Osborne is unafraid of the "nasty party" label. Is he right?

The Chancellor works on the assumption that voters have a boundless appetite for ever tighter welfare limits.

Is there a limit to how hard the coalition can be on people who depend on unemployment benefit? George Osborne clearly calculates that there isn't. Among the announcements in today’s spending review was a further tightening of the conditions to be imposed on people signing on when they lose their jobs. They are:

Introducing upfront work search, requiring all claimants to prepare for work and search for jobs right from the start of their claim;

Introducing weekly rather than fortnightly visits to Jobcentres for half of all jobseekers;

Requiring all unemployed claimants, and those earning less than the Government expects them to, to wait seven days before becoming eligible for financial support;

 Requiring all claimants who are subject to conditionality to verify their claim every year;

 Requiring all claimants whose poor spoken English is a barrier to work to improve their  English language skills; and

 Requiring lone parents who are not working to prepare for work once the youngest child turns three.

According to the Treasury, this will save the taxpayer £350m per year. (See page 7 here.) Hidden in that dry bureaucratic language are measures whose net effect will be to increase the likelihood of people with no money finding themselves without help.

Especially harsh is the obligation to wait seven days before making a claim. This, said the Chancellor, was to make sure people start their job search immediately and don’t just roll up to a Job Centre on day one of their unemployment. What they are expected to do on days 2-6 if their job search isn’t immediately successful isn’t explained.

Besides, the presumption here is that the DWP is a well-oiled machine that efficiently processes benefit claims and disburses money like some social action ATM. That plainly isn’t the case, as anyone who has claimed benefits - or even just met someone who has claimed benefits - would know. The main effect of introducing an arbitrary delay in eligibility will be a hike in rent arrears and a surge in visits to loan sharks.

The stipulation that non-English speakers improve their language skills before claiming is a pretty crude device to show that the government doesn’t like paying benefits to immigrants. How that will be assessed should be interesting to watch. Maybe a private sector provider could be awarded a contract to hurl difficult spellings at people with funny sounding names? The evidence shows that immigrants are proportionately less likely than other sections of the population to claim benefits but that isn’t really the point. It doesn’t take a huge leap of the political imagination to see why the Chancellor came up with this particular wheeze. It is a dash of Ukip-lite in the spending review.

Overall the welfare debate in Britain has become dismal and sterile. Supporters of the Chancellor will today say there is nothing inherently unjust about the new measures – they simply ask that people make the appropriate effort to find work before taking cash from the taxpayer. The left will point out that every increase in “conditionality” amounts to a new hole in the safety net through which vulnerable people fall, leading to deeper poverty, social problems and  – if you want to be all utilitarian about it – higher costs to the taxpayer in the long run.

The opposition will denounce the measures and then refuse to say whether or not it would reverse them. The Tories will jeer. Labour will tie itself in little angsty knots trying to work out whether it is supposed to be channeling the anger of voters against a faulty benefits system it generally failed to reform during 13 years in power or debunking welfare myths and reversing prejudices against benefit claimants.

Immigrants, the unemployed and single mums will drop another rung down the social hierarchy as the supposed authors of their own immiseration. I have asked very well-placed Tories if they are ever worried that at some point this strategy – mining ever deeper into people’s resentment of the way their neighbours appear to game the benefits system  - will backfire. Is there a compassion threshold beyond which voters will recoil from the harsh language and the social consequences of a brutal welfare settlement. (The myth that there is anything generous about the UK’s provision is well addressed here.) The answer from Treasury sources is “no”. I have been told by one senior  advisor that, having looked at opinion polls, the Chancellor has concluded that he would struggle to meet the public’s appetite for welfare crackdowns. Some Conservatives are more cautious, insisting that the party has to be very careful about the language it uses in this context – no explicit references to “scroungers”. “More in sorrow than in anger” is the guidance from one Tory strategist on the tone MPs should take when talking about benefit cuts.

Still, I find it hard to believe that the Tory party, given the whole legacy of brand toxicity from the 1980s and 1990s – the “nasty party” image – won’t eventually suffer some kind of backlash in connection with this stuff. As I’ve written before, voters are capable of holding two contradictory thoughts in their heads at the same time: first, yes we wanted you to cut the benefits bill but, second, in so doing you have reinforced every suspicion we had that you are mean at heart.

Maybe Osborne is right. Perhaps there is no bottom – the axe can go ever deeper, the sanctions can get tougher, the dividing lines with Labour can grow wider. Cracking down on welfare could be the political gift that keeps on giving for the Tories. But there are also swing voters who struggle to put their cross in the Conservative box on polling day because they feel that, ultimately, it is a party that has it in for foreigners, single mums, disabled people, the sick, the poor. Today the Chancellor didn’t do much to persuade them otherwise.

George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street on August 11, 2011 (Getty Images)

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser