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Tuesday, April 02, 2013 

Attack as defence, the Osborne way.

There are but two explanations for George Osborne's emergence from his hole at the Treasury and journey to a business somewhere in the country that would let him on the premises.  First, that it was intended to wind up all those who've dared to suggest that there's something of a disjunct between the government saying to those in social housing who've got an extra bedroom that they either need to move or accept a cut in their benefit, and the tax cut for those earning over £150,000 coming in at the end of the week, and who better to give such a sermon than the man himself?  Osborne is already so widely disliked that he can't possibly get any less popular than he already is, so it saves another minister having to take a battering.  Second, it gives every indication that the coalition is severely rattled at the level of criticism it's come in for over the weekend, having presumably concluded as I had that surely the time for opposition and marches would have been when, err, the legislation making the changes was going through parliament.

As yesterday showed, when ministers are confronted with something approaching the reality for hundreds of thousands rather than the exceptions of one or two, as Osborne again relied upon today, they quickly come unstuck.  In fairness to Iain Duncan Smith, he couldn't possibly answer in any way other than saying, yes he could live on £53 a week if he had to.  He could hardly say anything else: either that it was the exception, when it's not, or that he wouldn't be able to, implying the current rates are too low when they are now being cut in real terms, or that he didn't want to get into "one individual's set of circumstances". That didn't however stop Osborne relying on exactly that tactic, despite having done so when referring to the now non-existent claims of over £100,000 a year on housing benefit.  Cue a petition which urges IDS to prove it, 315,000 having signed so far, remarkable for one set up just over 24 hours ago.

Politicians are of course incredibly comfortable when they can so blithely get away with the assertions made by Osborne today and by dozens of others over the past few years.  It's incredibly easy to characterise those on benefits as a whole as "doing the wrong thing" regardless of those individual circumstances when even the BBC falls into line with the narrative that has been so assiduously driven by the Tories and the tabloids, Labour having started it and since then either actively colluded with or failed to challenge it anywhere near strongly enough.  Presented with the fact that those under 25 on just Jobseeker's Allowance do have to try and get by on £56.25, while those lucky enough to be over that age are treated to an extra £14.75, it becomes much harder to claim that such levels of benefit "trap people in poverty and penalise work".  Yes, there are and have been cases where when both housing benefit and child benefit are taken into account there's not much of a difference with the take home pay on minimum wage, but the system had already been tightened to such an extent before this month and also prior to the coalition coming to power that those trying to play the system soon found themselves either sanctioned or ineligible for JSA altogether.

Osborne's attempt to try to sugar his extremely bitter pill by admitting the Thatcher government put people on incapacity benefit to remove them from the jobless statistics is, while welcome, not much of a difference from what the coalition is doing now.  As we've seen, those on some of the myriad of work experience or mandatory schemes now built into the JSA regime are in fact being counted as in work, despite receiving nothing other than their benefit and expenses.

It really isn't worth getting truly angry about his speech in general, especially as that's just the emotion it was obviously intended to garner, but there is something really morally and intellectually bankrupt about claiming that benefits resemble a "something-for-nothing" culture.  Regardless of whether or not you pay income tax, everyone contributes to the public purse somewhere along the line, whether through VAT, fuel duty or otherwise.  It's also a despicable way to describe a system which is currently failing so many, whether it be those who've successfully appealed against the ruling that they're fit for work, the hundreds of thousands on the so-called Work programme still without a job, those sanctioned to meet internal Jobcentre targets, or most disgracefully of all, those told to work for their benefit indefinitely, apparently written off from ever finding actual paying employment.

It also took chutzpah to go back to that other Thatcherite mainstay, the "vested interests".  Who exactly are the vested interests when it comes to benefits?  The churches?  The charities?  The Labour party, out to keep the poor in their place so they keep voting for them?  Who knows, as Osborne didn't expand on who these wicked people always opposing change are, or even if some have how they could possibly be described as having a vested interest in doing so.

This isn't to doubt that in general terms, ever harsher crackdowns on welfare are popular for the most part.  Touch something that person receives though, and they often quickly explain how they're different or more deserving than anyone else.  Many also simply don't know what the actual rates are: when they find out some are on only slightly more than £53 a week, it doesn't much resemble the easy option of "doing the wrong thing" the likes of Osborne try to claim it is.

Too sweeping as it is to suggest that personal experience of hardship might change some minds, or in the case of politicians make them think twice, not least as IDS spent plenty of time amongst the most disadvantaged when he set-up the Centre for Social Justice (he also says he's been on the breadline twice) in the vast majority of cases it at the very least helps.  The reason the changes to welfare enrage so many is that George Osborne and David Cameron have never experienced economic hardship (Cameron most certainly has experienced personal hardship, of the kind no one can envy), or even had to want for anything, at least within reason.  They decry anything that could be even passably associated with class war, yet they think the way to incentivise those at the top is to cut their tax while the way to reward those doing "the right thing" is to err, freeze the minimum wage.  They deliver lectures on responsibility, yet they take none over the state of the economy.  It's not just that their policies are wrong, it's that they have and will make things worse, all while they attribute the most base motives to their opponents. It shouldn't and doesn't have to be this way.

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