The welfare debate and the end of reason

The way in which the entire debate on benefits seems to be taking place entirely outside the realms of logic seems unprecedented, says Alex Andreou.

I am quite frightened. There have always been some unreasonable people in politics. However, the way in which the entire debate on benefits seems to be taking place entirely outside the realms of logic, seems unprecedented. The way in which evidence is openly sneered at, is nothing short of medieval. The End of Reason.

People going to work early in the morning were stopped outside a London tube station and "vox-popped" by Channel 4 News.

"What do you think about the proposed cap on benefits?", they were asked. "If I have to get up and go to work, I don't see why they shouldn't have to", said one person. "I think it's fair," said another. Challenged by the reporter on whether it's fair on someone who has just been made redundant and has been paying tax and NI for years, she added "well, obviously not them".

The debate earlier in the House of Commons displayed equal levels of Daily Mail common sense. A hissing Kris Hopkins MP suggested that unemployment was "a lifestyle choice". Aidan Burley MP - you know, the one that thinks Nazis are an appropriate theme for a party - read out a letter from an unnamed constituent, relating how she had heard from an unnamed friend, that she was claiming five hundred pounds a week in benefits.

Asked about trial schemes today, Chris Grayling - the dude in charge of Justice, no less - said: “The last Government was obsessed with pilots. Sometimes you just have to believe in something and do it.” That's right. None of your namby-pamby, pinko-leftie evidence rubbish. YEAH. We just think of stuff and do it. And, as the last budget proved, then hastily undo it.

And so it goes, the End of Reason.

A national debate, orchestrated from the top down, which cares not a jot for facts or evidence. Facilitated by the poison pumped daily through our television set, which has seeped so deep into our national muscle memory that we are no longer able to distinguish between Jeremy Kyle guests, chosen because they make for good voyeurism, and ordinary decent people. Our reaction as considered as that of a patellar ligament to a doctor's reflex hammer.

So, how do we fight it? Anger may well provide the energy, but it is not the whole answer. Reason, logic, truth are - and have always been - the precision instruments for dissecting hysterical phobias.

The Conservatives will continue to speak the language of fear. It suits them; it is all they know. They released this image yesterday.

Look at that little arrow. You're only getting that now. Look at that BIG ARROW. Someone else is getting that. Look at what all that scrounger waste can win you. Iain, show the contestants what is behind door number 1. Doctors! And behind door number 2? Teachers! And let's open door number 3. A tax cut of ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY POUNDS!

How exciting. So, what are we getting for sentencing two million innocent children to hunger? Well,  in fact, none of the above. NHS frontline staff numbers are declining, education is being hung, drawn and privatised and the tax burden on the majority of the electorate is higher than when the coalition took over.

But at least my arrow will get bigger, right?

Guess again. Quite contrary to the rhetoric of "making work pay" this measure does absolutely nothing to improve what work pays. As a matter of fact, making the 9 unemployed people chasing every 1 vacancy that much more desperate, is likely to have a deflationary effect on your wages. Your arrow is shrinking.

But at least this will get people back to work - the government keeps saying that. That's true, isn't it?

Wrong again. This bill does not create a single job. Indeed, the IMF recently admitted that cutting of precisely this sort has a disproportionately negative effect on growth. Essentially, by reducing the spending power of people who spend all their income on necessary goods and services (rather than those who squirrel it away in tropical island tax havens), local businesses sell less and the economy contracts.

What's that, Channel-4-News-lady-outside-the-tube-station? You work in a shop? Not for long. Soon, you will get your wish fulfilment. In a way. You won't have to resent those who don't get up to go to work. You will join them; with the added bonus of having the government that made you unemployed call you vermin. It may not be economic growth, but it is an opportunity for personal growth, don't you think?

So, what does it actually do, this bill? The short version: it attempts to plug a hole in the Government's forecasts, which keep getting revised down and down and further down, as if calculated by an over-enthusiastic limbo dancer. Only the savings are small, the hole is massive and their policies (including this one) are making it bigger. So, it's more like throwing a single shrimp into a shark's gaping mouth. Bad news for the shrimp, little effect on your chances of survival.

The added bonus is that nobody seems to be talking about huge multinationals paying no tax in this country, about which everybody seemed to be talking a month ago.

The End of Reason.

Several coalition MPs even suggested a link between rises in tax credits and the financial crisis. "Is there a direct correlation between the time that tax credits started," asked Marcus Jones MP, and "the start of the financial crisis"?

I would love to tell you that Hansard recorded the response: "Which crisis? The global one? The one that started in Iceland in financial institutions, spread to US  financial institutions and eventually reached the financial institutions of the UK? Of course there is no correlation, direct or indirect, you fucking numpty."

Sadly, the response by Alun Cairns MP was: "My Hon. Friend makes an excellent point". Pretty much any point is an excellent point, when you are witnessing the End of Reason.

An estate in Rochdale, named the most deprived area in the UK. Photo: Getty

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle