Mary Ann Sieghart: When the people can see what fairness is, why can't Miliband?

At the last election, many Labour supporters stayed at home because they were angry about the party's position on welfare

Share

In case anyone was wondering whether the Government's proposed benefits cap was unfair, yesterday's Sunday Times helpfully came up with a Somali family, who have never worked, living in a six-bedroomed house in West Hampstead, in London, at public expense. Their house is worth £2m, which means that if Vince Cable has his way, they'll be claiming mansion tax benefit next.

It hasn't escaped many voters' notice that the only people who can afford to live in expensive areas these days are the very rich and the very poor. London boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea have been hollowed out, with only wealthy investment bankers and benefit-dependent families left. The working and middle-classes have been exiled.

As London property prices have soared, working people have had to move ever further out of town to have enough space to raise a family. So they don't feel a huge amount of sympathy for benefit claimants who are now being asked to follow suit. Yes, the children will have to move school and make new friends, but they'll hardly be unique in that.

What's more, voters have also noticed that the only people who can afford to have lots of children these days are the very rich and the very poor. The 95 per cent inbetween have to think very carefully about whether they can afford to raise more than two. No one is going to offer them a bigger house if they have another baby; and their employers aren't going to pay them any more money. All the average taxpayer is asking is that people who rely on benefits should face the same hard decisions as the rest of us do – particularly at a time of financial stringency.

So no wonder the Coalition's proposed benefits cap is popular. A YouGov poll for the Sunday Times yesterday found that 76 per cent agreed that no family should be paid in benefits more than £26,000 a year, which equates to earnings of £35,000 before tax. More than a third – 36 per cent – thought the cap should be set even lower, at £20,000.

This is partly a question of fairness. Why should a family, without any of its members lifting a finger, be entitled to the same standard of living as the hard-working family who live next door? MPs are asked this question the whole time in their surgeries and when they go out canvassing.

But it is also a critical part of Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reform. Most of the families who are going to be hit by the benefits cap are being targeted for intensive support under the "Work Programme" and the "Vulnerable Families Initiative". But what would be the point of their going out to work if, in the process, they were likely to lose their gorgeous six-bedroomed pad in West Hampstead?

Under the reforms, they will instead be expected to move into housing which is comparable to that of low-paid working families, in the bottom 30 per cent of rents for their area. Then, if just one of the parents is prepared to work for a minimum of 16 hours a week, they will be eligible for tax credits, which won't be capped. At last, it will be worth their while to take a job.

The huge popularity of the policy has put Labour in an awkward position. In yesterday's poll, 69 per cent of Labour voters agreed with the cap. Liam Byrne, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, has also said he supports it in principle, but he can't resist finding reasons to oppose it in practice. As one Lib Dem puts it: "Labour used to be in the wrong place; now they're all over the place."

When the cap comes to a vote in the House of Lords today, Labour peers will put down an amendment that will exempt any family that would be "threatened with homelessness or in priority need". Since most families hit by the cap will need to be rehoused, that pretty much nullifies its effect.

Yet Labour knows that, at the last election, many of its natural supporters stayed at home because they were angry with the party's positions on welfare and immigration. As one former Labour minister puts it, the constant refrain on the doorstep has been: "The Labour Party likes taking our hard-earned taxes and giving the money to people we don't approve of."

And it's the squeezed middle – Ed Miliband's favourite group – who mind most of all. According to a report out today from the Resolution Foundation, these people's real wages fell by more than 4 per cent last year, and they still face rising prices and cuts in tax credits this year. They want the pain to be more widely spread, and they won't be impressed if Labour looks like it is exempting benefit claimants.

By allowing his position to be so opaque, Miliband is playing into the Tories' hands. Ministers are dying for a big row over the cap, so they can maximise their news coverage and put Labour on the wrong side of the argument. If Labour votes against it tonight, they will be delighted.

The Lib Dems, like Labour, know that their supporters like the cap. As usual, though, they want to claim credit for taking the rough edges off the policy. So Nick Clegg put it about yesterday that he was working to ensure that transitional arrangements were put in place to protect vulnerable children, and Lord Ashdown, the former Lib Dem leader, said he would vote against the cap until those measures were spelled out.

If the Lords vote against the policy tonight, though, it will show how little they know about ordinary life. Bishops may be against the cap but their flocks are in favour. MPs constantly come across constituents who are either gaming the benefits system or complaining about their neighbours doing so. Unelected peers, they say, are out of touch.

Most of all, it is Labour that needs to re-examine its position. In government, its uncritical admiration of bankers and its generosity to benefit claimants made it look as if it were on the side of the very rich and the very poor, but not of many people in between. And in between is where most voters sit.

If Ed Miliband means what he says about standing up for the squeezed middle, he should uncritically support the benefit cap and ask his peers to do the same. Opposition for opposition's sake is never attractive. Labour needs to show clearly whose side it is on.

m.sieghart@independent.co.uk / twitter.com/MASieghart

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells