A few days ago the country’s most senior Catholic, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols raised some objections about the Government’s welfare reforms in comments to the Daily Telegraph. I don’t think we should pay attention particularly to what religious leaders say (about anything), but in this case, the Archbishop was merely stating the obvious. Basically, he said that the reforms were leaving some people destitute (they are), that the reforms are primarily about saving money (yes), and that the reforms are not working (depends on how you define ‘working’).
This seems to have upset David Cameron enough for him to ask the Telegraph for a right of reply. Here’s his article and he tries to answer the Archbishop with a moral argument. His argument is a textbook example of the conservative ‘strict father figure’ framing I’ve been banging on about recently. Here’s some extracts:
“First, our long-term economic plan for Britain is not just about doing what we can afford, it is also about doing what is right. Nowhere is that more true than in welfare. For me the moral case for welfare reform is every bit as important as making the numbers add up: building a country where people aren’t trapped in a cycle of dependency but are able to get on, stand on their own two feet and build a better life for themselves and their family.”
“Those who can’t work will be always supported, but those who can work have the responsibility to do so. “
“I believe very firmly that it is wrong to penalise those who work hard and do the right thing while rewarding those who can work, but don’t.”
In this version of reality (which Cameron may actually believe), it’s not necessarily the people that are to blame, but the evil system which makes people ‘dependent’, even rewarding them for “not making the right choices”.
So the system is immoral and must be ‘reformed’ to ‘make work pay’ and create the right incentives to ‘work hard and get on’. This is classic conservative moral framing, but what Cameron doesn’t mention is the enormous elephant in the room – jobs (or lack of them).
I might have some sympathy with Cameron’s position if there were more job vacancies than people looking for work, and those people were turning down work left, right and centre, but the maths just isn’t in Cameron’s favour. We’ve got around 4.5 million people without a job who want on and over a million more in part time work who’d like a full time job. At the same time, there are just half a million vacancies. Against those numbers, if you cut the amount of money people receive in social security benefits they will just get poorer. They can’t find jobs that don’t exist no matter how hard they try.
So to re-state Cameron’s case: when people stand on their own two feet, work hard and do the right thing, they will succeed, but the evil welfare system makes people lazy and dependent so must be weakened.
So how could we frame this differently? I always think Owen Jones is on to something when I hearing him talk about housing benefit. When is a discussion about how we need to get the housing benefit bill down, he just agrees strongly, but says it should be done by tackling private sector rents and building more houses. Housing benefit should be reframed therefore as landlord benefit. People don’t like feeling like they are being screwed, but anyone who is renting privately strongly suspects they are being. Jones hasn’t quite got his delivery down though I don’t think. It’s a bit machine gun with too much spraying of facts and figures, which probably won’t change anyone’s mind. I think his overall strategy is sound though.
On the welfare system as a whole I think the reframing might go something like this.
“The welfare system needs updating for the 21st Century, but to do so we need to understand the problems. The welfare state we know today was established under the assumption of full employment. That assumption no longer holds. There are simply not enough jobs. We need to rediscover what full employment means and government has a big role to play in that. Young people need paid work experience. People who’ve been out of work for a long time need a chance to get back into the workplace and update their skills. The private sector has consistently failed to perform in this regard, so where the private sector can’t or won’t offer these opportunities, government can and should. As Keynes said:
“The Conservative belief that there is some law of nature which prevents men from being employed, that it is “rash” to employ men, and that it is financially ‘sound’ to maintain a tenth of the population in idleness for an indefinite period, is crazily improbable – the sort of thing which no man could believe who had not had his head fuddled with nonsense for years and years…
It’s time to unfuddle our heads. When we talk about people having a responsibility to work if they can, so government has a responsibility to ensure that work is available and that it pays well enough to sustain people in a lifestyle appropriate for a rich country.”
I’ll finish this with a quote from a recent Jack Monroe article which is a pretty good antidote to this ‘work hard and get on’ nonsense:
“Poverty can happen to anyone. That’s why I unsettle some of the stalwarts of the Tory party. Because their rhetoric of “work hard and get on” can fall apart in the blink of an eye. I worked hard. I got on. And I still spent a year and a half scrabbling around in a festering pit of depression, joblessness, benefit delays and suspensions, hunger, and the entrenched, gut-wrenching fear that I was failing as a parent.”