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Monday, October 04, 2010 

The not quite Blairite stupidity of the coalition's child benefit cut.

Of all the announcements, interviews and speeches over the weekend, only one was really essential to understanding how the the Conservatives intend to govern, even if constrained by the Liberal Democrats:

Michael Gove jumps out of his armchair, rushes over to his desk and lovingly picks up a copy of a well-thumbed tome that has pride of place in his office at the education department, overlooking Westminster Abbey.

"I love A Journey, I have never read a book like it," the education secretary says of Tony Blair's bestselling memoirs. Gove opens it at his favourite page to read out, in a slow and admiring tone, Blair's conclusion that opposition to public service reform can be beaten.

Undoubtedly, not all of the Conservatives within the cabinet have a similarly throbbing erection for the former great leader. They have however clearly taken to heart one of Blair's regrets: that he almost entirely "wasted" his first term on policies other than the public sector reform which energised him, and had to compromise, often thanks to Gordon Brown's opposition and interventions, in the second and first two years of the third. This partially explains why they seem to be in such a mad rush when it comes to reorganising the NHS, despite pledging in the coalition agreement not to indulge in top-down reforms without consultation as Labour repeatedly did, in making changes to the academy system and then introducing free schools, and now also in almost ripping up the welfare system and starting again. The other likely reason for why they're operating at such breakneck speed, even if they won't admit it, is due to how they firstly don't know whether the coalition will survive and secondly as they also aren't certain on whether they'll get a second term.

For while it's true that much of the mood music accompanying the opening of the Conservative conference is distinctly old Tory, what with Gove announcing an end to rules which don't exist, Lord Young fulminating against often similarly imaginary elf 'n' safety outrages and Boris Johnson along with the CBI demanding at least a 40% participation threshold before strikes are allowed to take place, even when they'd never apply the same rationale to elections to parliament, the cut in child benefit which has now overshadowed all of the above seems to be similarly Blairite in motive. Similarly Blairite in motive for the reason that despite all the well thumbing of A Journey, it seems to be based on a fundamental misreading of how Blair repeatedly challenged Labour's so-called comfort zone.

On the surface, it looks to be right out of the Blair textbook. By taking on your own party over something they should instinctively oppose, it sends a message to the press that you're a strong leader and will take on your own vested interests, at the same time impressing the voters themselves, whether they agree or not. The key difference is that Blair did it on things which either didn't directly affect the public, didn't affect too many, or didn't affect those that were likely to campaign and protest vigorously, and was also helped enormously by the fairly benign economic backdrop and by having an opposition which was either a shambles, simply not a viable alternative or which actively supported him. Media support or acquiescence also had a strong supporting role. When Blair did it on foundation hospitals, academies, tuition fees and on Iraq (to name but four examples), one or more of these factors ensured that the measures went through and that he went on being leader. True, it was Iraq that eventually had a major role in his downfall, yet his initial "success" cannot be denied.

Where the Tories have gone wrong is manifold. Firstly, it's not at all clear that the party itself opposes universal benefit cuts; there's disgruntlement, sure, yet not outright opposition from the outset then gradual persuasion or loyalist support of the line coming down from the leadership.

Second is that this clearly affects exactly those who are natural Tory voters and does it right in the wallet, by far the most painful place.

Third, while some Tories might consider it a good thing to annoy the Daily Mail in the same way that Blair thought it wasn't a bad idea to at times to piss off the Guardian et al, the Daily Mail has both far more power, influence and readership.

Fourth, it's the manifest unfairness and stupidity of the measure, as well as it how it contradicts some of their family policy. While I personally don't agree with the argument that "services for the poor will always be poor services", and find it difficult not to sneer at how those earning almost twice the average wage can claim to be "stretched" already with little disposable income, the blatant idiocy of how a single parent earning over £45,000 a year will receive nothing while a couple earning £86,000 in total will still get the benefit is so transparent it's close to unbelievable that it was agreed upon. The Mail has splashed on how it'll impact on families with "stay at home" mums, something always close to their 1950s halcyon view of the perfect British society and associated nuclear family, with the husband off earning the wage while the little woman looks after the children, and it's difficult to believe that it won't be altered in some way before it comes into effect. If anything ever comes of the supposed "aspiration" to recognise marriage in the tax system it'll offset some of the loss, but almost certainly not all of it.

Fifth, while Labour is still somewhat in flux over what cuts it is and isn't going to oppose/defend, it looks likely they'll oppose any shift from a universal benefits system. They may not perhaps win many votes from those who'll lose out, and I think it'd be best to support the principle of the cut, just not the way the government's implementing it in such a cack-handed, regressive fashion, but opposition it will still be.

Finally, and while not alluded to above, it also breaches the Blairite tenet that you don't do anything which affects the aspirational middle classes which this directly does, right to the extent that it will mean those earning just below the threshold not taking a rise as they'll actually lose out through the loss of benefits.

While then it's hardly going to lead to an uprising, it is a clear example of how the government is already getting things wrong and how its debt to Blairism is already leading to difficulties, even if based on a misreading of how Blair operated. Certainly, it could be an attempt to put into action Osborne's otherwise ludicrous soundbite of how "we're all in this together", and also a first example of how the cuts are going to hit all sections of society, not just the poorest (although the benefits cap will certainly do that, and seems almost designed to lead to the evacuation of those on housing benefit from the inner cities of the south especially, also coincidentally where Labour still has support), yet you get the feeling this isn't going to be the start of a habit of aggravating the "base" for little overall benefit. It ought more than anything to give a post-Blair Labour party hope: the country desperately needs an alternative to the triangulation of his and Brown's era, and also to the gone off half-cocked tribute attempt from the new Blairites. Ed Miliband has to be able to provide one.

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