Memo to Duncan Smith: low wages are not an argument for cutting benefits

The fact that benefits have risen faster than wages is an argument for higher wages, not lower benefits.

The latest argument deployed by Iain Duncan Smith in favour of the government's plan to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent for the next three years (below the rate of inflation) is that benefits have risen faster than private sector wages. The Work and Pensions Secretary is highlighting figures showing that the former have increased by an average of 20 per cent over the last five years (in line with inflation), while the latter have increased by 12 per cent. The statistics aren't new but the government's decision to publicise them shows that it fears Labour, which has denounced the policy as a "strivers' tax" (60 per cent of the real-terms cut falls on working families), may be shifting public opinion against the bill. While the polling results are mixed, one recent survey by Ipsos MORI found that 69 per cent believe that benefits should increase in line with inflation or more. (Conversely, a YouGov poll found that 52 per cent believe Osborne was right to increase benefits by 1 per cent, while a ComRes poll put support at 49 per cent.)

Duncan Smith said today: "Working people across the country have been tightening their belts after years of pay restraint while at the same time watching benefits increase. That is not fair. The welfare state under Labour effectively trapped thousands of families into dependency as it made no sense to give up the certainty of a benefit payment in order to go back to work."

In response, Labour has rightly pointed out that over the last ten years, as opposed to five, wages have risen faster than benefits. Jobseeker's allowance, for instance, has increased from £53.95 a week to £71, a rise of 32 per cent, while wages have increased by 36 per cent, from an average of £347 a week to £471. The current trend is a temporary quirk caused by the recession.

But even if we accept Duncan Smith's baseline, his logic is profoundly flawed. The fact that benefits have risen faster than wages is an argument for increasing wages (for instance, by ensuring greater payment of the living wage), not for cutting benefits. Many of those whose wages have failed to keep pace with inflation actually rely on in-work benefits such as tax credits to protect their living standards. The government's decision to cut these benefits in real-terms will further squeeze their disposable income. In the case of those out-of-work, ensuring that benefits rise in line with inflation is essential both as a matter of social justice - cutting support for the poorest means forcing even more families to choose between heating and eating - and of economic policy. Most claimants can't afford to save, so spend whatever they receive and stimulate the economy as a result. If anything, the government should be considering above-inflation increases in benefits to maintain consumer demand.

When Duncan Smith complains that benefits have risen faster than wages, he is really complaining that wages have risen more slowly than inflation (and are expected to continue to do so until at least 2014). But rather than prompting the government to slash benefits, this grim statistic should prompt it to pursue a genuine growth strategy that ensures more people have access to adequately paid employment. That, however, remains a distant hope.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said it was "not fair" that benefits had risen faster than wages. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder