‘Braverman’s call to scrap two-child cap rings alarm bells for Labour in power’

Alex Charilaou
© UK Parliament/Andy Bailey

Over the weekend, Suella Braverman – one of the most right-wing MPs in the Conservative Party – dropped a surprising comment piece in The Telegraph, calling on the government to abolish the two-child benefits cap. This grim instrument, introduced as part of a Tory austerity package in 2017, limits the amount low-income families can claim for having more than two children.

Labour, as the historic party of social and economic justice, had previously pledged to scrap the two-child cap when in government. Last year, Keir Starmer confirmed that the cap will be kept by Labour if it wins the next election, owing, in no small part, to the stated policy of fiscal restraint.

A little before Braverman’s Telegraph piece hit, Wes Streeting gave an interview to The Independent spelling out why Labour simply can’t get rid of the two-child cap: “The answer to child poverty, ultimately, is not simply about handouts.” 

Let’s get this straight: the cap is a tax on children. Increasingly hungry children. It doesn’t matter if it’s framed as a punitive measure on those fortunate enough to start a family (bad enough), the brunt of it is borne by children with no ability to change their circumstances.

As a growing number of charities, unions and community groups have already said, it’s a moral and economic catastrophe not to immediately address the scourge of child poverty when Labour gets into government, not least as three in ten of them in the UK already grow up in poverty. But it’s not just that. It leaves us politically exposed.

The chrysalis of the next half decade’s Tory Party is forming

What’s behind Braverman’s sudden transformation into a social justice warrior? Forgive me if – after this, this, this and quite a lot besides – I don’t take her concern for the vulnerable at face value.

Is it simply tossing a frag into the Labour camp, stirring up feelings and exposing political splits? Surely there’s some of that. But given the strength of Labour’s position at the moment, I doubt that’s the main reason.

One can already see the chrysalis of the next half decade’s Conservative Party beginning to form. We see flashes of the future in PopCon and NatCon and the overt relationship-building with the global radical right.

Once the exhausted husk of Sunakism is (hopefully) pushed from government later this year, the Conservative Party will face an identity crisis. Braverman is trying on different approaches like masks, seeing what fits for her inevitable leadership bid.

Let’s say for a moment, hypothetically, Labour does not achieve what we hope it will in government. Our reforms don’t shift the dial enough in favour of working people, we don’t create significant and tangible increases in living standards, and we don’t achieve the highest growth in the G7, as well as our triangulation on issues of asylum and small boats coming back to bite us as demands grow to act increasingly brutally. 

In this situation, a Braverman-led Conservative Party could have the perfect space to grow in opposition. A touch of Boris the Builder-ism here, a smattering of culture warring there, the support (political, diplomatic and financial) of a more animated and imaginative global radical right and – crucially – a reactionary concern with prioritising “the family” in state provision. It’s a potent mix, and a dangerous one. 

Labour needs to listen to the traditions of our party

How can Labour in government undermine a radicalised Conservative opposition? For a start, by taking a leaf out of Braverman’s book: by listening to the traditions of our party. This does not mean repeating the past, but respecting it. 

In her Telegraph piece, there are four mentions of the late Frank Field, who Braverman rightly paints as a visionary of a more compassionate welfare system. 

In one particularly illustrative and powerful moment in 2017, Field described to Heidi Allen in the Commons his most recent Birkenhead constituency surgery. He describes how one constituent told him how their child “cries with hunger” and how another had to be convinced not to take his own life out of despair. Yet another told him how grateful their family was to be invited to a neighbour’s funeral so they could eat scraps of food at the end. Another, how their children would be without toys this year. Allen, a Tory, was reduced to tears.

Field was part of a tradition of Labour thinkers concerned above all else with ending poverty and bringing dignity, compassion and empowerment to the many. From the ethical socialism of the Webbs, to the working-class mutualism that shaped Bevan, to every Labour government in some shape or form, the moral imperative to end poverty has been respected. We must never break that chain: ending poverty is one of the founding missions of our movement, and to forget that would be catastrophic. 

We must do the decent thing – and scrap the cap

Why do we refuse to scrap the abhorrent two-child cap, while prioritising raising our defence bill to 2.5% of GDP? Why do we scaremonger about people living a “life on benefits”, while in-work poverty creeps up? Why on earth must we be publicly to the right of Braverman, while warmly accepting MPs who voted for schoolchildren to go hungry just four years ago?

If some strange and vile red-brown-blue, Le Pen-ist, natalist, uber-nationalist Toryism emerges from the moral vacuum our party threatens to vacate, that’s on us. Our win at this year’s general election looks to be assured, but we must keep our eye on the medium term. Politics moves quickly, and we’re in a deeply uncertain era.

We might win this time on the basis of the Tories’ implosion, coupled with a handful of resonant policies but cannot forget that this won’t be the case forever.

Keeping Britain’s trust will only be achieved by respecting our founding purpose, our traditions and by demonstrating we are on the side of ordinary people better than our opponents can ever be. We must do the decent thing. Labour must scrap the cap.

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