Explaining the Conservative attitude to social security

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?

Image result for iain duncan smith

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.


Right-wing framing of the macro-economy

I’ve done a few of posts on conservative framing recently and I was subsequently reminded of a draft paper by Bill Mitchell and Louisa Connors called “Framing Modern Monetary Theory“. It discusses how the economy is generally discussed by mainstream commentators, before considering how an alternative narrative might be constructed using similar tactics as those in the mainstream. They argue that:

“The dominance of mainstream macroeconomics narrative in the public domain is achieved through a series of linked myths that are reinforced with strong metaphors.”

Below is a table from the paper by way of some examples. Many of these metaphors pop up on an almost daily basis. If, like me you frequent the comment sections of newspaper websites, you’ll see them all the time. They have all been absorbed by people and repeated back ad nauseum:



All of the metaphors in the table are either wrong or willfully misleading, but they been very successfully implanted into most people’s minds through constant reinforcement. The challenge is how to construct alternative metaphors to start to change the nature of the debate. UK Labour’s strategy (assuming they actually disagree with the Government) has been a poor one. As the authors say in the paper:

“…progressives should avoid debating within the frames that conservatives use. For example, attacking the British government’s pursuit of fiscal policy as being ‘too fast’ implies that the desirable alternative is more gradual (managed) reduction in the government deficit. The frame is that the budget deficit is bad and has to be reduced. The more productive progressive frame would be to explicate the functional role of government deficits…”

“The moral case for welfare reform”

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.”