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Cameron’s desperate offer to voters: nastiness in the national interest

The high point of public enthusiasm for the Tories' welfare policies is now.

The Conservative Party is running out of ways to be liked. David Cameron is much prefered to Ed Miliband as a leader; George Osborne is trusted to run the economy more than Ed Balls. But there remains a stubborn cohort of voters, around 40 per cent, which refuses even to countenance the idea of voting Tory. This is the sticky residue of the "nasty party" label that no amount of scrubbing away at the brand seems to shift. It is the presumption shared by millions of people that the Conservatives simply aren't for the likes of them.

The resilience of this prejudice is weighing on the party's strategic minds. Andrew Cooper, Downing Street's resident pollster, has surveyed the land for deposits of potential support to be mined. In a recent presentation at a party away day, he highlighted voter reserves in urban constituencies in the north of England. Wales presents a few opportunities. Scotland is a write-off.

Meanwhile, Conservative MPs have been instructed to befriend their local minority-ethnic communities. They have also been reminded to avoid sounding like flint-hearted actuaries when explaining that painful measures are necessary to control the Budget deficit.

The harder it gets to imagine a great surge of affection for the Tories, the more emphasis they place on the policies that do enjoy mass support. Above all, that means faith in the talismanic power of benefit cuts.

Reductions in the welfare budget of £18bn will leave millions worse off. Ordinarily, such a brazen raid on the pockets of the poorest citizens would damage a political party. The Tories can do it because enough people are persuaded that the money represents the last government's subsidy for idleness and an affront to anyone who works for a living.

If the cap fits

Labour is losing this argument and knows it. The government's plan to cap the amount any household can receive at £26,000 – roughly equivalent to an average family income – is especially popular. Many would have the cap much lower. As one shadow minister put it to me, shortly before voting against the measure in parliament: "The only thing my constituents are taking out of this debate is: 'Wow! Can you really get 26 grand on benefits?'" (You can't. The highest payouts are for housing benefit in London, which goes straight to landlords, although that is hardly a more defensible subsidy.)

George Osborne, Cameron's election strategist as well as his Chancellor, is convinced that benefit-bashing has little or no downside. Even when the government encounters resistance to its plans – as recently over a scheme that prodded benefit claimants into unpaid work experience – the message gets across that Tories aim to turn slackers into strivers.

But the effectiveness of that message relies on two promises. First, there will be jobs for those that seek them. Second, welfare will be reformed so it is always more lucrative to work than to sign on. Both propositions look shaky.

Intractable unemployment is already threatening to derail the Work Programme, a vast scheme under which the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) uses private companies and charities to place people in jobs. The service providers are paid according to how effectively they steer their "customers" off benefits. Many complain in private that labour-market conditions are making their contracts unviable. A high-profile bankruptcy or an embarrassing government bailout looms.

Meanwhile, the Universal Credit, Iain Duncan Smith's grand project to simplify the benefits system and eliminate perverse disincentives to work, is bogged down in technical difficulty. It was initially conceived as the Work and Pensions Secretary's moral crusade against welfare dependency. It is a labour of love. Unfortunately, love can't commission the complex IT system required to integrate a sprawling mass of disparate entitlements. Nor can it manage relations with the Treasury and local government, without whose co-operation a unified benefits system is impossible.

There is a growing feeling across Whitehall that Duncan Smith and the DWP are bungling the operation and that an October 2013 deadline for delivery looks wildly optimistic. The likeliest outcome is what one senior official describes as "the existing benefits system, slightly tweaked, with a blanket thrown over it".

Off the rails

There is, in other words, no welfare revolution, just cuts. The impact will be felt increasingly by people who have jobs but rely on benefits to stay in their homes, and people who are disabled or chronically ill. Persistent unemployment will make it harder to accuse those who can't find work of not looking hard enough. Shock at a rise in homelessness and conspicuous poverty will make demands on the nation's conscience that compete with confected rage at Labour's spending legacy.

That doesn't mean the opposition will start winning arguments on welfare. Labour needs to have a line before it can defend one. It does, however, seem likely that the high point of public enthusiasm for the Tory position is now. There is a nasty edge to Conservative language around benefits. It is meant to be balanced by the compassionate impulse behind Duncan Smith's reforms, but good intentions cannot stop the IDS train from leaving the rails.

What then will make the Tories liked? The limitations on the party's electoral prospects have been camouflaged by success in controlling the terms of economic debate. The question of whether people like being governed by Conservatives has been subsumed by the argument that, given Labour's supposed vandalism of the public finances, no credible alternative exists.

Cameron more or less admitted that much in a speech to the party faithful on 3 March. "True compassion isn't wearing your heart on your sleeve," he said. "It's rolling up those sleeves and taking the long-term decisions that will really change our country for the better."

Unable to persuade the public that the Tories can be nice, Cameron is forced to offer nasty in the national interest. It is a proposition that failed to win a majority at the last election. There is no obvious reason why it should work better next time.

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

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.