It looks as though (as I write this, early on January 23) the UK Coalition government is about to lose yet another vote on changes to welfare benefits, in the House of Lords. Quelle surprise.
The changes (I refuse to call them reforms), dreamed up by Iain Duncan Smith, have been pilloried by the public as attacks on the poor, and it’s easy to see why. The Guardian, for example, compares two families.
“One is an Islington couple who have never worked. The other is an Oldham family with four children, where the working parent has just lost his or her job,” writes Tim Leunig. “The Islington couple currently receive £250 a week in housing benefit, while the Oldham family gets only £150.
“Times are tough, and the government wants to save money. Which family should have its housing benefit cut? George Osborne has chosen the Oldham family. He is cutting its housing benefit to £96 a week, while allowing the Islington couple to continue to claim £250 a week for as long as they like.
“That is the reality of the £26,000 benefit cap. It takes no account of your employment history or family size. So a central London couple who have never worked are unaffected, because they currently receive less than £26,000 in benefits. But a large family – even in a cheap house – will be hit. That is not sensible.”
But that is the problem with the Tories – no eye for detail. They like to simplify (I believe that’s their euphemism) the benefits system – the classic example being the new Universal Credit, with which they intend to replace a whole bundle of dedicated payments. The problem is that this creates far more problems than it solves and will end up costing far more money. Count on it.
There is grim humour in the fact that this failure to understand the nuances, the details, of the system has become the defining characteristic of Tory leader David Cameron, who was described by Peter Snowdon, in his book Back From The Brink – The Inside Story of the Tory Resurrection, as having “an eye for detail”!
(Snowdon also states that Cameron has a “flair for words”. Considering the trouble his turn of phrase created for him after he described sitting opposite Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls as being similar to facing a man with Tourette’s syndrome, this also seems an unfortunate description)
David Cameron is a loser. His first attempt to get into Parliament was in 1997, when he contested the Stafford seat. He lost. Nobody should ever forget the fact that, with Labour at its lowest point in 13 years, Cameron totally failed to win a Parliamentary majority that was his for the taking in 2010.
And late last year, he managed to use the UK’s EU veto to sideline this nation from the main action in restructuring the Eurozone, effectively isolating us from decisions that directly affect British trade with its largest partner. This is the man who once declared (about Tony Blair): “The socialist Prime Ministers of Europe… want a federalist pussycat and not a British lion. It is up to us in this party… to make sure that lion roars, because when it does no-one can beat us.” In the event, it turned out that the roar was more of a mewl, and no-one outside the UK really noticed. Who’s the pussycat now, David?
People like Lord Ashdown, the former Lib Dem leader, have already stated they will oppose the welfare changes. They have realised that the Coalition is an alliance of losers and want to distance themselves.
However, both Cameron and his Tories are faring well in the opinion polls at the moment. Why?
It could be because Labour, under Ed Miliband and the aforementioned Mr Balls, has not created a well-defined image of itself as the opposing political force. The Labour leadership recently stated it would not reverse any of the Coalition’s cuts if it came into power – creating a stink among the trade unions and collapsing support from party members. If the Labour Party won’t change anything, why support it?
To me, it seems that the two Eds are trying to engineer a repeat of history. In the mid-1990s, according to George Bridges (the Tories’ former campaigns director), Tony Blair was “picking up Tory principles that he felt were appealing to middle England and playing them for all they were worth”. He also promised not to raise Income Tax and committed Labour to Tory spending targets for two years after being elected.
But the political landscape was very different in 1997. Inflation had been curbed and the economy was fairly secure, and the UK headed – under Labour – into the most sustained period of growth it had ever known (or certainly the most sustained in decades).
Now, that bubble has burst and we are, as a nation, having to pay. The Coalition, headed by the Tories, has dictated that the poorest of us must pay the most, and that is a weakness that Labour should exploit.
Labour should be attacking the belief that the economy is safe with the Tories. It isn’t. They took a national economy that was showing the beginnings of strong recovery and choked it off with their austerity programme; also, a programme that benefits those who are already rich while forcing the poor, the disabled, and the rising numbers of jobless into increasing penury is not good stewardship. How can it be? With more people out of work, whether they are receiving benefits or not, fewer are contributing taxes to the Treasury to help pay off the national deficit. The recovery cannot happen.
Labour should be attacking the culture of greed and arrogance that Mr Cameron tried to shake off whilst in Opposition, but has reared its ugly head again, now that the Tories are in office.
Labour should be attacking the divisions in the Tory Party – Europe is an example of this. Conservatives are held together, not by any strong, unifying ideals, but by the thirst for power and money, and members of the Party have widely varying views on almost any issue you care to put before them. It’s just a matter of finding the right pressure-point and applying enough leverage, and they’ll splinter.
And then there’s Tory sleaze. This is never far away. Who can forget the extramarital affairs enjoyed by multiple Tory ministers in the administrations of 1979-97, or ‘Cash for Questions’, to quote just two famous examples?
All Labour has to say about its own policies, in government, is that the Party will do what works. The Tories have proved themselves to be wedded to ideological programmes – stripping back the welfare state, creating tax havens so the rich can keep their money and not contribute to public services, and so on. These are harming the nation. In contrast, Labour need only state it will level up the playing field, re-balance the nation’s finances, and set us up to get back on our feet, and the votes should come rolling in.
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