Guardian/ Mori poll which, despite Miliband’s success in defeating Cameron over military action in Syria showed that 42% of voters thought the prime minister was “good at making tough decisions”. Ed Miliband polled at just 15%.
This begs the question as to how a Miliband led Government would look, and how it would react to daily events that throw up the need to act with precision and above all decisively? In 2010, after the Blair/Brown years the Party, and indeed the country was looking for a more collegiate approach from the newly elected Labour Leader, but there has to be a balance. Where the Tories obviously cross the line about what is reasonable Miliband should denounce and promise his own response, whilst regarding ongoing and more long term issues such as the economy and crime, it is imperative that consultation take place. But by autumn 2013 many Labour members were left wondering if the Party had lost its capability to make bold policy for good.