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A. T. writes:

The Conservatives in government have decided that their main target for cuts is what they call “welfare”. (Social security for working-aged people, not state pensions, education or the NHS.) In other words, the pillar of the Welfare State that Liberals were responsible for from the 1940’s.

George Osborne’s comments, originally in August 2010 (and repeated) – questioning whether it is fair that “hardworking people” have to get up in the morning whilst others “sleep in on benefits behind drawn blinds” alarms most liberals and others on the progressive side of politics, combining with it rhetorical assumptions that it is the fault of unemployed people that they don’t have work, or that they suffer from a moral weakness, or that they prefer long-term joblessness as a so-called “lifestyle choice”. Whilst Tories take licence to spout their venom against the less fortunate in society, Liberal Democrat ministers have hopelessly failed to criticise them for the sake of the Coalition – or maybe they agree?

Nick Clegg announced his ideological strategy of “alarm clock Britain” in early January 2011, the gloomiest and miserable time to have to get up by an alarm clock and go to work. Although not directly inciting resentment against unemployed people, the echo to the Osborne dog-whistle was loud and shocking. And despite all the promises to protect the poor and vulnerable, place the burdens on those with the broadest shoulders, and demanding that the pain of austerity should start from the top down and not from the bottom up (and supposedly not without concessions to mitigate the cuts), Liberal Democrat parliamentarians (with some exceptions) have flocked obediently through the “aye” lobbies at the coalition whip.

Along with the toxic rhetoric comes equally toxic practical realities: the “bedroom tax” (or “Spare Room Subsidy” – it is unclear who people with too many rooms are having to subsidise), caps on Housing Benefit that force people to move out of expensive city centres, the benefit cap over 3 years that falls well short of inflation, and now the Temporary Work Disincentive (stopping benefits for the first seven days of a claim every time anyone finds themselves between jobs). This is a long way from the so-called “life of Riley” endlessly drivelled out by right-wing tabloids.

Administrators of the sanctions regime have become increasingly trigger-happy, taking an accusation as guilt and deducting large sums at source without the chance to pay a penalty at a reasonable rate over time (as is the case in magistrates’ courts). This is not the fault of individual DWP employees: there appears to be a “target culture” directed from above, combined with an enforced negative customer service attitude. (Employees have been reprimanded for politeness. Wishin  g a job seeker good luck is a prohibited as apparently “luck has nothing to do with it”. )

So how do we rebuild progressive politics? I do not believe that the argument has been entirely lost. When people answer opinion surveys about “welfare”, they do not imagine themselves in a situation that they might need it. “Welfare dependents” are other people from another class; good people will always be in work. Work hard, play by the rules, do the right thing, strive to get on in life, etc. etc. (this talk has become somewhat cliché) and you will never be unemployed, or ever find yourself between jobs for long enough to bother about making a claim. This is a cruel deception: we need to remind people that there is no job for life anymore (not even in the public sector); that we were all job seekers at some stage in our lives (even if we found work immediately after leaving school or college or moved between jobs without gaps). Life does not always flow as smoothly as we would like. As the early adverts for the National Lottery proclaimed: “It Could Be You”.

The discourse about welfare should be around a new narrative (or a return to the original narrative) that social security is an insurance against adversity just like private insurance, for instance for a car or home. Victims of fire or burglary are not condemned as scroungers sleeping in on their insurance payout; why should the victims of unemployment be treated with such abuse? (If I had neighbours like George Osborne, I think I would hide behind closed curtains). The beauty of social insurance is that it is progressive: you pay what you can afford, and don’t have to have paid in to make a claim. What annoys the tabloids is the progressive principle itself: you pay more if you’re rich, even though you have less chance of needing to claim.

Social security policy has to change, and the rhetoric around it, which has driven policy, needs to change too. We should see recipients of social security as victims of political and economic failure, not as perpetrators of fraud (the incidence of actual benefit fraud is negligible). Yes, people should work where possible and be seen to actively seek it, but whilst looking for work, we must recognise that they also need somewhere to live and to put food on the table. More than that, payments should afford recipients, not a life of luxury, but a level of dignity and decency that we should all expect if the worst happens to us. And we should dispense with the ridiculous oxymoron or dangerous double-think of “the unemployed working for their benefits”. Once people are working, they are no longer unemployed. We should not create a sub-category of worker: compelled to work, but excluded from the minimum wage. We should work towards a welfare system that we can all be ‘in it together’: it’s there if we need it; any one of us might need it at some point, and we should not pander to the welfare bigots in the Conservative Party and their friends in the tabloid press.

"We are seeking to organise opinion that is currently angry but uncoordinated, and unable to make its voice heard as strongly as is necessary."