Euan McColm: Week’s a long time in welfare politics

A GREAT contemporary myth is that Scots are peculiarly outraged by the cuts to welfare being implemented by the United Kingdom government.

An anti-austerity campaigner wears a George Osborne mask. Picture: Getty
An anti-austerity campaigner wears a George Osborne mask. Picture: Getty
An anti-austerity campaigner wears a George Osborne mask. Picture: Getty

SNP and Labour politicians alike have sought to make capital out of coalition austerity measures with the suggestion – explicit in the case of the nationalists – that Scots are too compassionate to entertain such cruelty.

The flaw with this approach, so far, has been defiant Scottish support for the action taken by Chancellor George Osborne.

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The Tory-Lib Dem coalition may have been under relentless opposition attack over the cap on benefits but they’ve been able to take comfort from YouGov polling showing voters both north and south of the Border are in favour – by a comfortable margin of three to one – of a £26,000-a-year limit on what individual households receive. If Scots are unusually compassionate, we haven’t shown it by feeling the pain of those who’ve been hardest hit.

But that was when government action affected others (the feckless and the indolent who are clearly at it while the rest of us slog away). Last week, Osborne changed things with a decision that doesn’t just impact on “scroungers” but adds up to a threat against the “hard-working folk” of cliché, on whom politicians are dependent.

The Chancellor’s announcement during his spending review that those who lose their jobs will have to wait for a full week before claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance was as politically reckless as it was callous. I believe he’ll come to regret it.

Osborne’s position is that the first few days after redundancy should be spent looking for work rather than looking to sign on. This seven-day delay – increased from the previous three – is about helping, he said. It’s about getting people back into work faster.

It seems to me to be primarily about saving money (Osborne’s looking for another £365 million of cuts) while punishing, even humiliating, the desperately unlucky.

Where previously his message on benefits came with the reassurance that it was all about closing loopholes and making efficiencies, this new rule reminds those in work that their status will be downgraded to second-class citizen as soon as their P45 appears in their pigeonhole.

In order for any government to successfully drive through cuts to benefits and live to win another election, it is necessary for it to persuade us that those affected are in some way deserving of their fate.

The tale of the feckless unemployed is a cheap and nasty one, which may account for its success. While bogeymen help generate support for some frequently unpalatable acts, they also divert attention from the reality of a cuts agenda which impacts on many of those who work, just as it does on those who don’t.

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But who’s going to want to play Osborne’s game of them and us (them being the feckless, us being the decent) when he’s just told us we’ll be on Team Them the moment our employers make another, gut-churning sweep of redundancies?

The Spare Room Subsidy – the Bedroom Tax – has generated myriad negative headlines, but Coalition ministers have taken comfort from those polls showing public support for a benefit cap.

Protests, they have reasoned, are – by and large – engineered by established left-wing groups and, as such, don’t necessarily represent wider public opinion. Ministers don’t believe voter anger has much depth.

Just say we are this dreadful, self-interested bunch, and just say that Osborne has managed to get this far by understanding that and exploiting it with his narrative on welfare. That would make this seven-day delay – something that may have to be endured by almost any of us – doubly foolish.

A great many of Osborne’s critics point to his background as evidence for his unsuitability. It’s a line that’s always seemed too cheap and easy to me. So what if his first name’s Gideon? So what if he went to St Paul’s? So what if he was a member of a positively loathsome university dining club, comprising young men displaying the very worst of braying, boorish privilege? None of us is perfect. We can’t agree that background should be no barrier to the poorest while deciding it should be for the wealthiest.

But Osborne didn’t do much to persuade us he has any idea about how people live. The sudden loss of a salary impacts instantly. More than a fifth of us have no savings and a third of us have less than £500 put aside. Redundancy can be financially and emotionally catastrophic. Not everyone walks away with a tax free lump sum and use of the car for six months. For many the reality is unexpected, sudden unemployment.

Governments fail to recognise the self-interest of voters at their peril. Remember the then Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown’s decision to abolish the 10p tax rate in 2007? It was a disaster because it impacted, to some degree, on everyone. Not only did the decision further impoverish people on low earnings, it cost everyone a few quid. It was a bad policy – in electoral terms, anyway – because it impacted, negatively, on everyone in work.

Osborne’s decision to prolong the period before which anyone can claim the dole, potentially does the same. It says we’re all in this together only until you have an unlucky break. Then you’re out. See you later.

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Fortunately for Osborne, somebody spotted that the burger he was eating, in a photograph tweeted from his office on the evening before his speech, may have cost as much as £9.75 and debate sensibly moved on to whether he was a bad Chancellor because he didn’t eat McDonald’s.

But those who want to find evidence of Osborne’s political flaws are wasting their time analysing his choice of takeaway. The Chancellor’s dreadful week-in-the-wilderness scheme makes a far stronger case in support of the charge that he’s out of touch.

Twitter: @euanmccolm