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It's Not Just Keir Starmer's Usual Detractors Who Don't Like His Two-Child Benefit Cap Stance

Keir Starmer and members of the shadow cabinet (Alamy)

4 min read

Discontent over Keir Starmer's surprising decision to retain the Tories' two-child benefit cap if Labour were in government has spread beyond the reaches of his usual detractors.

On Sunday, Starmer set off unrest within the Labour party when he told Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg he was “not changing" a policy introduced by former chancellor George Osborne that stops parents from claiming child tax credit or universal credit for any third or second child born after April 2017. While the "two child benefit limit" exempts children born as a result of rape, victims have to prove and record with the state that they were sexually abused.

The U-turn on Labour's prior objection to the policy appears to be borne out of a desire to underline the party's potential for fiscal responsibility if they were in government. 

But the decision has not sat well with a number of MPs, including members of his top team who have otherwise been supportive of Starmer's position on retaining tuition fees or watering down plans to nationalise public services, who feel a "red line" had been crossed.

“By keeping the [two-child cap] policy, you are keeping the rape clause… the policy is vile…” one shadow minister told PoliticsHome.

Another shadow minister told PoliticsHome they were disappointed by the news, and hoped the policy would eventually be dropped by Labour should they win office.

On the left of the party, the backlash was expected. One Labour MP told PoliticsHome they felt the leader's office had "got used to not listening", leaving it blindsided by the strength of the opposition among a broader range of MPs than usual. 

"They didn't seem to see this one coming, and then ended up alienating and offending not just the left... basically all of the parliamentary Labour party, virtually, are massively disappointed at this," they said. 

"The problem is they've just got slightly arrogant... we've got this big opinion poll lead, which is great: but when people say let's not take you for granted, that means in two ways. 

"We can't take it for granted that we will win the next election, but neither should the leadership."

At a meeting of the shadow cabinet on Tuesday, Starmer stood by the position, despite growing unrest in the party defending the need for Labour to provide full costed plans that they could plausibly enact in government. 

"Liz Truss tried unfunded commitments. And she proved that if you go down that route, you lose control of the economy," he told senior MPs. 

In public, some shadow cabinet ministers stood by Starmer. "To coin a phrase there just, frankly is no money left," shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell told broadcasters on Tuesday morning. 

Others were more pragmatic despite overall discomfort around the policy from Labour, who have consistently criticised it since its introduction. One shadow minister told PoliticsHome they felt while there was "fiesty" opposition, many will refrain from publicly picking a fight with Starmer “because they also understand the politics of getting Labour into power”.

MPs on the Labour left warned the issue would "haunt" Starmer until the party's conference, where it would become a "flashpoint" because the issue of child poverty goes to "the heart" of what the Labour party. A shadow minister agreed Labour conference, which takes place in October, would be "tense". 

This weekend, representatives from major groups in Labour, as well as constituency parties and affiliated trade unions will take part in the National Policy Form (NPF) where they will discuss "how the next Labour government can build a fairer, greener and more dynamic Britain for all".

Several MPs on the Labour left predicted the NPF would now become a battleground for the two-child benefit cap issue. 

“Going into the National Policy Forum this coming weekend, which obviously important in the calendar of Labour's policymaking process, this is an opportunity for the party to resolve this and make this go away by actually committing to lifting Osborne’s child benefit cap," said one MP on the Labour left. 

A Labour source told PoliticsHome the row over the benefit cap could have been intentionally caused by leadership to distract away from the NPF, where Labour will discuss controversial policies like proportional representation and whether they will make it into the next manifesto. 

“Potentially there’s lots of areas the NPF can be fought over, and they’ve decided to draw the fire to this issue," they said.

The row over the benefit cap also comes as speculation of a cabinet reshuffle continues to mount. One shadow minister told PoliticsHome senior MPs are likely to be refraining from speaking out publicly against the two-child cap as a result.

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