Iain Duncan Smith: "Been there, done that" on £53 a week. He hasn't

IDS used the welfare state in his youth, and now he's pulling the ladder up behind him.

Iain Duncan Smith has doubled down on his claim that if he "had to" he could live on £53 a week, telling his local newspaper:

I have been unemployed twice in my life so I have already done this (lived on the equivalent of £53 a week). I know what it is like to live on the breadline.

He told the Daily Mail today about when he lost his job in 1992:

The company literally stopped working and like a number of people I was made redundant. I was shocked, but I had to go home and tell my wife that the wheels had come off the bus.

It took about three months to find a job. I picked up the paper every day, put a ring round all the job ads. I went to the library, looked up the stock market yearbook, wrote blind letters to people, used my Amstrad computer every day to look for work. Every bloody day I had to look for work. One of those blind letters got me in to an interview.

So I don’t need any lessons from people about living on a low income and making ends meet. I have done it twice and I know what it’s like to have to been made unemployed and to struggle. I’ve been there, done it.

He was also unemployed for a short period in 1981, after leaving the military.

Iain Duncan Smith has been unemployed for a short period twice. Both times, he made it through on not very much money, but always had the social safety net behind him if his savings ran out. Now he is safely in a career which will keep him well paid for life, he is claiming that that experience gives him the right to pull the ladder up behind him.

In 1981, unemployment benefit was £20.65 per week. In 1992, it was £43.10 per week. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, at April 2011 prices (deflated by RPI), those equate to £69.67 per week and £72.79 per week. When Iain Duncan Smith was unemployed for the first time, unemployment benefit was 18.7 per cent of average earnings. When he was unemployed for the second time, it was 14.1 per cent of average earnings.

At April 2011 prices, the £53 Iain Duncan Smith's department will be handing over is worth £50.17. That is 8.7 per cent of average earnings.

Iain Duncan Smith has not "been there, done that". When he went through his short periods of unemployment, 20 and 30 years ago, the social safety net was strong. The first time he was unemployed, he could have received almost a fifth of the average weekly earnings. The second time, he could have received a seventh. He's trying to claim that that experience means that he knows what it's like to live on less than a twelfth.

To put it another way, the value of what you can buy with unemployment benefit has remained pretty constant for the last 40 years. Iain Duncan Smith lived through a period when he could have that much – around £70 at 2011 prices – twice. He says that that means he has experience living on almost a quarter less again.

Iain Duncan Smith. 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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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.