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Editorial Social security: the left should come out fighting on the two-child limit

THE Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the legality of the two-child limit for social security payments is a bitter blow to some of Britain’s poorest families.

George Osborne’s slow-burn bombshell has meant creeping immiseration by stealth: since it only affects families with a third or subsequent child born from April 6 2017, there was no sudden impact at the time, but government figures last year showed the number of children affected was approaching one million.

They also gave the lie to the pseudo-moralistic claptrap that accompanied the policy. The poisonous “shirker versus striver” rhetoric, used repeatedly to justify attacks on those with the least, was out in force: that families on benefits should face the same financial choices as those in work face when deciding whether to have kids.

In fact, since Britain is blighted by massive underemployment and low pay, while the payments targeted do not relate to employment, the effect has been to penalise the working poor as well as those out of work. Three in five families affected have adults working. 

As elsewhere, Conservative expertise at dividing working-class people — in this case through an updated version of the Victorians’ “deserving” and “undeserving” poor — has the effect of impoverishing people on both sides of the divide.

The two-child limit was a breakthrough for the Tories because it tore up the principle of equal treatment for all. Children in larger families would be deliberately deprived of support. It is a cruel policy and a discriminatory one.

Judges have admitted this, acknowledging that it disproportionately affects women, who make up 90 per cent of single-parent families. But they maintain that there is “an objective and reasonable justification” for the discrimination — that it serves to “protect the economic wellbeing of the country.”

It doesn’t, of course — the idea that child tax credits are a major economic problem is laughable. 

Child Poverty Action Group deserves credit for fighting the case. But its belief that “the ultimate safeguard against discrimination … lies with our courts” is not one the left can afford to share.

Conservative-led governments since 2010 have reshaped the country politically. “Austerity” drove the transformation of the welfare state from a system designed to help those who need it into a punitive machine that subjects those relying on it to humiliation and abuse, while making access to assistance ever more burdensome.

Because of the political earthquakes since 2015, not least the Brexit vote and the handling of the pandemic, the huge damage done by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition from 2010 is often forgotten. But its welfare “reforms” were barbaric, leading to suicides and even deaths from starvation

The reaction to this descent into the gutter was partly responsible for Labour’s left turn from 2015 — the year that saw the party disgracefully abstain on the welfare cap in Parliament, but also the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and a return to combative, principled socialist politics.

The Tories have abandoned the rhetoric of austerity, but there has been no let-up in attacks on the most vulnerable.

The fightback against this decade-long assault on working-class people cannot rely on the courts. It has to be based on mass campaigning that builds unity in the face of division. Labour showed how much potential such a fightback had with its huge membership increase and dramatic electoral advance from 2015-17.

The party has turned its back on that. Yet it remains committed, officially, to lifting the two-child limit and suspending the benefit cap. 

Such commitments will mean nothing, however, if the party is not prepared to campaign on them. The pandemic — which exposed millions more people to the flimsiness of the so-called safety net — provides an opportunity to come out fighting. 

Keir Starmer is unlikely to seize it. But there is no reason for the left to hold back.

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