Is this really what the Blairites think about welfare?

3 08 2010

I generally keep pure polemic off these pages – there’s enough of that floating around the web already – but this Telegraph article caught my eye.

It’s written by John McTernan, who was Tony Blair’s political secretary for the last two years of his premiership, and was a Labour adviser on welfare, among others.

He’s launched a broadside against Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reform green paper. Some of this is fair game – the lack of detail, the financial guesstimates.

But IDS’ attempts to ‘make work pay’ by softening the withdrawal of benefits is, fundamentally, a progressive step, provided it isn’t funded by the Chancellor raiding existing claimants. The Welfare Secretary wants to ensure that claimants returning to work don’t lose most of their wages through tax and withdrawn benefits.

The Centre for Policy Studies, a Thatcherite think tank, has calculated that in some circumstances, a woman who leaves the benefits system to take a job will keep just 4.5p in each pound she earns after taxes are applied and benefits withdrawn.

“This should cause outrage, and would if our political class were more interested in policy,” wrote Fraser Nelson in the Spectator.

But McTernan is not outraged. As far as he’s concerned, said woman should happily slog away for her 4.5p in the pound because “work is good for you”.

“Is it really right to pivot welfare reform on the notion that someone can argue the toss about whether the job pays them enough extra to do it? … It’s all oddly social-worky for me, this obsession with “making work pay” – what’s wrong with the moral imperative?”

Well, yes, work is good for you. But money is also good for you. And money, unlike moral imperative, pays the bills – a problem McTernan, as a “commentator and political strategist” (file carefully under Private Sector Non-Jobs) probably hasn’t faced in a while. If you get the same money for doing nothing as you do for working all day, it’s hardly a surprise many will choose the former above the latter.

You can only get away with judging benefits claimants negatively for taking a financial instead of a moral view of their earnings if you hold everyone to that standard. Throughout the New Labour era, the financial sector made astronomical sums doing precious little of any social value, engaged in widespread tax avoidance, and ended up crashing the economy. Funnily enough, I don’t remember McTernan and the Blairites lecturing the Institute of Directors about moral imperative.

New Labour’s lasting legacy – the minimum wage – was about making work pay, about stopping people being exploited. The idea that people should work for a pittance because it was somehow a morally sustaining end in itself was never raised. It is not clear why it should be raised now.

It’s all very well lecturing claimants for whom work doesn’t pay that they should work anyway. Said claimants could just as easily reply that those who effectively work for nothing are playing a mug’s game. Yes, they are funded by the taxpayer – but presumably so was McTernan when he worked for the government. Did he save the taxpayer money by working for free? Thought not.

And this is to say nothing of the two fundamentals that both IDS and McTernan have failed to grasp:

  • the lack of available jobs
  • the scandal of low pay

So instead we have a former top Labour government adviser – Tony Blair’s political secretary, no less – making Fraser Nelson and Daniel Hannan sound like bleeding heart liberals.

Thirteen years of New Labour hitting benefits claimants clearly wasn’t the government just pandering to the right wing press. They actually believed in it.

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