The two-child cap is a poor fit for Labour

Labour members were blindsided by Keir Starmer’s recent commitment to keep George Osborne’s two child-cap on benefits. Thanks to Tory austerity, 1 in 4 children in the UK lives in poverty. The cap is a uniquely bad, cruel policy and a key driver of child poverty (it’s no wonder Starmer committed to abolishing it when he ran for leader).

Lifting the cap would lift a quarter of a million children out of poverty and help many more. The link between child poverty and poorer health outcomes, increased crime, and lower educational achievements, is evident. The long-term economic costs are estimated at £39 billion per year.

The last Labour government was seriously committed to ending child poverty and made great progress. We shouldn’t keep a class ceiling which runs antithetical to our party’s values of aspiration and equality.

A general election is little over a year away (though if the Tories think we aren’t election-ready they may be tempted to call it sooner). We have left the door open to other policies, saying we’ll set out our position nearer the time or committing to broad goals. It is a distinct choice to eagerly slam the door on reversing the two-child cap with no immediate explanation.

Proving our economic credibility is vital to winning power. Most Labour members are sympathetic and understand that we may not necessarily be able to achieve all of our goals as quickly as we want to, given the economy we would inherit from the Tories.

But it isn’t credible to say that there’s “no money left”. It contradicts Labour’s top mission of achieving the best economic growth in the G7. If we could cut our way to growth, George Osborne’s austerity mission would have worked.

The political zeitgeist Labour must seize is one of a bold alternative to a stagnant decade of falling living standards, crumbling public services and suppressed wages under Tory austerity. We need to inspire a real sense of hope.

Commitment to the two-child cap is unpopular across the breadth of the party and unions and is detached from the logic of the rest of our emerging programme. Our promise of universal free school breakfasts underscores child poverty as a Labour priority that we can raise money to address.

A manifesto-by-ambush might be fine with some party members, but we need more than a few months to sell our vision to the public. And don’t hope to have serious message discipline or effective communications if your party doesn’t understand its own policies or how to argue for them.

Factional outriders are keen to push the line that Labour members shouldn’t scrutinise the party until we are in government. Suppressing independent thought is not a mark of strength. I joined Open Labour to get away from the unquestioning loyalty demanded by some under the last leadership. Many voted for Starmer because he represented a break from the party factionalism which has kept us out of power since 2010.

The scrutiny of our own supporters is a walk in the park compared to the spotlight we’ll be under in government. The winning legal challenge against Kwasi Kwarteng’s strike-breaking regulations cited his having ignored the findings of his public consultation on the policy. Let’s not make bad habits in opposition which we will struggle to break once in power.

“Tough decisions” is regularly the soundbite offered. Yet when politicians like Sadiq Khan do make tough decisions – such as securing Covid funding for the city from the central Tory government on condition that he expands London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (first introduced by Boris Johnson) – he is wrongly blamed for a by-election defeat by anonymous ‘Labour sources’ briefing against him in the press. The combination of a Labour government offering Austerity Lite and turning against Clean Air Zone policies would put Labour mayors, councillors and local governments in a very difficult position.

We shouldn’t go into the next election believing that “we’re doing something very wrong if policies put forward by the Labour Party end up on each and every Tory leaflet”. We won the 1997 election by a landslide, with a National Minimum Wage policy which the Tories threw the kitchen sink at and said would destroy the economy. It’s a prime example of an evidence-based policy which campaigners had to work hard to win broad support for in the party. This proved the robustness of the policy. The party was making the public case for it, weathering Tory criticism, for years ahead of an election.

I hope we learn the right lessons from past success. If we go into the next election promising Austerity Lite, best beware generating voter apathy. A credible alternative is one which inspires hope, too.

Lauren Davison is Open Labour’s Policy Officer. She is also a criminologist and Editor of the Young Fabians’ Antics magazine.

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