Where does Labour stand on the bedroom tax? The stance of many – probably most – Labour activists is clear; at a personal level they completely oppose this penalty on those whose social housing has a “spare” bedroom, and for very good reasons. The implication of the penalty for “under-occupancy” is that social housing is an act of charity by the state (or, to use the rhetoric of the market consensus, the taxpayer) rather than a right; and that it should be viewed as something temporary that does not accomodate the longer-term life changes that affect families. It is about as far removed from the vision of Aneurin Bevan, who is really the founding father of the idea of social housing as entitlement, as one can imagine. And of course there is a simple, practical problem: the smaller homes into which people would be expected to downsize to avoid the tax simply don’t exist.
The Labour leadership – most notably in the person of Liam Byrne, Labour’s über-Blairite DWP spokesman, has not appeared ready to make a commitment to end the bedroom tax. But now Helen Goodman MP, a Shadow Cabinet member, has said unequivocally that Labour will keep the bedroom tax in the case of those offered a smaller home.
It would be easy to criticise Helen Goodman, but one has to assume that she is merely the messenger for national policy. And if she is correct, then Labour does not oppose the principle of the bedroom tax at all; it is arguing for retention in cases where a smaller home is available. Now that is at one sense a cop-out; one of the reasons why the term “tax” has stuck to what is in fact a rerating of benefits is that it simply isn’t possible for most people to move, which means that in the scenario described by Helen Goodman very, very few people are likely to pay it. So Labour’s policy appears to be to suspend the penalty in the case of what one might call “market failure”. In other words, Labour’s response is part of the warp and weft of the neoliberal consensus.
Moreover, if Ms Goodman’s interpretation is correct, it is clear that this is all of a piece with Labour’s growing hostility to the universality principle that motivated Beveridge. I’ve blogged before about the dangers of abandoning universality. But most of all, the most effective way to reduce the levels of housing benefit – a benefit that is all too often a subsidy for greedy landlords – is not to impose a bedroom tax but to build more – much more – social housing, providing jobs and creating secure homes in the face of a private housing market which, in terms of both renting and ownership, has clearly failed. But this simply appears to be nowhere near the agenda of a Labour Party whose Shadow Chancellor continues to insist that Coalition cuts will not be reversed.
Labour activists – appalled by what the Coalition is doing – surely know that the Labour leadership is part of the problem, not the solution; but appear to be impotent to do anything about it. Opposition to the bedroom tax in Parliament has largely come from (in Parliamentary terms) the fringe – the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and a handful of Labour malcontents (notably from Scotland, where Labour’s acquiescence in the Westminster consensus is doing Scottish Labour enormous damage).
The issue remains clear. The bedroom tax is appalling – yet another piece of collective punishment inflicted on the poor and vulnerable by a political system that serves the interests of those who caused the current economic crisis. And without some pretty fundamental changes, the remedy will not come from any of the main Westminster political parties.