Its hard to believe now but only two months ago the larger of the coalition partners was at its most popular. This was despite having been defeated in the House of Lords on five occasions over its welfare reform bill. Ed Miliband, far from being in cahoots as the coalition would have us believe in relation to the fuel crisis, was at loggerheads with Unite over its change of tac on public spending and support for a public sector pay freeze. Indeed, the opposition, to add yet more confusion to their position, were not even against the proposed benefit cap despite declaring themselves opposed to the reforms. As the Commons invoked its parliamentary privilege as the elected House over the appointees next door, it was a senior Labour Lord who complained that they were being ‘undermined’. Meanwhile Alastair Campbell was blaming the media for anti-welfare sentiment, and wondering out loud whether he should ask ‘Lord Justice Leveson to add even futher to his reading load’. So despite the shifting fortunes of an adrift administration, the flip-flopping elite-chasing antics in the Labour ranks mean they have little to fret about.
Archives for March 2012
I must confess I didn’t even know what a jerry can was until Francis Maude made his unhelpful intervention in a fuel crisis of the government’s own making. As commentators have said, it has not only been fanning the flames but lit the touch paper this time around. In an attempt to pin the blame on Unite and, by association, Labour, the government have quite irresponsibly got themselves in a spot of bother. Again. After the granny tax, pastygate and all that trouble about party funding, the coalition are having a bad time of it. But there is something else going on here. However accident-prone ministers have been, and however attributable the awful accident today to those ill-judged comments, what is being said here about us ordinary folk? The government have been talking up the threat of a strike because they are anxious managerial types and because they want to generate some political capital at the expense of their opponents. This has badly backfired. But regardless of this fear-driven politicking, people are well able to make up their own minds and the sense of panic is less apparent than we are being led to believe. Yes, there are more people than you’d usually expect at Homebase looking for the jerry can aisle. And there are, apparently, some queues at some petrol stations. But if the Sky News coverage from Kidderminster is anything to go by – you’d think I’d have better things to watch – the dominant mood is one of patient resignation not panic. While the motoring public are not immune to top-down scaremongering, what is of much greater concern is that this latest farce confirms once again that the coalition is already running on empty.
First published in Huffington Post
As we get ever more accustomed to austerity, with the granny-taxing budget of last week only the latest attack on living standards, it is perhaps worth revisiting the welfare discussion anew.
The passing of the Welfare Reform Act was in some ways welcome. It is right that ‘jobseekers’ who aren’t seeking a job get their benefit stopped. There is something to be said for making the system tougher, not because benefit claimants are work-shy; but because it is right to treat people as the autonomous, responsible individuals that we should all aspire to be. Also, the introduction of a universal credit in place of confusing, and wholly inadequate, means-tested benefits will bring greater clarity and a better opportunity to challenge that inadequacy.
Still, there were plenty of reasons to oppose the Bill before it was put on the statute books. Unfortunately opponents failed to make a principled case and instead of attempting to build popular support, they called, unsuccessfully, on the undemocratic powers of ‘their lordships … to water down the legislation’. Anyway, it would appear that the parties have a lot more in common than they like to let on. The shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne, desperately trying to find a fundamental point of difference with the government, has called for a lessening of the benefits burden and the restoration of the contributory principle so that what people get reflects what they put in. He too wants to see the creation of a ‘something for something‘ culture. The rhetoric, on the face of it, from government and opposition, all sounds eminently sensible. And if you ask people on the street (of Barking, East London, for instance) there does seem to be a degree of consensus in wider society too.
Not only that, for all the cries on behalf of ‘the vulnerable’ over the cutting and the capping, the welfare state has traditionally taken an austere view of its dependents. As Byrne says, Beveridge himself was ‘tough-minded’ and ‘never foresaw unearned support as desirable’. It was always intended to be temporary, a stop-gap during occasional periods of illness or unemployment. He would, indeed, have been outraged at the apparently enforced and unending ‘idleness’ of a million plus young people. As should we. Beveridge, like Beatrice Webb, was a strong believer in conditionality. But this is hardly a new problem; it has dogged the welfare state almost from its creation. In the absence of a societal system able to generate a living for all, the burden on the welfare system will always be too great to allow benefits to be paid out of contributions like the social insurance system it was always intended to be. Still, apparently, Labour is once more committed to a policy of full employment, and making the penalty for refusing a job offer harsher still. They’re not going to create any more jobs; they are just going to impose a ‘duty to work‘. Good luck with that, its 2.7 million at the moment.
According to Byrne unemployment is ‘not a one-off misfortune’. But instead of drawing the logical conclusion that this brings into question the welfare infrastructure, he comes over all Jeremy Kyle. ‘It can scar you for life’, he says. Byrne’s critique of welfare, like that of the coalition’s, is patronisingly therapeutic. But don’t be fooled, that doesn’t mean it’s soft and fluffy. It leads where all social policy paths seem to lead today: to correcting the ‘skewed social behaviour’ that the benefits system apparently encourages. Thus claimants, and tenants of social housing too – Byrne wants to see rewards for the well-behaved ones – are reduced to emotionally scarred laboratory rats; punished or rewarded according to the whims of a political class evidently unable to come up with any real solutions to what is a profound social problem. At least the architects of the welfare state had enough about them to have a go. Byrne recently saluted the ‘social revolution’ brought about by the ‘radical’ Beveridge seventy years ago. Of course he was a liberal not a radical, and a reformer not a revolutionary. His reputation just seems so much more substantial when compared with the pedestrian ambitions, never mind achievements, of these wannabe Beveridges today.