I’m pleased that Sarah Teather – even now – has spoken out against the negative effect the benefit cap is having on people in her constituency. It’s a significant issue in an area of London that goes beyond the core inner boroughs because of the severely distorted housing market there. It’s also – in most of the country –very politically popular, partly because it takes a particularly egregious and small set of cases of large amounts of benefit payments caused by legal precedent and market forces, and dresses it up in ‘tough’ clothing. That has never been thinking any self-respecting liberal or progressive would associate themselves with. Given the concentration of jobs in the areas worst affected by the benefit cap, too, Sarah’s concerns do need to be understood and addressed.
A wider concern, though, is that worse is round the corner, as the right-wing of the Conservative Party tries to impose cuts to the in-work welfare budget not envisaged in the Coalition Agreement, as George Osbourne let slip in March’s budget. Spun by “sources close to” him in the last week have been an assortment of unpalatable attacks on vulnerable under-25s, changes to benefits for large families that again address a narrow problem by punishing the innocent (in this case, children) or an across-the-board cuts to benefit levels opposed by the Lib Dem Conference and ruled out by Danny Alexander himself. The Tory right would clearly like this to be a fait accompli.
Set against this are a variety of fairer measures that would ensure the Coalition lived up to Nick Clegg’s rhetoric by ensuring that the books weren’t balanced ‘on the backs of the poorest’. Wealth taxes in various forms and trimming back one part of the welfare budget that can easily be cut – perks for wealthy pensioners such as free TV licenses that could easily be afforded – make an appropriate counterbalance, but the retoxified Tories see these as essential and to be protected.
The truth is that perks for pensioners were protected in the Tories’ manifesto, but Liberal Democrats have had to make significant concessions in Government, and the point of coalition is that it includes compromise. The failure of Osbourne’s Plan A, which has already lengthened the timescale to eliminate the structural deficit, means that measures limiting economic demand will be particularly counter-productive. In a world involving common sense, that need to recharge the economy should ensure that the mooted Tory welfare plans should not see the light of day.
It is, surely, a no-brainer for Liberal Democrat negotiators to show some steel in a negotiation where the evidence is on their side, in circumstances not envisaged by the Coalition Agreement.