Labour backlash against Starmer over child benefit U-turn

Sir Keir Starmer is facing mutiny from Labour MPs over his plan to uphold the Tories’ “nasty dog-whistle” two-child benefit cap, exposing a huge rift in the party ahead of crucial by-elections.

The Labour leader’s latest U-turn – which saw him backtrack on plans to scrap the controversial policy devised by austerity architect George Osborne – was openly condemned by backbenchers and sparked a backlash in the shadow cabinet.

Sir Keir is set to be grilled on the controversy at a meeting of the party’s shadow cabinet on Tuesday. One shadow minister told The Independent that the move was “extremely disheartening”, while another frontbencher said they were “not happy” with the U-turn.

The Labour leader will be concerned that allies from the centre such as Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar also spoke out against the plan alongside left-wingers such as Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Zarah Sultana.

Labour funder Unison called the two-child benefit cap “cruel” while the Fabian Society, an affiliate usually sympathetic to Sir Keir, criticised it as “nasty dog-whistle” politics aimed at appealing to voters unhappy about large families getting benefits.

The growing row came as Labour’s North of Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll dramatically quit the party and lashed out at Sir Keir in an extraordinary exit letter, telling him: “You’ve U-turned on so many promises.”

Furious at being blocked from standing in the North East mayoral contest, Mr Driscoll – a left-winger described as the “last Corbynista in power” – claimed the Labour leader was engaged in “mental gymnastics worthy of Olympic gold”.

Sir Keir, who vowed to scrap the two-child benefit cap while running to become leader, sparked the huge row by telling the BBC on Sunday that he was “not changing” the Tory policy if Labour wins power.

Signalling that Labour had been set to scrap the policy – which prevents parents from claiming benefits for any third or subsequent child born after April 2017 – shadow work and pension secretary Jonathan Ashworth said only last month that it was “heinous” and was “keeping children in poverty”.

One shadow Labour minister told The Independent there was “a lot of unhappiness” among MPs on Sir Keir’s remarks and “a lot of lobbying” to force a rethink.

“It is extremely disheartening and contradictory to our policies to actually level up the country and bring children out of poverty to enable them to smash the class ceiling,” they said, adding that the party “needs to offer hope to win”.

One Labour MP on the left told The Independent the U-turn would be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back”, sparking condemnation from all wings of the party. They said it would have people asking: “What is the point of Labour?”

Mr Sarwar has said that Scottish Labour remains firmly opposed to the cap and will “press” Sir Keir and his team to “move as fast as they can within our fiscal rules to remove this heinous policy”.

One Labour source told the Huffington Post that the party was in “meltdown” on the issue, with some shadow cabinet threatening to quit. “There’s a lot of anger among MPs and some frontbenchers have threatened to resign,” they said.

Mr Starmer said he doesn’t mind ‘ruffling feathers’ with the Labour left (Jeff Overs/BBC/AFP/Getty)
Mr Starmer said he doesn’t mind ‘ruffling feathers’ with the Labour left (Jeff Overs/BBC/AFP/Getty)

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner, who had previously called the Tory policy “obscene”, was given a tough time on the issue by MPs at a Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting on Monday night.

Ms Rayner said the “mission” to tackle child poverty remained, but insisted that Labour cannot make “unfunded proposals” on the two-child benefits caps – with scrapping it estimated to cost £1.4bn a year.

Around half a dozen MPs from across the party – including Stella Creasy, Rosie Duffield, and left-winger Lloyd Russell-Moyle – spoke out against the U-turn, with some asking if Sir Keir had simply made “a mistake” in his BBC interview.

But Mr Russell-Moyle told reporters after the meeting: “We received no assurances. We will continue to push it. [Scrapping the cap] must still be on the agenda.”

Among the senior Labour MPs in the soft left and centre sharing their own dismay, Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, told the BBC that she would be “lobbying for a lifting” of the two-child benefit cap.

Stephen Timms, chair of the work and pensions committee, said the policy “only really makes sense if you think that families should not have more than two children”.

Ms Duffield, the Canterbury MP on Labour’s centre-right, described the two-child policy as “one of the most unpleasant pieces of legislation ever to have been passed in the UK”.

Jonathan Ashworth has previously called the cap ‘heinous’ (PA Archive)
Jonathan Ashworth has previously called the cap ‘heinous’ (PA Archive)

Mr Corbyn also lashed out at Mr Starmer, saying there was “no justification for keeping children in poverty”. And ex-shadow chancellor Mr McDonnell said the party needed an “honest” discussion about child poverty, because it was “obvious some in the party don’t fully appreciate its impact”.

And Ms Sultana said the policy “absolutely should be abolished”. She tweeted: “The two-child limit is an unspeakably cruel policy, inflicting destitution and misery on children and parents.”

Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said the union has always campaigned against the two-child cap, “because punishing children to ‘encourage’ their parents is not only cruel, but it totally misunderstands the root causes of poverty”.

The two-child benefit cap was introduced by austerity architect George Osborne (Getty)
The two-child benefit cap was introduced by austerity architect George Osborne (Getty)

The Fabian Society’s general secretary, Andrew Harrop, said he was “not going to pretend I’m happy with Labour’s new line”. He tweeted: “It is a vicious policy that seeds child deprivation. And a nasty dog-whistle (what sort of families have 3+ children in modern Britain?)”

The former children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, tweeted: “The two-child benefit cap is an unfair, bad policy, and it should be scrapped by whoever is in government.” And Save the Children UK said Labour “need to be clear on where they stand on this issue – and fast”.

House of Commons library research showed that scrapping the cap would lift 270,000 households out of poverty at a cost of £1.4bn.

Grilled on the issue, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that Labour had to “make sure that the proposals we put forward are fully costed and funded so that we can actually deliver them”.

Shadow levelling-up secretary Lisa Nandy also stood by Sir Keir, telling Politico that there will be “lots of things that Labour would like to do in the first term … that we’re simply not going to be able to”.

A Labour source said: “There are a range of things we might otherwise like to do but won’t be able to afford because the Tories have lost control of the public finances.”

In his resignation letter to Sir Keir, Mr Driscoll said: “You’ve U-turned on so many promises: £28bn to tackle the climate emergency, free school meals, ending university tuition fees, reversing NHS privatisation; in fact, a list of broken promises too long to repeat in this letter.”

Labour picked Kim McGuinness as their candidate for next year’s North East mayoral contest. Mr Driscoll vowed to stand as an independent if he can raise £25,000 for his campaign. He had already raised £40,000 by the end of Monday afternoon.

But Labour issued a statement suggesting Mr Driscoll was simply deemed not good enough, adding: “We make no apologies that Labour candidates are held to the highest standard.”