The main chunk of the Welfare Reform Act has been up and running for under a week, and already the Westminster-Fleet Street axis is salivating over its next assault on social security.
Encouraged by a serial child-killer – read those words again for an encapsulation of our political class in 2013 – the shadow boxing has turned into full frontal confrontation as the main parties make their plans for 2015.
With the economy stagnant and no-one in parliament having a clue what to do about it, both the Tories and Labour are instead gearing up for the next general election campaign, which – like every general election campaign – is set to be the most vicious and mendacious on record.
But it won’t last.
If you want to read an article on Mick Philpott, read this by Grace Dent. All I will say is that the government has nuked the fridge. Blaming the actions of a misogynist, abusive murderer on child benefit payments? The Tories aren’t so much scraping the barrel as splintering the wood. This kind of brazen smear tactic can ‘work’ – but only rarely, and only in the middle of an election campaign. Think Willie Horton in the 1988 US presidentials, the swift-boating of John Kerry in 2004, or even the ‘War of Jennifer’s Ear’ in the 1992 general election. None of these were as extreme as this week’s Philpottiness, but they all had an immediate short term impact that helped swing the final result. They were, in essence, stink bombs.
This week was different. We are two years from an election, and the Tories are already reaching for some of the most desperate and extreme tactics ever seen. Even if they get some small, meaningless, bounce in the polls – unlikely – how can they possibly maintain this level of attack for two years? Where can they go after this? Blaming child benefit for encouraging the birth of children who ‘attract’ paedophiles? Perhaps blaming disability benefit for incentivising disability? Britain is not a nation of savages (a point often lost on the Left) and this kind of Brass Eye rhetoric repels most people – if not already, then within two weeks of sustained repetition. Two solid years of this? No chance.
Thanks, Iain Duncan Smith
Perhaps the Philpottiness was a desperate attempt to distract from Iain Duncan Smith’s Monday misstep, when he claimed he could live on £53 a week. No matter – the damage was already done.
The ‘damage’, by the way, was not ‘embarrassment’ or ‘looking out of touch’. It was, instead, the truth. For years, both this government and the last have relied on a ready stream of hysteria about welfare payments to undermine social security – asylum seekers getting mansions in Kensington, families making thousands in child benefit for ten kids, workless scroungers earning more than shop assistants. On and on.
And then came Iain Duncan Smith.
No amount of worthy Guardian columns, no carefully researched think tank paper or academic study, could have imprinted the reality of Britain’s welfare state so firmly on the public consciousness as IDS saying he could live on £53. The story itself is froth – it’s the figure that counts. In the weeks, months and years ahead, long after the detail of this story has been forgotten, that figure will remain. £53. People won’t remember who said what when. They’ll remember £53.
So thanks, IDS. Couldn’t have done it without you.
Byrne the witch!
Liam ‘Duncan’ Byrne truly is Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘shadow’ – he shadows his every move, replicating it exactly. But let’s not just blame him for Labour’s grand plan for welfare. Many a Labour lefty wants to single out Liam Byrne as the wicked witch of One Nation, some kind of rogue right-wing agent without whom Labour would be leading us all into an egalitarian utopia. They single out Liam Byrne to hide the inconvenient truth – the Labour leadership, and the Labour Party itself, is riven with people who share Liam Byrne’s mentality, either from ideological conviction or a faux-pragmatic view that they can’t win without it. Liam Byrne is not an aberration of Labour. He is Labour.
So let’s be clear – when Liam Byrne unveiled Labour’s welfare roadmap for the 2015 election, he wasn’t speaking for himself. He spoke for Labour. He has the full authority, agreement and support of the party leadership. It was Ed Miliband who appointed him to the welfare brief. It was Ed Miliband who originally put him in charge of the party’s entire policy review – whose current head, lefty darling Jon Cruddas, is no doubt also on board. This is not an aberration of Labour. This is Labour.
‘This’ being a contributions-based welfare system. Don’t get so excited. It’s back to Beveridge for Labour, as they plan Britain’s 21st century future by gazing dreamy-eyed at photos of long-dead Liberals. The idea is a simple one – the more you pay in through national insurance, the more you’ll get out in benefits payments should you need them.
Let’s take this to its logical conclusion. If you have worked all your life in a high-paying job – let’s say, investment banking – and then get made redundant, your subsequent unemployment benefit will be high. You won’t need it, but you’ve earned it.
If, like many people, you rotate in and out of low-paid, short-term, insecure jobs, then while you’re out of work, you’ll be living on a pittance. You’ll need money to tide you over, but it won’t be there. You will be punished for providing the bottom-of-the-barrel ‘flexible’ labour our broken economy is built on.
And if you’ve just left school or university and haven’t found a job yet? Um. Dunno. Beg.
As Labour gears up to enact its own austerity post-2015, Beveridge 2.0 fits the bill perfectly. Last year Labour ‘rising star’ Stella Creasy promoted a ‘zero-budget’ spending review – all spending would be looked at and challenged.
Well, this is zero-budget welfare for a zero-hours world. If people must rely on ‘getting out what they put in’, there’s much less requirement for the state to subsidise the shortfall created by the income deficiencies caused by the likes of zero-hours contracts. Of course, the state does end up footing the bill – in homelessness costs, criminal justice costs, healthcare costs – but don’t expect politicians to grasp that level of nuance.
The gathering storm
The tactical error Labour have made is to give this maximum publicity. It’s deliberate, of course – they want to ‘win back welfare’ on the front pages. But by 2015, they’ll be regretting it.
As neoliberal austerity scorches its way across Britain, benefits-bashing has become the political class’ heroin hit. The thing with heroin is you need more each time to get the same effect. And then it kills you.
By 2015, no politician in the land will want to talk about welfare. It was easy for politicians to bash benefits before they had implemented their own plans. Now those policies are in full swing, the predicted disasters will unfold. Council tax benefit cuts will leave councils chasing unpaid council tax. Families evicted under the bedroom tax will be adding to the local government B&B bill. The Universal Credit IT mega-system will have broken down – oh, two, three times? UC itself will have forced the self-employed out of work. The Work Programme… oh, let’s not even go there.
Governments of all stripes have systematically attacked welfare and social security for 30 years. First it was council housing. Then it was Peter Lilley’s war on single mothers. Then the Blairite experiments and the attacks on disability. Now the outright dismantling of the welfare state.
And where are we at the end of three decades of cutting benefits? Why, we have the highest benefits bill on record, and a government that knows it’s going to get worse. For how many decades must an idea achieve the exact opposite of its aim before it is abandoned?
By 2015, the political class will know that this has been a disaster on every measure. The Conservatives will be getting lambasted from all sides for the abject failure of their project. Labour will be trying to avoid difficult questions about how Beveridge 2.0 differs from workfare and benefits cuts, given that it doesn’t. Low-paid workers in swing seats will see their income falling as a result of the cuts that were only meant to hit mythical ‘scroungers’, and will want to know why Labour is proposing more of the same.
And not a politician in the country will want to talk about it.
Arbeit macht frei
Welfare, like the banking system, reflects the failure of our economic model. But it is an economic model that the mainstream refuses to alter. So just as no politician wants to address our cankerous financial sector now, Westminster will be going very quiet about welfare in 2015.
But if the politicians won’t be talking welfare in 2015, who will they beat up on instead?
That’s right. Immigrants.