The Autumn Statement of two weeks ago was the final nail in the coffin of ‘compassionate conservatism’.
The Tories claimed to have changed. Iain Duncan Smith, once a doyenne of the Thatcherite right, seemed to have transformed into someone who cared deeply about the most vulnerable in society. On taking power, Osborne had always claimed that he would not look to balance the books ‘on the backs of the poor’.
Yet in the mini-budget he did exactly that. Most out of work benefits, as well as tax credits, will increase by just 1% each year for the next three years; a real-terms cut of almost £4bn.
This came just a week after figures revealed that the Work Programme is not working. Billed as the centrepiece of their effort to get Britain working and cut the welfare bill, the Work Programme has been a catastrophic failure. Just one in every thirty participants found a job that lasted over six months, well below their target. Given providers are paid by results – and that results are so spectacularly poor – the Work Programme looks set to collapse in on itself.
The Work Programme’s failings are mirrored, and indeed caused by, the continuing economic crisis. Taking power as the economy was recovering, the Coalition’s ideologically driven austerity choked off the fledgling growth. Having taken us back into recession, we now face the risk of an unprecedented triple –dip. The Chancellor has shown the limits of austerity. Although the latest job figures were relatively positive, there is a long way to go; the recovery has been the slowest following any recession in modern times.
With the economy as it is, the Work Programme could never work. When there is so much competition for vacancies, the long-term unemployed and those that face significant barriers could never compete.
Yet at the same time as hundreds of thousands of people are struggling to find work, the Coalition is cutting their benefits. They are punishing the people that they have failed. Instead of cutting the welfare bill by getting people into work as they’d promised, the Tories are now slashing out of work payments, forcing people into abject poverty.
After the failure of their brief attempt to help unemployed people, the Tories have reverted to type; attacking them and blaming them for their own predicament. Instead of people needing support, they are shirkers who would rather keep their ‘blinds down’ while others go off to work.
Osborne thought he was being rather clever when he invited Labour to join them in supporting the cut in benefits. His trap has backfired rather spectacularly since it was revealed that 60% of those hit by the cuts were in working households. What’s more, polling released since the Autumn Statement has shown that the majority of the public support increasing benefits at least in line with inflation. It seems that the electorate rejects this shameless attack on the most vulnerable in our society.
Irrespective of the polling, these cuts should be opposed simply because they are wrong. Osborne was trying to split the Labour party between those who wanted to oppose the cuts and those who thought that to do so would be too politically risky. It is sad that anyone in our party would ever consider such a move.
We were right to oppose these disgraceful and vindictive cuts. Alan Johnson could not have put it better when he said on This Week:
“Forget the 60% in work, I don’t accept that the people out of work are shirkers…these people should not be treated or demonised in this way…I don’t care actually what focus groups are saying, it’s wrong. I feel it there, it’s wrong.”
Yes, we should always stand up for hard-pressed workers. But we are nothing as a party and as a movement if we do not also protect the most vulnerable in our society. Our claim to be a One Nation party would be meaningless if we were to accept these cuts.
If the Tories and the right wing press want to portray us as the party of feckless shirkers, let them try. Sometimes we need to forget the politics, and remember our principles.