Jeremy Corbyn has toughened Labour’s opposition to Tory welfare cuts with a new pledge to end the benefits freeze and give claimants inflation-proof rises.
After a flurry of confusion over its precise stance, the party revealed that a Corbyn government would take bolder action in reversing the four-year squeeze imposed by former Chancellor George Osborne.
During Prime Minister’s Questions, the Labour leader declared that his party “would have ended the benefit freeze” if it had won the 2017 general election.
“The benefit freeze takes £1.5bn from 10 million low and middle-income households. A low-income couple with children will be £200 worse off. For them, there is no end to austerity,” he said.
Within minutes his spokesman appeared to cast doubt on the idea of uprating benefits in line with inflation, stating that was “a different issue” from ending the freeze.
“The commitment to end the freeze is to move off the freeze, that means you start to increase benefits again,” he said.
Asked if that meant the freeze would be ‘partially defrosted’, the spokesman replied: “A freeze means off. If you turn it on, you can turn it to different degrees.”
But the party later put out a clarification, stressing that Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Margaret Greenwood had all agreed on the policy.
“Our commitment is to end the social security freeze and uprate in line with inflation. The mechanism for our restructuring of the social security system and costings will be laid out in our next manifesto,” a spokesman said.
The firm statement is a marked departure from Labour’s policy in the 2017 election, which was criticised by some campaigners for not going far enough in tackling the Osborne cuts.
On the day of the manifesto launch, Corbyn said “we are not going to freeze benefits”.
The party did not make an explicit pledge to uprate benefits in line with inflation, and Corbyn admitted “we have not made a commitment on that”.
Labour preferred instead to say it would pump £2bn into Universal Credit and undertake wider housing and minimum wage reforms to move people off benefits altogether.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry later said on the day of the manifesto publication that Labour would “offset the impact” of the freeze. “I don’t think we can reverse it entirely. We shouldn’t be promising things we can’t afford,” she said.
Speaking on Wednesday, a party spokesman stressed that Labour would hold a wider review of welfare policy and draft a fully costed programme as it had in 2017. It remains unclear where the party would get the money to fund the uprating.
Corbyn was still facing pressure from some backbenchers over his decision to abstain on a Budget vote on fast-tracked tax cuts planned for all earners next April.
McDonnell revealed the party would not oppose the cuts, despite the fact that they benefit some of the better off much more than lower paid workers.
Labour MP Lisa Nandy said the tax cuts plan for the better off was “plain wrong and we should not support it”.
“The Labour movement has rightly been much bolder about our opposition to these political choices, campaigning against austerity and highlighting its crushing impact on so many people who do not have a voice. Now is the time to roar,” she wrote on the LabourList website.
A spokesman for Corbyn agreed that the tax cuts were “the wrong choice by the Tory government” but the way the Budget votes were bundled together meant Labour could not oppose the perks for the rich without ditching much-needed relief for the poorest.
He said that “a mechanism” could be found for separating out the two issues the party “would seek to do that”.