Social security has been in the news a lot recently, with speculation about where the Conservatives’ £12bn of cuts will fall. It is thought that tax credits will be targeted, with some saying support to some of the poorest working and out of work families will be cut by up to £1400 per year – a significant amount. This comes after cuts during the last Parliament,including the Bedroom Tax, harsher sanctions and cuts to disability benefits (which are still ongoing judging by yesterday’s protest in Parliament).
But why are the Conservatives doing all this? The stated aim is always “to get the deficit down”, “clearing up Labour’s mess”. Opponents have labelled this “balancing the books on the backs of the poor“, but it’s not really about the deficit. Social security acts as an automatic stabiliser, preventing an economy from sinking too far in bad times. Cutting automatic stabilisers in times of slump is a really stupid idea if your aim is to help the economy recover, but if you have other aims it might be more rational.
Some want to label Tories as evil, haters of those at the bottom who are declaring war on the working poor. This seems a little simplistic to me, and to most people sounds unconvincing. Many (most) Brits are rather unsympathetic to those at the bottom, periodically agitating for cuts to “welfare”. I have lost count of the times I’ve heard people complaining about “scroungers”, or using the old cliche about immigrants coming here to claim benefits while those who are already here “get nothing”. This also seems a little simplistic to me to say the least, but why do so many people think this way, why are the Conservatives embodying this sentiment in their policies, and what can we do about it?
If you listen to this twonk for more than 5 minutes, you get a good idea where he (and other Conservatives are coming from). He genuinely believes social security or welfare is immoral. If social security benefits are too “generous”, it makes people dependent and they won’t stand up on their own two feet (or “work hard and get on” as the catchphrase goes). He is quite open and honest about this. Here is a good example from the other day where he accuses Labour of bribing voters with working tax credits. IDS and many on the right genuinely believe Labour tried to build a client state where more and more people became reliant on the state for “handouts”.
If you subscribe to this view, cutting benefits becomes moral, a kind of tough love, forcing people to “work hard and do the right thing”. Someone who works hard and has the right attitude will always succeed under this mindset. The idea that someone can work hard and still struggle does not compute with people like IDS. The potential cuts to working tax credits fit quite nicely with this viewpoint, as if people are claiming tax credits, they must not be working hard enough, maybe working part-time when really they should be working full time. Cutting tax credits then provides the tough love needed to push people into full time work.
It seems to me though that there is very little evidence to back up the beliefs of the likes of Duncan Smith. Belief though, trumps evidence every time to these people. It makes logical sense to them and so must be true. There is fairly good evidence though that cutting social security benefits does not improve the lot of people, rather it entrenches poverty. and drives people to use food banks. Incidentally, food banks seem to be rather a blind spot for those on the right, where beliefs collide. They should hate them because they are giving support to those who haven’t earned it, but on the other hand, they are charity, and charity is good because it involves people choosing what to do with their own money rather than having the state confiscate it from them.
Frustrating though I find it however, many people are fully on board with the “tough love” message (and seem to vote accordingly). But why is this? On theory is the one espoused by linguist George Lakoff – framing. He posits that there are two main types of moral frames people view issues through; the strict father frame, and the nurturant parent family. Lakoff believes all people think it terms of both frames to a greater or lesser extent, but that conservatives are much more proficient at framing their policies in a way that appeals to people’s strict father frame. With social security they continue to do this rather well.
So how can this be countered? It seems to me that noisy protests about “evil Tories” can only take you so far. People may sympathise on a human level or if they have experienced the cuts at first hand, but it’s not a very positive message and others will still be swayed by the Tory’s strict father framing. Lakoff argues the left (or liberals to Americans), need to create their own frames and relentlessly hammer away in these terms. If we are thinking about social security for those unfortunate enough to want a job but are unable to find one, we could build a frame around offering a ‘helping hand’ to those down on their luck. Not doing everything for them, but simply offering them a solid chance to prove themselves. In practical policy terms this could manifest itself in terms of an offer of a real, living wage paying job. This is a much more positive and salable message than the one Labour tried to sell at the recent elections, and it is one that should appeal to people’s feeling about the “nurturant parent family” rather well. Labour are still trying to be stricter fathers than the Tories, but it’s so unconvincing, nobody is buying it at the moment.