The twisted logic of making the poor poorer

Ministers seem genuinely to believe that fear and stress are the keys to lifting people out of poverty.

Lord Freud thinks we have a “dreadful welfare system”. No surprise there – the peer has been trying to tinker with, pull apart and generally undermine the benefits system since the partially-implemented 2007 Freud Report – but this time, he’s getting his way with the introduction of Universal Credit. Freud’s answer to the problem of those who don’t have enough is in reach, and it’s a counterintuitive one: what those who already have little need is … even less.

Sound confusing? I’ll let Freud explain in his own words to House magazine: “We have, through our welfare system, created a system which has made [people who are poorer] reluctant to take risks.” Single parents, those with disabilities, the long-term sick – according to Freud, you’ve all just got too comfortable in the “lifestyle” that welfare has afforded you. But lucky for you, Freud’s going to help you hit rock bottom so you can bounce right back up again.

Thanks to Freud’s comments, the incoherence of Universal Credit starts to look like some sort of plan. Over the last few weeks, organisations including the Chartered Institute of Housing and the Joseph Rowntree foundation have issued warnings about what they politely suggest might be the unintended consequences of Universal Credit.

According to the CIH, Universal Credit will leave 400,000 of the UK’s poorest worse off in 2015 than they were in 2010. Families with a weekly household income of £247 will have less; lone parents, whatever their income, lose out.

Meanwhile, the JRF points out that small financial gains will be wiped out by transport and childcare costs under UC, and the withdrawal of benefits such as free school meals and free prescriptions creates a “cliff edge” – incomes will simply drop off once they pass a certain point. And all that assumes the system even works, which seems optimistic given the disaster that accompanied the roll out of Working and Family Tax Credits. With no clear plans for stand-by arrangements in case of failure, the JRF warns that recipients will be forced to start their UC claims in debt.

One might suspect that this financial hammering of those least able to take it is a clerical error, the sort of terrible disaster inflicted by careless meddling in a complex system. But Freud makes it sound as if this is exactly what he planned in the first place. The more stretched your resources, the more Freud sees a moral imperative to thin them down still further until, with nothing left to lose, you might as well risk it all. 

It’s hard to imagine what kind of “risks” Freud imagines a household with less than £247 a week should take. Moving away from established support networks of families, school, friends and social workers to live wherever the council decides you can be cheaply shuffled is one risk. Moving back in with a violent ex because you can’t sustain your children alone? That’s another risk Universal Credit will force people into making. Sofa-surfing, shoplifting, streetwalking: all these are the kind of risks open to a person with nothing to rely on. Risk taking (the positive, speculate-to-accumulate kind that Freud wants you to think of when he says “risk”) is something you do when you have a surplus.

If you have barely enough, of course you live cautiously - not because your luxurious £247 a week has pampered your capitalist instincts into submission, but because if any chunk of that £247 goes to the wrong place or fails to arrive one week, you and your family go under. It’s almost as if Freud doesn’t understand the economics of risk at all; and given that he previously worked in the City, making him an industrial affiliate of those bankers whose desperate miscalculation of risk helped to demolish the world economy, it’s entirely plausible that he really doesn’t.

But there’s at least one person who won’t be risking anything under Universal Credit: Lord Freud. He promises that he’s been listening to feedback, taking advice, keeping himself covered. “I don’t skinny dip, I always have my trunks on,” he promises, summoning a hideous image of him diving into a pool full of benefit claimants and rubbing his Speedo area all over them. You can be certain that many of the worst off will do worse still under Freud’s Universal Credit: they’re the ones being left to take their chances.

The benefits 'lifestyle' is holding people back, says the architect of government welfare reforms. Source: Getty Images

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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