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.

What does Cameron’s reshuffle tell us?

We learnt more details about Cameron’s ministerial team today, and his choice of personnel exposes Tory thinking in certain key policy areas. The holders of the three key jobs are unchanged with Osborne, May and Hammond remaining in post at the Treasury, Home Office and Foreign Office respectively. Jeremy Hunt remains at Health demonstrating that acting disgracefully whilst in office need not harm your career.

Surprisingly maybe to some, Iain Duncan Smith kept his job at the DWP. I would have thought the thinking there is that people already hate Duncan Smith, so why ruin someone else’s career when they can let him force through an extra £12bn in welfare cuts? Given the track record of IDS, it seems unlikely to end in anything but disaster.

Being in favour with George Osborne seems to be good for your career. Key allies Sajid Javed, Amber Rudd and Matthew Hancock all got promotions. Hancock in particular is someone with no obvious talents who was slavishly loyal throughout the last Parliament, never shy of going on TV to defend the indefensible. He seems to have got his reward.

Other appointments include John Whittingdale – a man who doesn’t think the BBC should exist – appointed as culture secretary, and Michael Gove at Justice (who surely can’t be any worse than Chris Grayling). Boris Johnson – for no good reason that I can discern – gets a seat at political cabinet whilst he tries to combine the full time job of being an MP with the full time job of being Mayor of London.

Finally, Priti Patel – one of the most free market Tories – is given the job of Employment Minister. Expect lots of talk of ‘personal responsibility’ and not much support for those out of work.

There is a remarkable stability to Cameron’s Cabinet. Most of the top jobs are still with the same people as the last Parliament. There were favours given to key allies, and the appointment of a pro-Murdoch, anti-BBC Culture Secretary speaks volumes, while we must still watch this space for the inevitable downfall of IDS at Work and Pensions.

Spot the difference between the two main parties on tax avoidance

Noam Chomsky once wrote “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….”. There’s been a very lively debate recently about tax avoidance, following revelations from Switzerland about HSBC. Labour and Tory Ministers and Shadow Ministers have been chucking accusations around with abandon, but I can’t really see what the difference is between them. Here’s two examples.

1) Ed Miliband calls out Tory donors for tax avoidance. Ed Miliband avoided inheritance tax after the death of his father (kind of). George Osborne talks of cracking down on tax avoidance, but in a former life as a backbench MP, felt comfortable handing out advice on how to avoid tax. There are different types of tax avoidance. All are legal though. How can we trust MPs from either party to actually do something radical to ensure all pay their fair share of tax, when they are all hypocrites when it comes to tax?

2) A stupid row broke out after Ed Balls suggested people should always get a receipt – even for odd jobs they are paying in cash for, as to do otherwise would be facilitating tax avoidance. Iain Duncan Smith called this “absurd”, saying this demonstrated “Labour’s complete lack of understanding of how business works and how people get by”. It does seem a bit daft to expect people to do as Ed Balls wants, but he is saying nothing different than Tory Treasury Minister David Gauke did, when he said in 2012:

“Getting a discount with your plumber by paying cash in hand is something that is a big cost to the Revenue and means others have to pay more in tax.

“I think it is morally wrong. It is illegal for the plumber but it is pretty implicit in those circumstances that there is a reason why there is a discount for cash.”

Ed Miliband at the time refused to agree cash in hand payments were morally wrong, saying instead:

“What I say is that the job of government is to pass the right laws to clamp down on tax avoidance – that’s the most important thing of all.

So Tory makes a statement, Labour criticises. Labour makes identical statement, Tories criticise. Lively debate then within an incredibly narrow spectrum. Or two cheeks of the same backside as a certain Bradford MP loves to say.

Tory plans to limit free movement will do nothing of the sort

The Conservative Party have been making a lot of noise about free movement of labour recently, saying they want to reform the rules in the face of ‘public concern’ (i.e. increased support for UKIP). Nigel Farage, champion of the ‘People’s Army’ says the Tories will just look to tinker around the edges, but will not be able to alter the fundamental principal of free movement. I agree with Nigel!

I saw Iain Duncan Smith quoted today as saying there was consensus within Europe to limit access to benefits for EU migrants. This is where I suspect the tinkering will be focused. They will make a big deal out of this and come back from the negotiations with the EU triumphant about the concessions they have secured. The thing is though, if they do manage to tighten up access to benefits, nothing will really have changed.

Moving to a new country for the purposes of claiming benefits has been labelled ‘benefit tourism’. But does it actually exist? This article from last year concludes there is very little evidence for it, and that the primary reasons for moving are for work or family reasons. The benefits that EU migrants would be eligible for are anyway extremely limited and it the person is not working, they probably won’t be eligible to benefits either. If they can’t or won;t find a job, they could even be legally removed under EU law. This blog gives quite a good summary of the situation.

So it seems likely, the Tories are looking to achieve only as much as they think they can spin into a victory, which may be little more than applying existing EU law more rigidly. Not sure that is going to convince the Kippers to come home.

What is the real issue with free movement then? It’s the ‘unlimited’ part that’s the problem. Within the restriction that people coming here must be looking to work, there is no limit on the number of people from the EU who can come here. If we were in a situation where every economy in Europe was booming, this may not be an issue as most people will be able to find work in their home country. Sadly this has not been the case in Europe for some time, and leads to a situation where people seek to move from the austerity-ravaged economies of the Eurozone, to the less ravaged (and now growing) UK.

This is not to say immigration is bad. It’s not. Allowing unlimited numbers of EU migrants to come here for work just doesn’t seem sensible. What’s wrong with using a similar system to Australia or Canada, or indeed the system we have for non-EU migrants? The Tories will never make this demand of the EU. I don’t think that’s even what they want. To get some control back would mean leaving the EU, or coming up with some clever ruse to achieve the same result.

“What motivates people and leads them to high endeavor is not fear but hope”

I really like this blog from today by Bill Mitchell about what he calls the ‘unemployment industry’ and what we would call welfare to work. Talking about Australia, he says this industry’s productivity is practically zero. This resonates here too because we have a Work Programme whose results are worse than doing nothing. Bill draws up some great quotes from and about Arthur Altmeyer, one of the fathers of social security in the US.

I think it’s worth repeating them in full here because it will demonstrate how far we have come from the initial aims of social security, aims that over here were expressed by Beveridge. At an event in 1968 to mark the 33rd anniversary of the signing of the Social Security Act, the US Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Wilbur J. Cohen said this of Altmeyer:

“To those who declared that if men were no longer afraid to lose their jobs America would become a nation of loafers, Arthur Altmeyer replied that there was a motivating force in the lives of men that was even stronger than fear–that force, he said, was hope. A democratic society, he said, must rely on hope and incentive rather than fear and compulsion to influence the conduct and aspirations of its citizens. And I think that is a worthy note for us to remember in the issues that face us today. Social security, he taught us, replaces fear with hope. As he put it, liberty means more than freedom to starve. It means a real opportunity to make the fullest use of one’s capacity. Far from destroying individual initiative and thrift, social security, by providing a degree of protection to families against the major vicissitudes that beset them in this modern and complicated and hazardous world, releases energies because it substitutes hope for fear as the mainspring of human endeavor.

 

In short, Arthur Altmeyer preached and practiced the idea that liberty and security are interrelated and that we cannot have one without the other. With this kind of faith that he demonstrated in man’s perfectability, with this kind of vision of democratic government.”

The bits in bold seem to be the exact opposite of what politicians like Iain Duncan Smith believe today. Far from bringing hope, IDS believes social security has fostered a ‘dependency culture’. Rather than replacing fear with hope, with his new sanctioning regime, he wants to replace hope with fear, believing he can scare people into jobs, or at the very least compel them to stop claiming social security. 

Bill goes on to quote Altmeyer from the same 1968 event as saying:

“Before I get off of the early days I want to say another thing–an important thing many people forget. Important as the Social Security Act was, it was only part of the New Deal. We recognized it as largely an income maintenance program. But we had all kinds of work and education programs going. For example, the National Youth Administration. It financed not only vocational schools, but made grants to the colleges, secondary schools, and primary schools. People have forgotten that that was a part of the picture. We had the work programs–PWA, WPA and CCC.

 

Today I run across people who went to those CCC camps. They are proud of what they did in those days. They go and visit–when they have their vacations– the places where they planted trees, or what not, to show their children, their grandchildren, what they did for their country.”

Now, instead of jobs programmes, we have unpaid work experience and ‘mandatory work activity’. When Duncan Smith talks about dependency he means social security payments are too high, but to Altmeyer, who was dubbed “Mr Social Security” (that would probably sound like an insult now):

“The most important cause of dependency is a lack of jobs at adequate wages. So we must work toward full employment. We must have a permanent, long-range, nationwide public works program.”

As Bill then goes on to write:

“All our modern politicians and policy makers and those who the policy makers have co-opted within the ‘unemployment industry’ they created should reflect on that and work out where they have gone wrong and why.”

Quite.

 

Is IDS about to be given his marching orders?

There is a rumour going round this morning that David Cameron is planning a reshuffle next week and that Iain Duncan Smith will be removed as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and replaced with Esther McVey. Is it true? Who knows. It seems to have come from an overheard conversation on a train, so could be bollocks, but I guess we’ll find out next week…

Glenda Jackson goes to town on the incompetent IDS

There was a debate in the HoC yesterday on the performance of the DWP, an government department which, if it were a school would have been placed in special measures long ago. Ministers were keen to play down any suggestions that they might be getting anything wrong, while Labour MPs were keen to raise individual cases where pretty awful errors had been made. Glenda Jackson in particular made a decent stab at calling IDS out for the attitude of his department. Here is her speech taken from Hansard:

The hon. Gentleman will in future regret taking such pride in his Secretary of State. We have all become used to the way in which the Secretary of State avoids answering any kind of direct question or actively engaging in any of the serious issues about the destruction of the welfare state and his Department’s total and utter incompetence by opting for a self-serving, sanctimonious sermon as opposed to any direct speech. I seem to recall, to go back a very long way, that he stood at the Dispatch Box and avowedly took exclusive responsibility for the delivery of everything from IT systems to universal credit in order to take people out of poverty, when what he has in fact done is to plunge thousands and thousands of our fellow citizens into the most abject penury.

Today, the Secretary of State still managed to avoid any kind of reference to the realities of the situation for all those people affected when Atos had its contract for the work capability assessment renewed many months ago. I distinctly remember that the Select Committee was quite forensic in examining how Atos would prioritise, as the Secretary of State and the Government told us it would, the needs of disabled and vulnerable people, particularly those with mental health difficulties. Atos confirmed that that would be an absolute target. There would be champions for people with mental health difficulties and detailed examination of every single individual who came forward for a work capability assessment. Despite the Harrington recommendations, to which the Secretary of State referred, there have been no marked improvements for people who are waiting for ESA—we have already heard those figures.

I will give a precise example of just how chaotic the system is. One of my constituents, who is paraplegic, was placed on ESA. Another constituent is 26 years old and has the mental capacity of a six-year-old, and is consistently having to go for work capability assessments. I find it absolutely impossible to believe that Government Members have no constituents coming to them in similar or even worse situations; yet they find the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) hilarious. They find it really funny that we have seen an explosion in food banks being used by people who are working.

I point out to the Secretary of State that he furnished absolutely no evidence—no Government Member did—that the jobs that all Government Members are trumpeting have been created during his sovereignty of the Department for Work and Pensions are actually being created by his policies. Other Government Members trumpet that the new jobs are being created by the private sector.

One certain thing in an uncertain world is that 48% of appeals—I am talking about ESA; I do not want there to be any confusion—are upheld, yet people on ESA are waiting for months before their appeals are heard. During that period they are told to apply for jobseeker’s allowance, but they cannot do so because they are told that they are unfit for work. They are therefore without any financial support at all. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) said, the welfare state was created to protect people from falling through the cracks. But this particular Secretary of State, along with his Department, is pushing people through those cracks and hoping that the rest of the country will not notice that they have disappeared. I believe that the rest of the country is noticing that—that it is the most vulnerable in our society who are being punished.

That is a shame and an utter disgrace for the Secretary of State. At some point I am pretty certain that he will claim that he can walk on water, but he cannot. His Department is not delivering any of the promises that were made, not to the Opposition but to the people of this country. People are being maligned and bad-mouthed. It is being presented to the country as though there are plenty of jobs out there for those people but they are too idle ever to take them. That is not the case, as Government Members know, and as the Secretary of State should know. Perhaps he is floating so high in his self-appointed sanctity that he has forgotten what is actually happening out there in this country as a direct result of his incompetence and failure to accept his responsibilities.

UPDATE. Here’s a video of the speech:

Nigel Farage meets his match

Nigel Farage was interviewed by James O’Brien on LBC today, and definitely came off second best. In the end, the interview was called to a halt by Farage’s press secretary after O’Brien questioned Farage about his expenses. It was a good interview in a lot of ways although it didn’t really cover UKIP policy on either the EU or domestic issues which is a shame.

Farage looked uncomfortable on numerous occassions, particularly when questioned about UKIP’s awful poster which tells us 27 million potential immigrants are after our jobs, on Farage’s habit of equating Romanians with criminality and on misleading statements about the language skills of the capital’s primary school children. I quite like O’Brien as an interviewer. He does a bit of research and asks good follow-up questions, something that can’t be said of most TV political interviews. He is also responsible for the best attempt at holding Iain Duncan Smith to account that I’ve heard from a mainstream source. Watch/listen to both interviews below:

Iain Duncan Smith defies all logic (again). And then there’s Liam Byrne…

Iain Duncan Smith was interviewed for today’s Sunday Telegraph, and is sounding increasingly deranged. Under ever increasing pressure to reduce the welfare bill (an impossible task given the Coalition’s fiscal stance), Smith appealed to wealthy pensioners to ‘hand back their benefits’ if they didn’t need them. So rather than changing the rule on universal benefits (which is a bad idea in itself), he is resorting to trying to make little old ladies feel guilty about their winter fuel payments as though it is costing the nation billions (it’s not). That’s not what I wanted to write about today though. Duncan Smith also said this:

“We want to say to people, you’re claiming unemployment benefit but you’re actually in work paid for by the state: you’re in work to find work. That’s your job from now on: to find work.”

Duncan Smith’s tried this line before. We people objected to job seekers being forced to work for nothing in Poundland he said (of Caitlin Reilly):

“She was being paid for it (working at Poundland), what do you think the taxpayer was paying her for God’s sake? Her job seekers allowance. The taxpayer is paying her wages.”

IDS persists with this idea that the unemployed need to be constantly harassed to get off their lazy arses and look for work, and it informs every aspect of the Coalition’s employment policy. The elephant in the room though is always the tyranny of the maths – 2.5 million unemployed is a much bigger number than the (less than) 500,000 vacancies currently available.

Duncan Smith’s views on unemployment and the unemployed just doesn’t stand up to more than 5 seconds scrutiny, so it got me wondering if maybe he just hasn’t met many unemployed people, and I thought I’d see if there was a negative correlation between an MPs view on unemployment and the unemployment rate in their constituency. Maybe if unemployment is very low where your voters live, it informs your view on the problem and those who are unemployed? So I downloaded the March 2013 JSA claimant rates from Nomis by constituency to see how much of an issue unemployment is in the constituencies of Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet MPs. Here’s the average claimant rate in Cabinet and Labour front-bench constituencies:

JSA Claimant Rate

The claimant rate nationally is currently 3.9%, but in the constituencies of the Coalition “Cabinet of millionaires”, the average rate is just 2.2%, while in the constituencies of Labour front-benchers the average rate is 5.2%, much higher than the national average. Looking at the rates in individual Cabinet Minister’s constituencies we see a pretty common pattern. Unemployment in the constituencies of Cabinet members is typically very low – David Cameron, 1.4%; Nick Clegg, 1.5%; George Obsorne, 2.0%; Theresa May, 1.8%; Michael Gove 1.7% etc. So it may be that in these parts of the country the issue of unemployment is secondary to other issues like planning, wind farms etc. So my hypothesis that low unemployment at home leads to skewed attitudes towards the issue looks plausible.

There are in fact only two members of the Cabinet who have above average levels of unemployment in their constituencies – Welsh Secretary David Jones (who he?) and – wait for it – Iain Duncan Smith! I was surprised to discover that in Chingford and Woodford Green, 4.2% of the working age population are in receipt of JSA. So if Duncan Smith spends any time in his constituency at all, it must be obvious that not all of these people can be lazy scroungers and that there must be an issue around a lack of jobs. Does he think the people of Witney (Cameron’s constituency) are all “hard-working families who want to get on”, while his constituents are all skivers and scroungers? Only someone wilfully blind could dismiss the lack of jobs as the problem and instead blame the attitude of individuals couldn’t they?

But what of Labour? We saw above that unemployment is significantly higher in Labour constituencies than Coalition ones. Does that mean they have more empathy with those who are unemployed and a better understanding of the issue? Ed Miliband (5.9% JSA rate) has talked about returning to the idea of full employment, while Ed Balls (3.2% JSA rate) proposes a new jobs programme for young people. Labour’s ideas are timid and also place a too much of a focus on the individual, but they at least acknowledge the need to actually create jobs. Again then, there’s an argument that higher unemployment in Labour seats makes them more attuned the problem of unemployment.

But there’s one front-bencher’s constituency that has much higher unemployment than any others, with a whopping 9.6% of working age adults claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance. He more than any other must understand that is a chronic lack of jobs that has kept unemployment high surely? So who is this person? Step forward MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill Liam Byrne. This is the man who led Labour’s decision to abstain from the Bill retroactively made legal the Government’s sanctioning regime and consistently tries to ‘talk tough’ on welfare, giving credence to the idea that there are hundreds of thousands out there who are on the take. How can he come out with this garbage representing the constituency he does?

So what can we conclude? In general we might think that if an MP’s constituents are unemployed in greater numbers, the greater will their concern be for the unemployment issue and vice versa. If you are a welfare spokesman though, it seems you have to check your brains in at the door, and compete to see who can talk the toughest. Is that what they mean by good politics?

APPENDIX

JSA Claimant Rates by Constituency March 2013

LABOUR      
MP Constituency Number of Claimants Claimant Rate
Ed Miliband Doncaster North 3,594 5.9
Harriet Harman Camberwell and Peckham 5,403 6.2
Ed Balls Morley and Outwood 2,159 3.2
Douglas Alexander Paisley and Renfrewshire South 3,294 6.0
Yvette Cooper Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford 3,475 5.0
Sadiq Khan Tooting 2,329 3.2
Rosie Winterton Doncaster Central 4,354 6.8
Andy Burnham Leigh 3,030 4.7
Stephen Twigg Enfield, Southgate 2,015 3.4
Chuka Umunna Streatham 4,158 5.3
Jim Murphy East Renfrewshire 1,340 2.4
Hilary Benn Leeds Central 7,521 7.0
Angela Eagle Wallasey 2,719 4.9
Caroline Flint Don Valley 2,761 4.6
Maria Eagle Garston and Halewood 3,474 5.5
Liam Byrne Birmingham, Hodge Hill 6,810 9.6
Ivan Lewis Bury South 2,567 4.1
Mary Creagh Wakefield 3,301 5.3
Jon Trickett Hemsworth 2,849 4.7
Tom Watson West Bromwich East 3,907 7.6
Vernon Coaker Gedling 2,215 3.7
Margaret Curren Glasgow East 3,811 6.7
Owen Smith Pontypridd 1,932 3.6
COALITION      
MP Constituency Number of Claimants Claimant Rate
David Cameron Witney 920 1.4
Nick Clegg Sheffield, Hallam 944 1.5
William Hague Richmond (Yorks) 1,208 1.8
George Osborne Tatton 995 2.0
Danny Alexander Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey 1,738 2.8
Theresa May Maidenhead 1,194 1.8
Philip Hammond Runnymede and Weybridge 968 1.4
Vince Cable Twickenham 1,283 1.7
Iain Duncan Smith Chingford and Woodford Green 2,151 4.2
Chris Grayling Epsom and Ewell 1,010 1.5
Michael Gove Surrey Heath 1,121 1.7
Eric Pickles Brentwood and Ongar 1,194 2.0
Jeremy Hunt South West Surrey 876 1.4
Owen Paterson North Shropshire 1,954 3.1
Justine Greening Putney 1,772 2.6
Michael Moore Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk 1,962 3.4
Ed Davey Kingston and Surbiton 1,525 1.7
Patrick McLoughlin Derbyshire Dales 675 1.4
Maria Miller Basingstoke 1,825 2.6
Theresa Villiers Chipping Barnet 1,986 2.6
David Jones Clwyd West 1,722 4.1
Kenneth Clarke Rushcliffe 1,180 1.9
George Young North West Hampshire 1,124 1.8
Francis Maude North Warwickshire 1,585 2.8
Oliver Letwin West Dorset 688 1.3
Grant Shapps Welwyn Hatfield 1,758 2.4

Who’s winning the welfare war?

Two significant events this week – the start of long-awaited cuts to certain benefits, and the conviction and sentencing of Mick Philpott – has led to the outbreak of a war of words over the rights and wrongs of our welfare system.

Grant Shapps and Iain Duncan Smith kicked things off last weekend, with Shapps pointing at some Government figures and then lying about what they told us about welfare and IDS telling Jon Humphrys he could live on £53 a week. This led to the heart-warming sight of a petition set up to challenge IDS to prove it garnering almost 450,000 signatures in less than a week. There were also stories about some of IDS expense claims, like £39 for one breakfast and £110 for a bluetooth headset added to the ridicule.

Then came Mick Philpott and the Daily Mail’s nasty front page on Wednesday:

daily mail philpott

There was also this fairly objectionable and fact-free piece in the Telegraph by Allison Pearson. At first, the linking of Philpott’s crimes to the welfare system were confined to the right-wing press but then George Osborne decided to give everyone the benefit of his wisdom on the matter saying:

“Philpott is responsible for these absolutely horrendous crimes… But I think there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state – and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state – subsidising lifestyles like that, and I think that debate needs to be had.”

In response to this assault on the welfare state, many on the left pushed back admirably, providing detailed and fact-laden rebuttals to some of the propaganda being put out by the media and the politicians. Owen Jones in particular repeatedly called out those on the right who sought to score political points from the Philpott tragedy:

Bloggers also played an important role in getting some facts about welfare out there. In particular this post and this one struck me as being important contributions.

So I would say those of us defending the welfare state definitely have the facts on our side, but this brings me to the question posed in the title above – Who’s actually winning the welfare war?

People on the left like John Harris have been cautioning for a while that polling shows people in favour of more cuts to welfare, and George Osborne certainly thinks he is on the right side of the argument. At the same time, there are also voices from the right urging caution over appearing to be “foaming-at-the-mouth” over welfare. Owen Jones on the other hand sounds more optimistic, tweeting:

At the moment I’m somewhat less pessimistic about where this will go. The reason is amply illustrated in this video clip from one of Stewart Lee’s standup shows:

The truth is, an awful lot of people seem to be impervious to facts or reasoned argument. Here’s another (mindboggling) example. Look how Richard Dawkins patiently explains the evidence for evolution, while the creationist lady just keeps repeating “where is the evidence” (I like to imagine Dawkins just going into a room on his own and screaming after these type of interviews 🙂 ).

Bringing it back to this week’s welfare debate then, after tweeting a link to Johnny Void’s excellent post explaining in detail how it would be very difficult to make a profit from benefits by having more children, someone replied to my tweet to say:

The Daily Mail also ran a poll on Thursday asking whether people thought benefits contributed to Philpott’s crimes. Around 70% agreed. Now often, when the Mail runs hateful articles, the comments underneath show people in disagreement with the article’s content, but under this one, the three most popular comments were:

“It was not the benefits that killed the children but sure as hell he was the master of abusing the benefit system and he is the prime example why we need the benefit changes introduced and more to come hopefully.”

“Sound right to me. Why should I pay for the lifestyle choices of others? My wife an I stopped at 2 children because we could not afford more!. How many more are there claiming large amounts of money pushing out kids year after year?”

“This is what happens when there is benefits system that makes it pay to breed, the more kids the merrier. Limit all benefits payments to two children only NOW!”

Now to me, these comments (particularly the third one) are batshit crazy, but it seems to be what a lot of people actually think, hell, a lot of people I know personally think like that. I don’t think people are impervious to facts, just that it takes no time at all to repeat a lazy stereotype about welfare, but much longer to rebut it. It seems to be much easier to spread fear and resentment with a few lies and some unrepresentative extreme case than it is to persuade through coherent argument and facts and figures.

I think those who defend welfare (and public services in general) need to come up with some better strategies for dealing with misinformation of this kind, because there is undoubtedly a lot more of it on the way. Owen Jones is doing a good job, as are a number of Guardian columnists and notably some relentless disability campaigners who are trying to fight back, but the Labour Party don’t seem know which way to face at present. I’d be interested to hear if people agree with me, or are more optimistic. We all need a bit of hope!