At last we have a clear Labour Party policy in place for the 2015 General Election.
They have given a clear pledge to reinstate the spare room subsidy. The Conservatives will challenge them on how they would pay for this. That is a reasonable challenge. As I noted on Thursday – and if the early figures from Barnet are anything to go by – the savings will be far more than estimated. Well over a billion instead of around half a billion. This is because many of those affected are being prompted to take jobs and come off benefits altogether.
On the other side of the ledger Ed Miliband’s claim to pay for it – even if it were a mere half billion price tag – with a £145 million Stamp Duty hike on pension funds is also vulnerable to scrutiny.
The short term politics of Mr Miliband’s spare room subsidy announcement are understandable. This has been the big campaign of the year for the trade unions and left wing activists.
Labour’s media allies – in the BBC and also such papers as The Independent and the The Mirror – have been denouncing the policy with great prominence. This has had some impact on public opinion. Then there have been Conservative taunts – led by David Cameron at PMQs – about Labour’s failure to say what they would do on the subject.
Certainly Mr Miliband needed to clarify his stance on a number of policy issues. However on this one his announcement is a sign of weakness rather than strength. It is also imprudent to have made it at this stage. Labour has seized on the rise of rent arrears, but what will they be in a year’s time? Labour has said that many have found difficulty finding a property to downsize into. Can they rely on this continuing?
Mr Miliband’s predecessor Harold Wilson said that “a week is a long time in politics”. It is 20 months to the next election. Labour is betting the house on the spare room subsidy failing. Yet by that time not only will it have succeeded, but it will have been shown to have succeeded.
The Conservatives should take the opportunity on the spare roomo subsidy – and welfare reform generally – to stress that this is about more than sorting out the public finances. Reducing welfare dependency is about helping the poor, not attacking them. We should talk a lot more about the Troubled Families initiative and the range of measures to reward work.
Regarding the spare room subsidy, this would be the right policy even if there was no budget deficit. There is a strong moral case for the policy. It is morally wrong to be subsidising those to stay in properties with spare rooms when there are a quarter of a million families in overcrowded social housing. To claim that there is no opportunity for the under occupiers to downsize ignores the obvious scope for swapping with the overcrowded. In my borough of Hammersmith and Fulham the numbers in severe overcrowding has sharply fallen since April.
A policy of reducing overcrowding by freeing up large homes is a policy to help the disabled.
Michael Gove’s concern that children have enough space to do their homework is an argument for cutting the spare room subsidy and helping the children suffering the worst overcrowding.
Where people wish to stay where they are and take a job so that they can afford to pay the extra to have a spare room does Mr Miliband feel that is unwelcome?
The Conservative Party is not a desiccated calculating machine. The cut in spare room subsidy should be defended with passion. It is about allowing those in the worst conditions a route to a better life. Those who are hooked on welfare are finding at last that work is better rewarded. Those with the most chronic overcrowding have hope of giving their children decent conditions to grow up in.
Cutting the spare room subsidy is not just financially right. It is morally right.