Some weeks, you could use some good news. You know the sort of week. It’s raining, your rent’s too high, your bills are too high, your laundry pile is too high, that guy hasn’t called, you’re about to be single over Christmas, you haven’t bought any presents yet, you’re out of vodka, your laptop’s broken, you accidentally stabbed yourself in the thumb while baking biscuits, another November has gone by without you finishing NaNoWriMo and you’re beginning to wonder if you should give up your dream of being a writer…you know, that kind of generic #firstworldproblems bad week that could happen to anyone. A bit of good news would pick me, I mean you, right up.
Trouble is, when there are conflicts and disasters across the world, floods across the UK, and a further 900 jobs due to go at Manchester City Council, thanks to government cuts, it’s hard to know where to look for glad tidings. They’re harder to find than a Turbo Man action figure on Christmas Eve. (Are these Yuletide similes doing it for you? No? I’ll stop.) Even when something seems like good news (Tesco’s Help Feed People In Need campaign over the weekend collected food and donations for people in food poverty across the UK), it’s often bad news in disguise (it’s 2012, in one of the richest countries in the world, and there are people relying on food parcels. Those of us who work in politics, or just pay too much attention to it, sometimes complain that we’re living through another episode of The Thick Of It – but for hundreds of others in the UK, life right now is more like a Dickens adaptation.)
At times like this you have to take your good news where you find it, so I had a little cheer over the weekend at the headline ‘George Osborne set to drop plan to end housing benefit for under-25s’. Fantastic. Our Prime Minister proposed an absurd, unworkable, punitive, cruel policy which would have been so unfair that the unfairness of it could be seen from space – but now it’s probably not going to happen. Yet. And they’ve also scrapped plans to freeze working-age benefits, a policy I confess I’d never previously heard of. Phew. My sense of relief is such that I might have a cigarette.
On further reading, however, my Bitter Cheer of Slight Celebration died, to be replaced by the Irritable Growl I Do When Lib Dems Annoy Me. It seems we have Clegg, Danny Alexander and Greg Mulholland to thank for this thin layer of padding around the wrecking ball we’re expecting from Osborne’s Autumn Statement on Wednesday. You’d have to be a very cynical person to think that the Tories deliberately designate some of their more bonkers and inhuman ideas as ‘stuff we’re happy to let the Lib Dems talk us out of’. But you don’t have to be a very cynical person to ask when, exactly, it was that the Lib Dems last stood up to the Tories on welfare reform?
They’ve been telling us for the last two and a half years – the Manchester Lib Dems will tell us this again in Council on Wednesday – that if they weren’t in coalition with the Tories, everything would be so much worse. Only their restraining influence has prevented Cameron and Osborne and IDS from…and this is the point where words have, in the past, seemed to fail them. From what? With billions slashed from the benefits bill, pensioners attacked alongside families and young people, the NHS being carved up in front of us, the poorest areas of the country punished again and again for not voting Tory, my imagination has frankly struggled to conceive of the Tory excesses the Lib Dems reckon they’ve been protecting us from. Was there a shelved project to privatise oxygen? Was IDS planning to do a Herod? We may never know.
So was the plan to scrap housing benefit for the under-25s the line in the sand, or was it never really a plan at all? We may never know that either, but I’ll say this. When I first heard about this policy back in June I wrote an article for this site in which I compared the Prime Minister to the ‘dad’ character in any family-based sitcom or cartoon, forever coming up with wacky schemes and not listening to anyone who tried to tell him it was a bad idea. It’s probably too light-hearted a comparison. But you know what I like about those programmes? At the end of every episode, the wacky scheme is put to bed, the long-suffering characters are vindicated, and Homer Simpson learns a valuable lesson.
Until next week, when it turns out he’s learned nothing at all.
You see where I’m going with this. The Autumn Statement on Wednesday is when we find out whether the government have learned anything: from the unpopularity of their policies, as they were reminded again and again in last month’s elections, or simply from the fact that they’re just not working. But I get the feeling I might have to look elsewhere to find good news.