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Doing the right thing

Over the years, the historic poor law mentality has crept back into its old place, with the Victorian division of the deserving and undeserving poor. Stuart Weir examines the political reasoning behind Cameron's welfare rhetoric, and explores Labour's challenges in responding to the Conservative position.

Stuart Weir
29 June 2012

We are all in it together.  Last week David Cameron issued the most emphatic renunciation of the coalition government’s false credo with his heavily trailed speech on welfare – or to use a now discarded term, “social security”.  He has chosen to concentrate impurely on a poor minority within society and to construct a narrow agenda designed to exploit differences between people at the bottom and at the top, diverting attention from the rich who almost alone now benefit from “compassionate Conservatism”.

It is pointless to suggest that his proposals won’t ever come to pass, that they are too ignorant, too speculative, too silly.  The speech is blatant “dog whistle politics”, this time aiming not to take advantage of racial tensions, but to stigmatise still further those people who rely on benefits to survive and to make of “welfare” a new dirty word.  It is a deliberate and toxic appeal to ignorance and prejudice and is meant to deepen the unpopularity of our social security system, or what will remain of it. It is preparing the ground for an election manifesto for 2015 and another £10 billion of benefit cuts as well as differentiating his party from their coalition allies.

But Cameron is of course exploiting public prejudices.  During previous recessions over the past 28 years, British Social Attitude surveys have demonstrated that public sympathy for those who are out of work has increased as things get tougher. This time round, the opposite is true; here lies the constituency that Cameron is targeting. The latest YouGov poll for Prospect found that three-quarters of people think that Britain spends too much on welfare, and should cut benefits. Four out of ten think that a significant minority of welfare claimants are “scroungers”. People now blame poverty on ‘laziness’.  Fewer than one-third now say they would be willing to pay higher taxes to support schools, the NHS or the environment. Research for the Rowntree Foundation shows a widespread belief that there are plenty of opportunities to earn a good income for people who are willing to do “the right thing”.

Forget for a moment the lies and misrepresentations and consider how narrowly Cameron seeks to shape the debate he says he wants to foster.  By concentrating on the relatively small minority of those who exploit social security, he avoids having to recognise the importance of the security it brings to those who need the benefits they receive and those who simply cannot find work in an era of high unemployment. 

He avoids having to acknowledge the severe effects of the shortage of social and affordable housing (something for which New Labour is a guilty party) and the high rents that ensue by rhetorical outrage about the scale of unrepresentative housing benefits that a few people (necessarily) draw – and so doesn’t have to address the need for a major social housing building programme and rent regulation in the private sector. 

He avoids having to admit that a host of people in work form a majority of those who live in poverty, earning too little to lift them and their dependents out of poverty without benefits, even though they are doing “the right thing” – and so his debate will not consider the growing significance of campaigns for a living wage. He avoids having to recognise that a large well-off section of society are not in it together - and so can ignore the case for higher taxes on those who can afford it and even approve tax cuts for the very wealthiest in society.

Meanwhile the Lib Dems have the luxury of disowning Cameron’s proposals without owning up to the fact that they are providing the Tories with a platform from which the incompetent and cruel government that they sustain can destroy social security, impoverish the poor still further and damage the ethos of solidarity upon which social security ultimately depends.  (It is by the way notable that Danny Alexander should say that if we could close a mere quarter of tax avoidance loopholes, the Treasury could cut income tax by 2p, rather than, say, preserve more public services or temper benefit cuts.  He deserves Aneurin Bevan’s undeserved gibe at Hugh Gaitskell – “a dessicated calculating machine”.) 

Here then is a major and complex task for Labour under Ed Miliband. Not only will the party have to defend social security robustly and find means to restore essential benefits within inevitably straitened times.  They will have to brave those within their own ranks for whom raising taxes is anathema – while they tackle the tax avoidance schemes and corporate resort to tax havens that steal fortunes out of the nation’s tax take. But Labour needs also to argue the case for solidarity so that we are all genuinely in it together.  The postwar government introduced the welfare state at a moment of unprecedented social solidarity and naturally enough failed to inculcate the ethos of solidarity into its statist creation.  Over the years the historic poor law mentality has crept back into its old place, with the Victorian division of the deserving and undeserving poor. 

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