In 2015, then British chancellor George Osborne introduced a cap on social benefits available to families with children. Osborne justified the policy, which limits benefit eligibility for families with more than two children, using the repugnant and familiar rhetoric of incentives: he claimed it would help encourage unemployed parents to work and “ensure that families in receipt of benefits faced the same financial choices about having children as those supporting themselves solely in work.”
Evaluated even on these rather grotesque terms, the policy has been a failure. Research published last year shows that punishing Britain’s poorest families with benefit cuts has done nothing to discourage them from having children, though it has succeeded in pushing them further into poverty. Today roughly 10 percent of British children are affected by Osborne’s hideous two-child benefit cap — which can be worth as much as £3,000 (or roughly $3,900) per child every year.
According to more recent research commissioned by Labour MP Jon Trickett, simply nixing the policy would lift about 270,000 households — representing nearly a million people — out of poverty at a cost of £1.7 billion. “The consequences of this cruel Tory policy on pushing people to the brink of destitution is clear,” Trickett remarked in the Daily Mirror. “But we see that a relatively small increase in social security spending would have a huge impact on the life chances of hundreds of thousands of deprived families.”
In a sane political universe, eliminating Osborne’s cruel cap on child benefits would be a no-brainer for any center-left opposition party worth a damn. And despite having moved sharply to the right on civil liberties, taxation, environmental policy, public ownership, migrant rights, tuition fees, and the NHS, it briefly seemed that even Keir Starmer and the rest of Labour’s front bench grasped this basic reality. Deputy Leader Angela Rayner has called the policy “inhumane,” and it was barely a month ago that Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, was branding it as “heinous” and insisting it was “absolutely keeping children in poverty.” Even former Conservative cabinet minister David Freud agreed with Ashworth’s assessment, saying he had been “absolutely correct to describe it as a vicious policy.” Asked about Labour’s position on the BBC several days ago, however, Starmer was unequivocal: “We are not changing that policy.”
The U-turn, which directly contradicts Starmer’s own past comments in favor of scrapping the Tory benefits model, is the latest in a lengthy tally of rightward pivots undertaken by the post–Jeremy Corbyn Labour leadership. Starmer, who ran to succeed Corbyn on an explicit pledge to retain many of the radical policies and ideas that helped give Labour its greatest surge in support since Clement Atlee’s formative victory in 1945, has hitherto spent his tenure as leader of the opposition refashioning the party into an establishment-friendly vehicle of the technocratic center right.
Even by his own less-than-lofty standards, however, Starmer’s latest broken promise stands out for its callousness — effectively representing a conscious choice to keep hundreds of thousands of children in poverty. Beyond callousness, the probable reasoning behind this calculation is easy to discern.
The underlying theory of Starmerism is that elections are won by securing support from wealthy people and other elite constituencies. Like the Blairite ideologues that came before them, its acolytes believe that any party aspiring for power demonstrates its “credibility” and adult bona fides by distancing itself from activist policymaking and anything else that falls outside the existing elite consensus. In this case, the implication of such cynical thinking is that it’s better for countless children to stay in poverty than for a nominal party of the progressive center-left to be seen embracing a modest increase in social spending.
Starmer’s reversal has justifiably been met with a vociferous backlash from key trade unions and parts of Labour’s backbench, though recent precedent leaves little room for optimism that any of this will lead to a change in policy. Starmer has successfully routed the Left and, despite an increasing share of voters viewing him as untrustworthy, now enjoys such a massive lead in the polls that he evidently calculates it won’t matter.
As dispiriting as it is to contemplate, this calculation is almost certainly correct. Throughout their now thirteen years in power, the Conservatives have overseen the single greatest drop in living standards in the UK recorded in modern times and, thanks to both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, now preside over a regime so dilapidated and discredited that virtually any opposition would likely win the next general election by default. Since he replaced Jeremy Corbyn in early 2020, however, it’s become increasingly clear that a cabinet led by Keir Starmer will largely wield its majority to maintain Tory policies, albeit with a different brand name attached to them.
As a general rule, parties usually grow more conservative in government than they once sounded in opposition. If such a pattern holds after Labour wins the next election, this week’s U-turn on child benefits makes it genuinely chilling to consider how far to the right Keir Starmer might be willing to go as prime minister.