The war between the quiet man and the invisible man rages on.
Yesterday it was Iain Duncan Smith’s turn to light the fuse on the cannon. In a speech delivered at his Centre for Social Justice, he has pointed to minutes released by the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee who said that the “tightening in the eligibility requirements for some state benefits might have led to an intensification of job search.”
This has clearly left him in a buoyant mood, as Mr Duncan-Smith is now on a “crusade to rescue Benefits Street Britain”, according to reports in The Telegraph.
“I have long believed there is no kindness in a benefits system that traps people, leaving them in a twilight world where life is dependent on what is given to you, rather than what you are able to create,” Mr Duncan Smith said.
No-one but the most ardent statist would disagree with him. Even the Labour Party, aware of the popularity of welfare forms, jumped on the bandwagon in a display of breath-taking hypocrisy last week, announcing that they will force claimants to take maths and English tests or face losing benefits. ‘Hypocrisy’ because of course it was the Labour government who set a target that allowed one in five pupils to leave primary school illiterate – and failed even to meet that target.
The question is not whether unemployed people should be moved into work, but how it should be done.
Earlier this month Osborne emerged from his hidey hole in the Treasury Department (hitherto an action that has been reserved only for Budget Day), to announce that he was cutting an extra £12b from the out of work benefits pot in an effort to rebalance the books. Not only is this wildly financially illiterate considering that out of work benefits makes up such a small percentage of the total government spend, as Allister Heath succinctly explained, but it’s morally questionable too.
IDS has drawn his dividing line by saying “I want to show that we would have wanted to reform the welfare state, even if we had no deficit.”
Osbourne, by contrast, seems to view welfare reform purely as a stick with which to beat the Labour Party. He is the ultimate ‘strategy man’, formulating policy not because he believes in its ability to change Britain for the better, but rather in order to gain a percentage point or two in the polls.
The leading article in last week’s Spectator, entitled ‘Welfare Wars’, noted
“… when the Chancellor pops up to give a speech, he spends little time trying to mask his underlying aim — which is usually to sock it to Ed Balls, his opposite number. He is a Chancellor-cum-strategist who weighs every policy for the damage it could inflict upon his opponents. And on the issue of welfare, he sees an opportunity to strike. Introducing a benefits cap has been the single toughest policy introduced by this coalition government. It is also the most popular with the public, and the Chancellor seems to find this intoxicating.”
Yet if Osborne really believes that every cut to welfare will be welcomed, no matter how savage, he has misread the British people and will be in for a rude awakening. What the public wants isn’t no welfare, it’s fair welfare.
There is a clear moral difference between paying someone who has never worked benefits that give them an income and lifestyle above the national average, and the state lending a helping hand to people who have fallen on hard times.
A study by the British Social Attitudes project found (in 2011), that 54% of people surveyed agreed with the statement “If welfare benefits weren’t so generous, people would learn to stand on their own two feet.”, while just 20% disagreed. Yet at the same time, 51% of people agreed with the statement “The creation of the welfare state is one of Britain’s proudest achievements”, and only 10% disagreed.
The full report is worth reading as it gives some interesting insights into attitudes by political allegiance, class, and whether the respondent is a benefits claimant or not. For example, 59% of people who either receive benefits or has a spouse who does, think that unemployment benefits are too high and discourages work. The effective tax rate of up to 98% that this creates when people move into work has been one of the mainstays of Duncan-Smith’s efforts, although so far he has yet to find a really satisfactory solution.
Yet again, none of the Westminster Parties are talking the language of their constituents.
Labour seems to have learned none of the lessons that it’s grand experiment into creating a benefits culture have taught us. Miliband is reported to be working very hard to persuade his party simply that people ought to be able to read and write before they go looking for a job.
And whilst there are those in the Conservative Party who ‘get it’, the Tories under Cameron’s leadership have simply lost their heart. Thatcher’s free market revolution was never about cold-hearted capitalism, let alone sinister corporatism, but that has become the take-home message for her party.
This, not the EU question, is why UKIP are enjoying such success in the polls. I left the Conservatives when my district council colleagues voted to increase council tax for the very poorest families in our district by a staggering 1000% – the Conservatives opted for it because it was done so under the guise of ‘cutting benefits’.
I and many others like me came across to UKIP precisely because in our new party we see an opportunity to forge a new kind of politics in Britain: competition-based, yet compassionate.
This article first appeared on The Commentator