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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The DUP scored £1bn for just ten votes – so why be optimistic about our EU deal?

By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of laws and treaties with 27 ­countries.

If Theresa May’s government negotiates with the European Union as well as it negotiated with the Democratic Unionist Party, it’s time to cross your fingers and desperately hope you have a secret ­Italian grandfather. After all, you’ll be wanting another passport when all this is over.

The Northern Irish party has played an absolute blinder, securing not only £1bn in extra funding for the region, but ensuring that the cash is handed over even if the power-sharing agreement or its Westminster confidence-and-supply arrangement fails.

At one point during the negotiations, the DUP turned their phones off for 36 hours. (Who in Westminster knew it was physically possible for a human being to do this?) Soon after, needling briefings emerged in the media that they were also talking to Labour and the Lib Dems. In the end, they’ve secured a deal where they support the government and get the Short money available only to opposition parties. I’m surprised Arlene Foster didn’t ask for a few of the nicer chairs in Downing Street on her way out.

How did this happen? When I talked to Sam McBride of the Belfast News Letter for a BBC radio programme days before the pact was announced, he pointed out that the DUP are far more used to this kind of rough and tumble than the Conservatives. Northern Irish politics is defined by deal-making, and the DUP need no reminder of what can happen to minnows in a multiparty system if they don’t convince their voters of their effectiveness.

On 8 June, the DUP and Sinn Fein squeezed out Northern Ireland’s smaller parties, such as the SDLP and the Alliance, from the region’s Westminster seats. (McBride also speculated on the possibility of trouble ahead for Sinn Fein, which ran its campaign on the premise that “abstentionism works”. What happens if an unpopular Commons vote passes that could have been defeated by its seven MPs?)

The DUP’s involvement in passing government bills, and the price the party has extracted for doing so, are truly transformative to British politics – not least for the public discussion about austerity. That turns out to be, as we suspected all along, a political rather than an economic choice. As such, it becomes much harder to defend.

Even worse for the government, southern Europe is no longer a basket case it can point to when it wants to scare us away from borrowing more. The structural problems of the eurozone haven’t gone away, but they have receded to the point where domestic voters won’t see them as a cautionary tale.

It is notable that the Conservatives barely bothered to defend their economic record during the election campaign, preferring to focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s spending plans. In doing so, they forgot that many of those who voted Leave last year – and who were confidently expected to “come home” to the Conservatives – did so because they wanted £350m a week for the NHS. The Tories dropped the Cameron-era argument of a “long-term economic plan” that necessitated short-term sacrifices. They assumed that austerity was the New Normal.

However, the £1bn the government has just found down the back of the sofa debunks that, and makes Conservative spending decisions for the rest of the parliament fraught. With such a slim majority, even a small backbench rebellion – certainly no bigger than the one that was brewing over tax-credit cuts until George Osborne relen­ted – could derail the Budget.

One of the worst points of Theresa May’s election campaign was on the BBC ­Question Time special, when she struggled to tell a nurse why her pay had risen so little since 2009. “There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want,” the Prime Minister admonished. Except, of course, there is a magic money tree, and May has just given it a damn good shake and scrumped all the cash-apples that fell from it.

That short-term gain will store up long-term pain, if the opposition parties are canny enough to exploit it. In the 2015 election, the claim that the SNP would demand bungs from Ed Miliband to prop up his government was a powerful argument to voters in England and Wales that they should vote Conservative. Why should their hospitals and schools be left to moulder while the streets of Paisley were paved in gold?

The attack also worked because it was a proxy for concerns about Miliband’s weakness as a leader. Well, it’s hard to think of a prime minister in a weaker position than May is right now. The next election campaign will make brutal use of this.

Northern Ireland might deserve a greater wodge of redistribution than the Barnett formula already delivers – it has lower life expectancy, wages and productivity than the British average – but the squalid way the money has been delivered will haunt the Tories. It also endangers one of the Conservatives’ crucial offers to their base: that they are the custodians of “sound money” and “living within our means”.

Labour, however, has not yet quite calibrated its response to the DUP’s new-found influence. Its early attacks focused on the party’s social conservatism, pointing out that it is resolutely anti-abortion and has repeatedly blocked the extension of equal marriage through “petitions of concern” at Stormont.

This tub-thumping might have fired up Labour’s socially progressive supporters in the rest of the UK, but it alienated some in Northern Ireland who resent their politicians being seen as fundamentalist yokels. (Only they get to call the DUP that: not Londoners who, until three weeks ago, thought Arlene Foster was the judge who got sacked from Strictly Come Dancing.)

And remember: all this was to get just ten MPs onside. By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of legislation and treaties with 27 other European ­countries. Ha. Hahaha. Hahaha.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

0800 7318496