Social Justice

What to expect from Liz Kendall as Keir Starmer's controversial shadow work and pensions secretary

Liz Kendall is the new shadow minister for work and pensions, but what can we expect from the Labour MP in her new role in Keir Starmer's close circle?

Liz Kendall

There are hopes Liz Kendall will fight for change to lift people out of poverty. Image: Flickr/ daliscar1

Liz Kendall is the new shadow minister for work and pensions – meaning eyes are on the MP who may well be in charge of Britain’s benefits system if Labour wins the next election.

So what can we expect from Kendall as she is promoted to Keir Starmer’s close circle? The Labour MP for Leicester West, who has replaced Jon Ashworth as shadow work and pensions secretary, is a controversial choice for some campaigners. 

“I doubt very much that Liz Kendall’s new role as shadow work and pensions secretary is good news for those who rely on social security,” said a benefits activist who goes by the name of Ben Claimant. 

“I’m certainly worried that this will end up being a bad deal for claimants. If we look at her past she did nothing to stop Cameron’s welfare reforms. Kendall also criticised Labour under Ed Miliband for focusing too much on the poorest families.”

Indeed, she told The Mail on Sunday in 2015 that Ed Miliband was to blame for the loss of the previous election, saying: “We said a lot about the very poor, but too little about the middle classes. We have to help both.”

And when Kendall ran for Labour leader in 2015 against Jeremy Corbyn, she finished in last place with just 4.5% of the vote. She was the only candidate to back acting leader Harriet Harman’s decision not to oppose welfare cuts made by the Conservative government. 

She said she would not oppose the bill “unless we show how we can pay for the alternative” and supported a benefit cap set by the government. This was seven years ago, but it remains an insight into Kendall’s politics and has roused worry among some campaigners. 

Throughout 2022, Kendall was absent for a number of votes on welfare benefits – but in previous years she has voted for increasing benefits and against cuts alongside her Labour colleagues. 

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“I have no doubt she will continue to support conditionality and sanctions, toeing the party line,” Ben Claimant said. “What we need is someone who actually listens to claimants, academics and campaigners and responds accordingly.

“However, Labour’s focus is getting votes from people who previously voted against them. She will want to appear strong so I very much doubt she will support the changes that are desperately needed in the social security system.”

Liz Kendall has had little chance to prove herself in the new role yet, but she has shown glimpses of what we might expect from her as the new shadow secretary for work and pensions. Speaking on Politics Live on her first day in the new role on Monday, Kendall said: “I think if you make a commitment, you need to show how you will pay for it.”

Kendall was backing Labour’s current policy not to expand free school meals to all primary school children across the country – as Sadiq Khan has made happen in London. 

“We have no idea what the state of the economy is going to be under this government in 12 weeks, let alone six months or 12 months time,” she said. “We will only set out commitments when we show how we pay for them. But we absolutely believe in tackling child poverty and making sure all children start school ready to learn.”

When ministers for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) were questioned in parliament on Monday (4 September), Kendall took her Conservative counterpart Mel Stride to task over economic activity which she said remains a “serious problem in this country”. 

“Indeed, last month, the number of people off work due to long-term sickness hit an all-time high,” she said. “What is this government’s response? The chancellor tells the over-50s to get off the golf course, and the DWP secretary tells them to literally get on their bike. Is it not the truth that this government’s failure to cut waiting lists, sort social care and have a proper plan for reforming our jobcentres is harming individuals and our economy as a whole?”

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Charities and campaigners are using the opportunity to call on Kendall – and Labour – to devise policies to lift people out of poverty. 

Claire Atchia McMaster, director of income and external affairs at charity Turn2us, said: “We encourage Liz Kendall in her new role to consider the mounting evidence that our social security system is not functioning in the way it was intended to. It doesn’t provide enough money for people to keep up with the cost of living and leaves millions in poverty. People we speak to consistently say the system is inaccessible, punitive, and feels like it is based on suspicion rather than support.

“We need a social security system that promotes meaningful opportunity and financial security for all. This means enough money to pay the bills, plan for the future and cushion people against financial shocks. It means living with dignity and hope for the future.”



Laurence Guinness, chief executive of the Childhood Trust, added: “With poverty blighting the lives of millions of people across the country we hope that Liz Kendall will continue with her enthusiasm for scrapping universal credit, building more social housing, enforcing genuine living wages and reversing a decade of cuts to vital services like mental health and social care. 

“These are the key political areas that could ensure a fairer, more equitable society where workers and their children aren’t trapped in poverty because of insufficient income and sky-high rents.”

Sabine Goodwin, Coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network, added: “Food banks in our network are being stretched beyond breaking point and it’s clear that the UK’s poverty crisis is set to worsen this winter. It’s critical that the new shadow secretary of state for work and pensions prioritises finding ways to strengthen our social security system as soon as possible.” 

She said this includes raising benefits payments to match the cost of living, while removing the benefit cap, the two-child limit, the no-recourse to public funds policy, the sanctions system, and the waiting time for universal credit. 

Helen Barnard, director of policy, research and impact at the Trussell Trust, said: “We are keen to work with politicians from across the political spectrum to end the need for food banks in the UK. 

“The best way that any political party can move us towards this collective ambition is to support the introduction of an ‘essentials guarantee’ to universal credit, to ensure benefits always at least cover the cost of essentials. We welcome the new shadow team and look forward to discussing this urgent priority with them as soon as possible.”

Ayla Ozmen, director of policy and campaigns at Z2K, added: “We need a commitment from Labour to reform the broken disability benefits system, which too often leaves people without the benefits they are entitled to. Disabled people are almost 50% more likely to be living in poverty and are more likely to be in deep poverty.

“We hope to be able to work with Liz Kendall to co-produce policy solutions with people with lived experience of the system, to improve decision making and start getting decisions right first time.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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