Two houses, divided

David Cameron has launched the Conservative party’s annual conference with a divisive interview on Andrew Marr’s show. Not only is he coming up with policies that will inevitably increase youth homelessness. He has also, unwittingly, laid a trap for himself, that Labour can now spring.

In that interview Cameron uses the issue of housing to draw a distinction between two types of people. He says;

‘We do need to look at choices we make in this country. Take young people, if you leave school, you go to college, you work hard, you get a job, you don’t have any chance of having housing benefit, living at home with mum and dad often into your 30s. If you take a different path, don’t go to college, sign on, get housing benefit, get a flat, then of course if you get a job you’ll probably lose the housing benefit on the flat. So I think we want to look at the signals we send in welfare and I think we should recognise the welfare cap we put in place, showing that no family should be better off on welfare than in work, that was an extremely powerful and sensible and very popular actually thing to do.’

Hardly one nation stuff!

Still, it’s not hard to see where this strategy comes from. There is less and less public support for benefits as a form of redistribution and the Conservatives have mismanaged the economy to such an extent that they believe they now need to find further cuts to hit their deficit reduction strategy

Putting these two things together means it is almost inevitable that they will want to cut benefits while claiming they are on the side of the hard working majority.

However, there is a big political trap here which Labour could spring on the Tories.

The fact is, that the Tories have very little to offer the ‘striving’ young person that Cameron describes. Wages are not going up, unemployment remains high, there aren’t any new houses being built and mortgages are hard to come by.

The default response of many on the left will be to criticize Cameron’s efforts to take away housing benefit from under 25s, since that would, in all likelihood, mean an increase in youth homelessness. This is of course right and proper.

A second response is also needed though. Labour needs to show that the Tories are actually doing nothing to help hard working people (young or old). Labour needs to contrast the current situation with policies that will increase wages as a share of the economy, build more homes and make it easier to get a mortgage.

This would build on policies that have already been floated such as building new homes using the money from the 4G auction, using QE to boast house building, and so-called ‘pre-distribution’ approaches to raising wages.

Cameron and the Tories’ constant invocation of ‘strivers’ ‘doers’ and so on is in fact, a noose around his neck. If they continue on their current course they will have done little for this group and should expect little gratitude in return. The opportunity for Labour to benefit from this is enormous.

P.S. Jules Birch does an excellent job of pointing out some of the problems with Cameron’s position, not least of all the fact that the benefit cap which he refers to has not yet been put in place.