David Cameron promises opportunity for the few and hopelessness for the rest

Under the Conservatives' new plans to remedy the “something for nothing culture” in the UK, you will now be getting nothing for something.

There is now a well established pattern of the Conservative Party kicking the poorest, in reaction to a crisis. It is like a nervous tic. If an asteroid threatened the earth with imminent Armageddon, their reaction - I am quite sure - would be to privatise all observatories, give a tax break to a restrictively defined class of married astronaut and cut all benefits.

After a very successful Labour Party conference, George Osborne announced wide ranging schemes which would once and for all tackle the “something for nothing culture” in the UK. I was very willing to listen. If anyone knows about the “something for nothing culture”, after all, it is a man who inherited his considerable wealth and flipped his taxpayer-funded constituency home for a profit of £400k; the only man in history whose CV reads “Data Entry Clerk, Towel Folder, Member of Parliament, Chancellor of the Exchequer”. This comes less than a week after revealing he is launching a legal challenge against the EU, at taxpayers’ expense, to protect grotesque Bankers’ bonuses. Protecting the people whose selfish and malicious decisions caused this crisis, while punishing the many innocents who lost their living as a result of it.

Never mind the fact that workfare schemes of the kind proposed do absolutely nothing to create jobs and their success in getting people to work is questionable, at best. Never mind that no work has been done to model whether such schemes actually cannibalise real jobs and have a deflationary effect on wages. The report the government itself commissioned to look at such schemes abroad concluded that “Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.” Never mind that, rather than eliminating the “something for nothing culture”, these schemes actually elevate it to the corporate level.  

The popularity of such initiatives is predicated on a bizarre form of reverse social envy against those less fortunate; built on stories of rhetorical drawn curtains and fictional families no member of which has worked in three generations. “Getting up early in the morning and doing something I hate for money is what I have to do. You should have to, too. Even if it is entirely counterproductive.” That seems to be the cri-de-coeur rising from the people whom the Tories claim to represent. Those “hardworking taxpayers” so self-sufficient they do not even need hyphens.

“Is this the start of a process where people will work for no salary?” asked a BBC News anchor. “Not quite. They will still get benefits,” countered their chief political correspondent, Norman Smith. But here is a question which has not been answered: if National Insurance no longer insures me against unemployment - one of the key elements for which both I and my employer pay it – why should we still be paying it at precisely the same rate? To cross-subsidise a cut of the top rate of tax? To pay for the pensions’ liability of Royal Mail employees, long after we have sold the assets? To fund legal action which seeks to protect City bonuses?

The whole concept of insurance is that you pay into it, knowing you may never need it, in order to purchase peace of mind. Nobody would stand for a car insurer suddenly turning around and asking its customers to do a bit of free work in its offices in order for their claim to be honoured. It may be emotionally easy to support such schemes if you connect them to rare but overly publicised cases of people defrauding the state. It is less easy to support them if you connect them to, for instance, military personnel which were dumped en mass by the 2010 review, have had great trouble getting back into the civilian workforce and many of whom will be coming up to two years unemployed soon. Lloyd George, introducing the National Insurance bill to Parliament in 1911, called it “a measure that will relieve untold misery in myriads of homes — misery that is undeserved; that will help to prevent a good deal of wretchedness.” The only thing that has changed, subtly but insidiously, appears to be public perception of “undeserved”.

What do these measures, which you may support emotionally, mean for you logically? Do they not vitiate one of the most important principles of our society? How certain are you that you or your children will not find yourselves cleaning graffiti or sweeping streets in two year’s time, for no remuneration other than the luxury of claiming back from a system into which you have paid? Will our lives be better or worse for the lack of that safety net? Now, you may answer all those questions in a way which confirms your support of such punitive measures. But at least make sure you ask them.

Cameron went further on Wednesday. He announced proposals to withdraw housing benefit, possibly all benefits, from under 25s. Again, very little thought has gone on the economic effect on parents, who will have to subsidise their children for seven years more than they might have budgeted. Not to mention the human cost for families who cannot afford to. That, in a nutshell, is what one gets with the Conservatives. A transfer of liability, en mass, from the state to the citizen, while personal and indirect taxation add up to more and more and, crucially, unbeknown to most the national debt continues to increase from under £800bn in 2010 to an eye-watering £1.4trn in 2015. Sorry to inform you, some “tough decisions” have had to be made. You are now getting nothing for something. Paying National Insurance, then having to work below minimum wage for your payout. Paying to buy shares in a mail service you already own and end up not owning it.

Certainty for corporations. Uncertainty for individuals. Land of opportunity for the few. Wasteland of hopelessness for the rest. The relentless focus is on creating an environment of advantage and security for business – and only large multinational business, at that – so that they may budget, invest and thrive. The implication is that individuals do not budget, do not invest and do not deserve to thrive. Were you planning to retire around 60? Did you think you had discharged your financial responsibility to your offspring when they reached majority? Were you under the impression that paying into a social security kitty granted you to some level of social security?

Not to worry, though; at least both you and your neighbour have to open your curtains at the same time in the morning. Which is what really matters, right?

When the going gets tough, the Conservatives kick the poorest. Photo: Getty

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times