Work & Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith arrives in Downing Street. Image: Getty
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Laurie Penny on welfare reform: Iain Duncan Smith had an epiphany, and it meant nothing

The religious language of sin and shame informs Tory welfare rhetoric, with its pulpit-thumping over "strivers" and "scroungers". But their overhaul has nothing to do with compassion or principle.

It is apparently known as the Easterhouse epiphany. One day in 2002, Iain Duncan Smith, then leader of the Conservative Party, now Work and Pensions Secretary, walked around the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow. He was reputedly so shocked by the deprivation he saw there, he decided that the welfare state needed to be destroyed, or at least completely rethought and rebuilt.
 
“I am happy to believe that Easterhouse was a critical moment for my policy,” Duncan Smith has said, “not because I hadn’t thought about this before – I had been beginning to find my way forward – but because I just realised there was something more to understand.” According to Iain Martin at the Telegraph, it was one of “the most remarkable and laudable conversions in public life for many a decade”.
 
In this conversion narrative of Conservative dogma, IDS is recast as a modern-day Siddhartha Gautama. Like the Indian prince who would one day become the Buddha, the Quiet Man descends from his palace of privilege to walk among the poor and needy, jolted by his encounter with inequality into a life of unstinting compassion. Except that nowhere is it written that the Buddha ever told a Treasury staffer that he would “bite [his] balls off and send them to [him] in a box”.
 
I have been attempting of late to write with more kindness. I have been trying to avoid spurious, ad hominemattacks and to argue with issues, not individuals.
 
So when I say that Iain Duncan Smith is a second-rate thinker and a third-rate leader who is wrecking civil society with his misguided moral crusade, I want you to understand that I mean it.
 
IDS, whose abbreviated name makes him sound like a chronic stomach complaint, is not the only Tory frontbencher to pretend to be on a quasireligious, reforming crusade. But he seems to approach his work with particular fervour and self-righteous indignation.
 
You can see it in his tantrums when someone questions his judgement in public. You can read about it in reports of aides, staffers and associates being reduced to tears or filing claims about alleged bullying on the job. When interrogated about the computer problems – or digital omnishambles, if you like – that has accompanied the introduction of the Universal Credit, IDS told parliament that the new benefit reforms aren’t really about practical matters, such as the proposed IT support system not working at all, but about “cultural change”.
 
The choice of wording is significant. It doesn’t matter whether or not Universal Credit will work in practice – and, indeed, its rollout has already been scaled back and delayed. What matters is changing the “culture”, from one in which everyone was entitled to a decent standard of living, and unemployment or illness did not have to trigger destitution, to one in which poverty and inequality are morally justified. After all, Universal Credit is intended to make “work pay” – whatever that means.
 
It is, we are told, all about morality, all about virtue and not at all about ability to work. The pittance on which people on unemployment benefit are expected to live – just 13 per cent of the average wage – is rephrased as care and concern, in the way Puritan leaders once proposed that whipping, ducking and dismemberment would not just punish sin but also save the soul.
 
IDS is, in fact, one of Britain’s most influential Roman Catholics. He surrounds himself with like-minded advisers, many of whom who are also deeply religious. The language of sin and shame informs Tory welfare rhetoric, with its pulpit-thumping over “strivers” and “scroungers”.
 
One doubts, however, that Jesus would approve of what the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is doing, given that the Nazarene was reputedly quite keen on feeding the poor. The benefit changes that began in April have already driven a threefold increase in the number of families relying on food banks. And yet, when the DWP redefines removing support from those who take home less than the minimum wage, including many of the 5.5 million Britons now on zero-hours contracts, as “support[ing] people to increase their earnings”, it is somehow taken seriously.
 
Somehow, it is now ethically acceptable for the top 1 per cent of earners to receive a tax cut worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, even as we are told that this country can no longer afford basic benefits.
 
We are told that the new puritan, anti-welfare evangelism is about compassion and about principle – a real moral crusade against “welfare dependency”. And if that were true, I could respect it.
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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