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Tuesday, January 08, 2013 

Caught in their own welfare trap.

It's fair to say that I've been rather despairing of the ever increasing attacks on benefit claimants, both those in work and out of it.  The BBC has joined in, surveys seem to suggest ever hardening attitudes towards those both sick and unemployed, there are numerous first-hand reports of those in wheelchairs being accused to their face of faking their disability for payments, and then there are the people who have died while waiting for their appeal against being declared fit for work by ATOS to be heard.  Recessions and hard times almost always result in those one rung down the ladder being kicked by those above them, but the way in which those at the top, whether in politics or the media, have upped the ante over the last couple of years has still managed to shock.

Today marks the end point.  The Conservatives have overreached themselves to such an extent through the benefit uprating bill and the rhetoric surrounding it that the only result will be the undermining of the entire narrative.  It should be remembered that the current popular attitude towards welfare is not the work of either the Tories or the tabloids, it's thanks to Labour's helming of the system.  Not, as the tabloids and Tories have it that they failed to reform it, but rather that they set in motion the exact reforms the coalition have supercharged.  The work capability assessment was Labour's invention, as was replacing incapacity benefit with employment and support allowance, while abolishing income support.  All this was put about with the equivalent of a nod and a wink, which while preferable to the "strivers vs skivers" of late had the same end result: encouraging the tabloids to print ever more articles about scroungers or the very few claiming huge amounts of housing benefit.

This shaming of claimants has been so successful that Labour has completely gone along with it. Faced with Osborne's wheeze of freezing benefits at 1%, they've wanted to talk only of the effect on those in-work, as if those out of work aren't striving for a job, or the sick and disabled making do on their meagre payments aren't worth an in line with inflation rise. Those on the right of the party balked at even this, imagining they were walking straight into Osborne's trap.

As so often in the past, politicians have once again underestimated the public.  Osborne felt certain this would be just as popular as the benefit cap, the undeserving poor put in their place, with minimal impact on those claiming tax credits.  Depending on how the question is asked you get different results, but overall it looks as though opinion is close to evenly split on whether the move is justified or not.  It's certainly nowhere near the 75% support the £26,000 cap receives. What's more, this is the point at which support is going to peak.  Once everyone fully realises how either they or their friends and family will be affected, the number in favour will drop further.

More than anything else, the Conservatives and Osborne continue to mistake their showing in the polls for actual popularity.  The fact is, almost anything government touches is instantly passé: once you're completely open in your loathing for the poor and poorly paid in general, as opposed to the underclass or those taking the taxpayer for a ride, the fightback begins in earnest.  When the politics are so base and so transparent that you're putting up billboards denouncing Labour for daring to say the low paid, the sick and the out of work should see their benefits increase with inflation, something they agreed with last year when Osborne said the same people deserved the rise, you're inviting the parodies and vandalism that will inevitably follow.

It's still come to something though when it's David Miliband, of all people, who exposed his party's cowardice in not going all the way in denouncing this bill for what it is.  It is rancid, and the Liberal Democrats should never be allowed to forget that they supported it. Miliband showed where the money to fund the rise could come from, and even dared to say the problem was unemployment, not the unemployed, underlining just how far the debate has moved from reality when something so obvious has to be pointed out.  When there are simply not enough jobs to go round, where is the fairness in expecting those on JSA to make do on an extra 71p a week?

Even if the Tories are regretting their attempt to create a dividing line, as the likes of Andrew Sparrow and others are implying, and are now attempting to tone down the rhetoric, it's far too late.  The damage has already been done: it's a measure highly unlikely to win many votes, especially coming 2 years before an election, despite the Tories seeming to believe it's just around the corner through the billboard campaign, and it will reinforce amongst those who are claiming what the Tories really think about them.  This is a government that demands responsibility above everything else and yet it refuses to take any itself, whether it's on the double-dip recession that never merits a mention, or the humiliating failure of the work programme.  As Liam Byrne said, in opposition Iain Duncan Smith made clear that "Conservative policies have to work for Britain's poorest communities and ... must be measured by that standard".  Duncan Smith presumably agrees then that the spread of food banks is a wonderful example of the Big Society in action.

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