The first four pilots of the government’s £26,000 benefit cap for workless families launches today. While there’s a bit of debate today about the rights and wrongs of this particular benefit cut, it’s worth comparing it with another policy that has grabbed many more headlines. The benefit cap is, as James reported recently, one of the most popular policies pollsters have ever encountered. It was launched as a flagship policy by the Chancellor at the 2010 Conservative autumn conference, with a snappy name. Most backbench Tory MPs report that the only thing that annoys their constituents about the cap is that it’s still too high: Chris Skidmore told me in the autumn that he wished it could be dropped to £15,000. The government has been so successful in selling this policy that its decision to scale down its launch from a nationwide roll-out this April to four pilots in Bromley, Croydon, Enfield and Haringey ahead of a later launch in the autumn was barely noticed.
Meanwhile the government’s ‘housing benefit: size criteria for people renting in the social rented sector’ does have a similar compelling argument behind its introduction: why should a government pay for rooms that a social tenant doesn’t use when the sector has an overcrowding problem? (It’s a bit more complicated than that, of course but that’s for another post). And the polls show there is still support for it. But that support isn’t quite as rip-roaringly enthusiastic: YouGov’s poll for the Sunday Times in March found 49 per cent of voters supported it, against 38 per cent who didn’t. Ministers have had just as long to sell this cut: longer in fact, as it was announced in the June 2010 emergency budget, but they didn’t give it any branding, or make the case for it. This left a vacuum for Labour to step in with their ‘bedroom tax’ tag, and thus the debate became a reactive one, with the government belatedly trying to put forward the arguments for this benefits policy in the face of ferocious attacks from its opponents. It has had to make changes to the policy before the nationwide launch because, unlike the benefit cap, it doesn’t have the luxury of pilots to allow for tweaks once it is live.
And as for Labour, the first policy left Ed Miliband’s party in a bit of a pickle, first supporting it, then opposing it as the wind changed. The second was never set as a trap for the party, and so Labour MPs have used it as a contrast with last year’s decision to cut the 50p rate of tax. The lesson here is clearly one of framing and proactive selling. As ministers prepare further cuts to their departmental budgets, it’s a lesson worth bearing in mind for the next set of controversial policies.