When David Cameron took over the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2005, he vowed there would be no more “no-go” areas for his party. The major cities in the North, like Liverpool, where a Tory voter was an endangered species, were to be persuaded to start voting Conservative again. After the riots in 1981, Michael Heseltine put so much energy into trying to persuade the people of Liverpool and Knowsley that the Conservatives cared about them that he was known as the “Minister for Merseyside”. A quarter of a century later, David Cameron went to Liverpool on a similar mission, with Lord Heseltine at his side.
Frankly, he has got almost nowhere towards achieving that ambition, and the impact of welfare reforms can only push the day when there is a Tory MP in a Northern inner city even further into the future.
Though the new rules are the same everywhere, their impact varies from region to region, with the greatest, naturally, in places with the highest proportion of welfare claimants. The Government has tried to spread the pain by combining changes to out-of-work benefits and tax credits for the low paid, which hit the North harder than the South, with other changes affecting housing benefit – which have their biggest impact in the South, particularly in London, where housing costs are greater.
Nowhere in London is the average cost to any family affected by the changes expected to be below £1,300 a year. Outside London, there are a few places, such as Slough, where claimants will lose that sort of money, because they are close enough to the capital to be affected by London housing costs. But the numbers involved are fewer than in the North, which is where changes to the system will have the biggest impact on the local economy.
In Knowsley, it is estimated that 74 per cent of households receive some sort of state benefit. They will not all be hit by the benefit changes, which do not affect pensioners for instance, but more than 17 per cent of households will see their income drop by an average of £943. The impact in Liverpool will be about the same. In Blackpool, the researchers who conducted the Local Government Association study reckon that almost one household in three – 31.7 per cent – will be hit, with an average of £1,047 docked from their income. In Middlesbrough, in the North-east, 21.7 per cent of households will lose an average of £947 each. In Hartlepool, just under 19 per cent will lose an average of £977.
Almost all the places hardest hit by the changes have Labour MPs and Labour councils. George Osborne has said that one of his aims is to be fair to taxpayers. In effect, he is presiding over a transfer of wealth from people in benefits to those who are sufficiently well-off not to need to claim benefits – which also happens to be a transfer of wealth from people who vote Labour to those whose votes put the present government in power.