Sunday 31 March 2013

The War on the Poor

April 1st is usually the time for a bit of a knockabout. Indeed, you can expect bouts of the usual silliness tomorrow. David Cameron and Nick Clegg to record Especially For You for charidee? Brilliant. Harry Cole taken on as Number 10 press officer? What a hoot. Boris Johnson to go for Prime Minister? Chortle. But while Tory ministers are chuckling over their cold meats and croissants, few of them will be sparing a thought for the hammer they're smashing down on our poorest and most vulnerable households. For April Fools' Day this year will live in infamy as hundreds of thousands of low paid, unemployed and disabled people will get mugged by a combination of cuts to tax credits, the bedroom tax, council tax rises, social security cap, and abolition of the Social Fund. And to top it all, this denial of resource to the poor is to directly fill the pockets of the rich with their millionaires' tax cut. Redistributive policies are alive and well in Tory Britain, it would seem.

According to The Sun(!), 2.4m families will have to find an extra £138 to pay their Council Tax, while some 660,000 households in social housing will have to find between £14 and £25/week if they are found to be "under-occupying" under the government's despicable criteria. The Indy paints an even worse picture - the cumulative changes (which the government has refused to assess) could see some households lose £93/week. And on top of that, one week later disabled people in receipt of Disability Living Allowance will be clobbered by the introduction of Personal Independence Payments, which is governed by a series of tougher criteria driven by budgetary savings as opposed to the actual needs of those forced to subsist on it.

And what have the government got to say about it all? Danny Alexander rants about so-called 'bedroom blockers'. This is ostensibly directed at the likes of Bob Crow and Frank Dobson who, as well-to-do current and former council housing tenants respectively, should not occupy social housing. So much for the vision of building for mixed and cohesive communities that drove post-war town planners, this grubby rhetoric is trying to turn tenant against tenant and reinforce the right-wing view that social housing should be ghettoes for the poor. And how long before 'bedroom blocker' is extended to label each and every under-occupier? With Alexander it's very much the case of looking from Tory to LibDem, and from LibDem to Tory ...

Unbelievably, this isn't today's most crass offering from the front bench. In a puff-piece in The Mail, Esther McVey, the Minister for the Disabled is quoted as saying, "Only three per cent of people are born with a disability, the rest acquire it through accident or illness, but people come out of it. Thanks to medical advances, bodies heal." Next time I deal with someone coughing up their lungs with asbestosis, I'll be sure to ask what their plans are after they get better.

If how a society treats its poorest and most vulnerable is a measure of how civilised it is, we're on the slippery slope to barbarism. Not even a ghost of patrician responsibility is left. That value was long ago exorcised from this neoliberal Tory party of overt class war. As this report argues, the media and politicians have consistently pushed six myths about the poor: they are lazy, they're drug and drink-addled, they're not really poor, they milk social security, they lead an easy life, and are responsible for the deficit. It's pernicious, dehumanising, scapegoating stuff, and - unfortunately - there's always been a constituency who readily lap it up.

Is there more to it than social Darwinism, headline-chasing, and vote-grubbing? Yes. There's always more.

This Liberal Democrat-supported Conservative government is ideological to its core. And by ideology, I mean in the sense of being driven by a set of discredited ideas that fly in the face of reality. As a party/movement undergoing decomposition and terminal decline. As the long-term tendency is showing no sign of abating, this parliamentary term is the one shot they've got at shaping the kind of Britain they want. Dehumanising the poor is integral to it. They understand tilting cultural change and common sense goes some way to rendering their pitifully but purposely inadequate social security support system permanent, and make it easy for them to leverage further policy influence when they're back on the opposition benches. It's not entirely accidental that Michael Gove is fond of quoting Gramsci.

Their project must be countered by our own. Policy and vision have to be tied around a radically different view of the good life and the good society. Quoting stats is not enough; they will never rip away the right's veil of lies. The fear and despair milked by the Tories, the LibDems and UKIP can only be properly challenged and defeated by the promise of something better. In short, Labour and the labour movement have the responsibility to develop that politics of hope to make good the damage the Tories have done, and lay the groundwork for a society fit for living in.


Boffy said...

How much bedroom tax do you expect the Queen will be paying out of her State benefits for all the surplus rooms at Buck House, Windsor, Sandringham, Balmoral etc.?

If the Liberal-Tories are so concerned with the problems of people lacking adequate houses, shouldn't they be building more as well as addressing the problem of spare houses like the above rather than spare bedrooms?

Big Rab said...

"Labour have the responsibility to develop the politics of hope". Fat chance there when they abstain against Tory measures in welfare Bill that will affect the poorest.The constant playing to the gallery of Daily Mail and Sun editors and reinforcing the worst stereotypical notions of the unemployed, poor and migrants.

J said...

Nice one Phil.

I'm glad that you identify one thing that seems to have slipped the attention of many, as the Left becomes more and more defensive. It is, quite simply, that the "welfare state" in Britain does not do enough. We should be spending more, not less, if we are to alleviate massive unmet needs. To those who would say that this cannot be done under capitalism, I would say they may well be quite right. But that is yet another argument for socialism.

Phil said...

When Grant Shapps came to Stoke about 18 months ago as housing minister, he gave the Council a wadge of funding. This was to carry on with the much-maligned demolition programme. Under no circumstances was it to be funnelled into new homes.

You can see why it's silly to take Tory rhetoric on housing at face value.

Phil said...

Rab, sadly - and awfully - the public at large are fine with benefit bashing. While there were some clever-clever reasons behind the abstention in the Commons, I wasn't particularly convinced by that line. Labour need to challenge this rubbish about benefits, not pander to it every time.

Phil said...

What kind of welfare state do we want? It's worth remembering the early critiques of it were pioneered by New Left theorists. They drew attention to the client/bureaucracy relationship and discussed how it disempowered people.

The Tories have taken that one-size-fits-all critique to justify their crap around the Work Programme. But there is nothing more disempowering that not letting people have enough money to live off.