Want to reduce the benefits bill? Encourage strikes

The Government should be helping strikers if they want to save money on tax credits.

The Government's plan to use the benefits system to punish low-paid workers for striking is more than just an astonishing attack on the right of the lowest-paid workers in Britain to strike. It is also a false economy.

The aim is ostensibly to reduce the benefit bill by not "subsidising" strikers who earn under £13,000, or whose strikes take their income below that level. Yet the only reason those strikers cost the benefit system anything is because we as a society understand that, to have an acceptable quality of life, you need to earn more than many jobs pay. As a result, we have a welfare state designed to top up the incomes of the poorest in society.

There are two ways to reduce that benefit bill. The first is to lower our standards when it comes to how we can accept the poorest living. In many other actions, the government have pursued this course – that's why we saw, for example, a cap on total benefits, which has the the effect of lowing the standard of living for anyone on benefits in central London with "too many" children. And its sort of what the government are doing in this case, telling strikers that they are prepared to countenance them having a worse standard of living than non-strikers.

But the other way to reduce the benefit bill is to make sure that people earn more. The higher someone's wage, the fewer benefits they can claim. And one of the best ways to do that is by encouraging strong unionisation.

The TUC reports (pdf) that unionised workers earn, on average, 12.5 per cent more than non-unionised ones. Clearly some causality goes both ways – many of the poorest workers are temps, for example, who find it extremely difficult to unionise – but it is inarguable that the union movement has resulted, in its hundreds of years of history, in massive material improvements to the living standards of the worst paid. And all of their success comes down, in the end, to the power of the strike.

Fewer strikers means weaker unions, and weaker unions means, eventually, worse paid workers. Which all plays back into a higher benefits bill for this and future Governments.

So if Iain Duncan Smith wants to attack the very concept of unions, he's going the right way about it, but if he wants to save his Government money, it's just another false economy.

A striking worker holds up a sign. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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