Only one of the main parties regards the UK social security system as essentially fit for purpose – unsurprisingly the Conservative party, which has overseen it for the past nine years. After £34bn of benefit cuts since 2010, serial problems with its flagship benefit system, universal credit, and rising destitution among its poorest citizens, its manifesto message is broadly “we’ll give you more of the same”.
They propose no big new cuts, but nor do they halt George Osborne’s cuts of 2015, £4bn of which are still to work through. Osborne’s four-year working-age benefit freeze is – as was always planned – to be lifted in April, but not for housing benefit. The rollout of universal credit will continue, and while there’s a vague promise to “do more” to make sure it “works for the most vulnerable”, there’s nothing in the manifesto to say why it doesn’t currently work well, or what could be done to improve it. There is none of the old IDS-style messianic fervour about welfare reform, about which the manifesto appears to be either embarrassed, disinterested or both. They promise to “continue our efforts” to reduce child poverty, though most experts conclude those efforts, unchanged, are likely to increase it.
Labour argues that the social security system “has lost sight of its purpose” and that universal credit is a “catastrophe”. It pledges to overhaul the Department for Work and Pensions (which has become, it says, “a symbol of fear”), and will close universal credit to new claims while removing some of its harshest features (such as the five-week wait for a first benefit payment).
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats’ policies will leave poorest people 10% better off
In the longer term it promises an alternative benefits system that will eradicate poverty and treat people with dignity and respect. Reform of “dehumanising” disability benefit assessments is also promised. Both Labour and the Lib Dems’ policies will leave poorest people 10% better off, and reverse post-2015 welfare spending cuts, says the Resolution Foundation. It adds that while both will halt upward trends on child poverty, there will be no “substantial reduction” in overall levels.
The Lib Dems, Greens and the SNP all find common ground with Labour on the need to reform social security: a more humane approach, a halt to universal credit, and an end to the benefit cap, the two-child limit on child benefit, the bedroom tax and punitive benefit sanctions. Looking further ahead, the Greens propose scrapping all benefits by 2025, and replacing them with a universal basic income (UBI). Labour promises a UBI pilot.
All parties remain generous to pensioners, who tend to vote in large numbers, but post-election it is declining working-age living standards that may come to the fore. Whoever is in power faces an early decision on universal credit as millions of low-paid working-age households and disabled claimants start to “migrate” to the new benefit from April 2020. Many will end up worse off, and encounter the bureaucratic capriciousness and payment delays that have dogged its chaotic first years. Universal credit has figured barely at all in the election campaign but could yet end up delivering a toxic “poll tax” moment of unpopularity for an unwary incoming administration.