Thursday 20 July 2023

Labour present themselves as the continuation nasty party


“Tough decisions must be made” is one of those phrases trotted out regularly by politicians as some sort of cover for either backtracking on promises made or following what they individually believe to be the best policy, whilst knowing either that the policy will be unpopular or else that many in their party strongly disagree, in the generally correct belief that, most of the time, their party’s members’ desire for power will outweigh any considerations of mere principle. It’s not unique to any of the main UK parties – and not even specifically Welsh or Scottish parties are entirely immune to it. In recent weeks, it’s been mostly the Labour Party who are hiding behind the excuse at every opportunity, seeking to blame the current government for the completely fictional ‘lack of money’ as their excuse to reverse just about every policy position that they have taken to date.

In the case of Labour’s latest U-turn – on child benefit for more than two children – it’s hard not to see it as performative toughness for its own sake. I don’t know whether Starmer genuinely believes that it’s ‘right’ to deny the benefit to third and subsequent children (although I also don’t really know whether he genuinely believes anything any more), but I tend to suspect not. That hasn’t stopped him scrapping the pledge. He could have said that he remained committed to the pledge but might not be able to implement it immediately, but he chose not to. It’s as though he’s decided to make an arbitrary stand on an entirely arbitrary policy just to prove that he can be tough. Prove to whom? Presumably, the Tory press pack obsessed with the idea that Labour might dare to increase either spending or taxes and needing to deter them from doing so.

Starmer argues that this is all about discipline and adhering to “iron-clad fiscal rules” as though those rules are written on tablets of stone and imbued with some magic properties. The truth, however, is that the UK managed to get along without any fiscal rules until Gordon Brown started the trend in 1997. All governments since have insisted on having them, and no government has ever completely managed to keep to the rules which it itself set for more than part of its term in office. In practice, they’ve ignored the failure to abide by the rules, changed the way compliance was assessed, or else changed the rules in an attempt to make the rules reflect what they’re actually doing. And then failed again. A rule which can be changed every time it’s broken is not a rule at all – it’s just a guideline. Whether, and to what extent, such guidelines are useful will be a matter of opinion; but they can never be ‘iron-clad’, because the future is essentially unknowable.

On the specific question of child benefit, there’s a reasonable debate to be had about whether the benefit should exist at all. What used to be called ‘family allowance’ was a useful instrument of policy when it was devised, but times have changed. For non working households, a decent rate of Universal Credit ought to supplant the need for a separate payment, whilst for working households, any benefits being paid are effectively subsidies to underpaying employers, and that problem of low pay ought to be solved at source. The best justification for continuing the payments – sadly, because this really shouldn’t be necessary – is that it has traditionally put money directly into the hands of stay-at-home mothers. It’s a good argument, although it’s a social argument rather than an economic one. However, if the benefit is to exist, the cutoff after the second child is, and always has been, an entirely arbitrary piece of nastiness by people who see the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Starmer is presenting his decision in purely economic terms but the effect (whether intentional or not) is that, for as long as any Starmer government leaves the rule untouched, it would effectively be supporting and justifying the continuation of that nastiness. It’s a consequence out of which he should not be allowed to wriggle by using weasel words.

No comments: