Two years ago, David Cameron’s UK government began the slow process of rolling out a series of changes to what remained of British social democracy. Someone had to pick a date when a lot of the major reforms would come on stream. Quick quiz: did the government nominate April 1 because it was 1) so confident in its political rule it thought it could have a bit of a larf; 2) so confident in Labour’s political ineptitude it didn’t think it mattered; or 3) so disconnected or incompetent that no one actually noticed?
When you work it out, tell me. I honestly have no idea. It is very difficult to believe any government is as politically incompetent as this one. But if there’s a cunning plan there, it’s escaping me. Nevertheless, on this issue, the Tories could be confident with good reason. It’s Labour that’s in a bit of a jam over benefit reform, and it hasn’t got a good answer to it yet.
“The Day Britain Changes,” The Guardian said, giving an overview of the changes. The most visible mass changes are a 1% cap on benefit rises over three years and a “ceiling” on benefits for any one household. The “ceiling” of 26,000 pounds per year — the average wage — will hit large families where everyone is on benefits and those who were hitherto claiming the housing benefit (i.e. the direct payment of rent) in high-rent areas. Legal aid for civil cases will be harshly cut, multiple benefits will be rolled into a single one-size-fits-all universal credit, and a “bedroom tax” will be introduced, whereby public housing tenants with more bedrooms than they need will either lose part of their benefit or have to move to a smaller public housing unit.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Paradoxically, by far the biggest change will be the least visible — the National Health Service will move to a fuller internal market model, whereby health services will be organised by local “commissioning boards”, which can purchase them from private suppliers. This is by far the biggest change to the NHS since 1948, but since free-at-point-of-care service remains, many people will not be aware of it initially. On the revenue front, council tax will be extended to lower incomes, costing many poor people an extra 150 pounds a week. At the other end, the 50p income tax rate on higher incomes will be busted back to 40p.
The proposed cuts have garnered howls of outrage from those on the Left, who argue that it represents the end of the social state as we know it. By contrast, the Right has attacked the proposals for not going far enough. Both are correct, on their own terms. Many of these cuts seem needlessly, witlessly sadistic — forcing people to move out of a flat they’ve had for 40 years because their kids have grown up and moved out, bullying a few big welfare families for relatively little gain.
For that pain, the gains are meagre. The UK’s non-pension social welfare bill is around 250 billion pounds. Its current budget deficit is around 150 billion pounds. These measures are projected to save 7-8 billion pounds a year. Some of the savings are piddling — 50 million pounds from a welfare ceiling, a move purely designed to prove to The Daily Mail the state is cracking down on welfare types.
In reality, this is the sort of “savage” cutting you do instead of a real dismantling of the social state. I’m not diminishing the suffering involved, and I’m not advocating breaking up the social state, but it’s worth looking at some of the things the government hasn’t even vaguely mused about doing. The NHS remains a free service. Unemployment and benefits continue indefinitely. Had the Tories done a real slash-and-burn, charging an NHS co-pay for consultations and time limiting benefits, they could have taken another 20 billion pounds or so. Those are the sorts of things the Right wants them to do. It is impossible, of course — the Liberal-Democrats won’t let them, and the Tory centre knows attacks on the core identity of the NHS, or the creation of a full US-style system, would have the Tories turfed pretty smartly.
But they also know many of the general public support a roll-back of benefit payments, due to a widespread perception that there are large numbers of “scroungers” and permanently unemployed, while at the same time there are areas with thousands of unfilled job vacancies. That is unquestionably true, although every time the right-wing papers find a pocket of both unemployment and unfilled vacancies it becomes pretty clear one big problem is lack of training. Two thousand jobs go unfilled in unemployment blackspot, fulminated The Sun, before noting the vacancies were for, erm, mechanical engineers, nurses and care workers, all requiring training and certification. Many people also feel “disability” payments became regularly scammed through the 2000s — especially non-physical claims like stress and depression. But such conditions have a “some of my best friends …” quality; stress or depression are a scam until someone close to you has a flat-chat nervous breakdown.
“In Britain, somebody’s the April fool today, but it will be 2015 before we find out who.”
Addressing those issues is a more complex process of connecting training to unemployment — and applying a training levy to large companies — which would involve more investment, not less, with a touch of compulsion attached. But while the open labour market of the EU remains, there’s little chance of that happening because there’ll be no urgency for social reinvestment. The Tories have managed to convince the general public — helped along by a right-wing media — that any form of increased corporate or financial taxation would have every UK business packing up and moving to Bratislava.
They wouldn’t, of course — London is one place such groups would stay under almost any circumstances. But it’s also true that the whole set-up of the EU, as it stands, makes taxing corporations a very difficult exercise.
Labour’s message has been that this combination of tax breaks and benefit cuts means the Tories’ message of “we’re all in this together” has now been superseded. But the trouble is no one ever believed it, and many don’t want to be together with those they feel took Labour for a ride for years. Part of the process by which a large working class has been splintered has resulted in the language of rights and of class society moving from an active to a passive basis. Thus the Beveridge welfare state, forged in the depths of World War II, had the notion that an active, mobilised and unified working class would seize what was theirs by right. But it also expressed that in fairly settled and collective terms.
Life, in Britain, was, and is, seen in very rigid terms — this is where you live, this is what you do, etc. Thatcherism replaced that with a more mobile ideal, but only for the people who could actually go anywhere. What powered welfare reform in the US — a widespread notion of Protestant individual guilt — is absent in a class society, where fatalism and acceptance are survival strategies to make meaningful whatever is on offer. It’s not for nothing that the best British show about a certain range of life is called Shameless. But the title has a double reference — not only the Brueghelesque exuberance of the welfare class, but of a society that allowed a situation to develop in which worlds of no-work are passed down from one generation to the next.
Meanwhile, the Left has been trying to develop a response that draws on those collective notions, and the post-WWII inheritance — with the new Ken Loach film Spirit of 45 about the creation of the post-war welfare state, and two new groups, Left Unity and the Peoples Assembly, promising campaigns against the cuts. Both form at an interesting time, when the first wave of post-2010 protest groups such as UK Uncut appeared. They have now faded, as did Occupy, and the new groups may have the same problem — without a positive vision to advance, without even a set of proposals for a different tax-spending mix, they are in a sense one or two steps behind much of the general public.
It has to be worrying that such groups are so dominated by a powerful sense of nostalgia and by grandees such as Polly Toynbee, associated with the old world, or by proletkultish young writers such as Owen Jones and Laurie Penny, who have been taken up almost instantly by what remains of a Left media establishment — and who have developed their own interests in perpetuating rather than questioning some received truths. Just as with much of the Australian Labor Left, there is no set of responses that addresses the broad middle of the population, and does not seek to make a politics out of a patchwork of minorities, no matter how legitimate their claims to a better shake.
In Britain, somebody’s the April fool today, but it will be 2015 before we find out who.