Monday 2 October 2023

The New Attack on Social Security

Halloween has come early to Manchester if Conservative Party conference is anything to go by. From the funereal speeches to empty halls to an ex-Prime Minister, as if risen from the dead, doing the rounds with her ghoulish I was right shtick. I've seen more life in a morgue. If that wasn't bad enough, zombie ideas are in circulation. The aforementioned Liz Truss reiterated how tax cuts are the panacea for getting Britain moving again, as if events this time last year hadn't condemned her obsessions to a timely end. But another is about, a resurrection from the recent past: a renewed attack on social security.

In his very perfunctory speech - just 13 minutes long - Jeremy Hunt lamented the fact that 100,000 people are leaving the labour market every year. What are they doing? They're choosing a "life on benefits". As always, there are things the Tories aren't telling you. According to the latest House of Commons briefing, the "economic inactivity" rate for 16-64 year olds is falling. Hunt's figure is arrived at by taking the 334,000 who have become economically inactive since the pandemic broke in March 2020 and simply dividing it by three. What he doesn't mention is how overall numbers, which are 8.78 million people, is 231,000 down on this time last year. In other words, contrary to his image of lazy workers quitting their jobs for a life of state-funded Riley, the movement is in the opposite direction.

Why are people economically inactive? Perhaps Hunt might like to have a word with his colleague Dehenna Davison, the retiring honourable member for Bishop Auckland. She recently gave up her bag carrying role at the Department for Levelling Up because of chronic illness. In her departing letter, she said persistent migraines made her unable to meet the demands of a ministerial job. Cue much understanding and regretful shaking of heads from Tory MPs and their friendly press commentators. Do we find the same courtesy extended to others who can't work and have to subsist on social security? Don't be silly. In May to July this year, long-term illness accounted for 30% of inactivity. This was an increase from 28% at the end of January 2023. At the beginning of 2019 the figure was 23%. The Tories like to pretend Covid is no longer an issue, and they have happily undermined the inquiry into their handling of the pandemic. Hunt is carrying on in this vein. Just because Chris Whitty isn't on our screens any more doesn't mean the pandemic is over. Every day thousands are coming down with the latest strain, and hundreds of them are being left with long Covid. On top of that, the crisis in mental health, which was well under way before the pandemic, continues unabated. You don't have to be an epidemiologist to connect the dots and discover why more people are outside of the work force than four years ago.

Hunt and the Tories know this, of course. Indeed, reports about the drivers of economic inactivity regularly land on the Chancellor's desk. But he's not interested in the truth, Hunt is only bothered about the politics. And, as with the other wedge issue the Tories are clumsily cobbling together they're on the lookout for other out-groups to demonise and scapegoat. Returning to the recent past and Osborne's transformation of welfare into an even more punitive system for punishing those dependent on it, Hunt has arbitrarily decided that people are leaving work not because they're ill but because social security is too generous and too soft. He therefore announced a redesign of the work capability assessment that takes into account the capacity to work from home. In other words, if you can make it to the loo unaided you're fit enough for a job. Hunt also said that it's "not fair someone who refuses to look seriously for a job gets the same as someone who tries their best." Presumably people on Universal Credit can look forward to performance-related pay. Therefore sanctions are going to be looked at as well, because the present system in which monies can be stopped for up to six months is evidently too soft. Defending cruelty in public assistance, Hunt said that the numbers of "workless" households were a million fewer than in 2010, pretending the permissiveness of benefits drives their take up and not unemployment.

We all know what Hunt rhymes with, and the Chancellor reminded us why by re-announcing Jacob Rees-Mogg's civil service cull, while darkly muttering about public sector productivity. Interestingly, the news that Hunt wants to deplete the state further and lose it a shedload of jobs was greeted with whoops and cheers. That's the natural party of government for you.

It's just as well that Hunt kept it brief, because it showed how bereft the Tories are. Except when it comes to the crazed outpourings of Sunak's verbally incontinent predecessor. More divide and conquer, more recycling of old strategies and policies. It's not going to work, and they're not going to win new people over. What we're seeing in Manchester is not a Tory party looking forward with confidence at winning the next election. Instead they've giddily embraced their doom, and are having a last play through of their greatest hits before they collapse, exhausted, into the grave.

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Anonymous said...

I'd refer you to Steve Bell's brilliant series of IF. . . cartoons around the 1987 election entitled "The Last Days of the Dinosaurs", followed (after a brief hiatus, probably to obtain sedatives) by "Vengeance of the Zombie Dinosaurs From Hell".

The fact that the Tories are in the grave will not prevent them from eating people's brains.

Rodney said...

The Tories are almost certain to lose the next election but are their policies?

Most of the unpleasant policies the Tories announce are embraced by the Labour front bench with only very small differences or just a promise Labour will do it "competently". Specifically on welfare Labour have been ominously quiet and with Reeves as Chancellor, who previously promised to be harder on benefits claimants than the Tories, and with their oft repeated commitment to rebranded austerity (fiscal rules) it's not hard to envision a Starmer government doing what Hunt proposes here.

Thus it's less of a last gasp and more him using his scant remaining time in the spotlight to prime the right wing press and brief Labour on what policies he'd like implemented in the next term.