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Is it time to end the war on welfare? The party that demonised shirkers could set a radical new agenda

The architect of austerity, George Osborne, in 2012 (Photo by Simon Dawson-Pool/Getty Images)

The architect of austerity, George Osborne, in 2012 (Photo by Simon Dawson-Pool/Getty Images)

October 6, 2020   5 mins

I’m not 100% certain, but I think that the last time anyone cried “bring back hanging” at a Conservative Party conference was 2002, in Blackpool, as Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership circled the plughole.

Tories stopped fantasising about the rope because they accepted that those days were gone and it was time to move on. But all parties need a rallying cry, something to stir the blood, and it was George Osborne, who had been so keen to move on from IDS, who found it.

A decade on from that Blackpool debacle, Chancellor Osborne delighted his party — and a fair few voters — by announcing a Tory war on welfare.

“Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits? We speak for that worker,” he declared.

Two years later, he was back on the conference stage announcing the biggest cut of the austerity age, the benefits freeze.

And now, six years, two prime ministers and one pandemic virus later, where do the Tories stand on welfare? And where will they go next? Perhaps it’s a good thing for the Conservatives that they aren’t having a proper conference this year, the sort of gathering where Osborne used to bash idle welfare recipients. Because the Tories don’t seem able to work out what they think about welfare today.

While a lot of people now agree that austerity was a mistake and welfare cuts went too far, it’s worth remembering that they were quite popular at the time. Osborne, after all, isn’t stupid: he knew his message — welfare claimants are idle scroungers who take your taxes — would play well with the wider public. It was one of many things he learned from Tony Blair.

The British Social Attitudes Survey, the gold-standard measure of national opinion, shows that in 1997, 28% of voters thought unemployment benefits were too high; 46% said they were too low. By the time the Coalition took office, 54% said welfare for the workless was too high, against 23% who said too low.

And now? The most recent BSA figures, for 2018, show opinion is back in balance: 39% said unemployment benefits are too high, and 35% say too low. And that was long before that little virus came along and put hundreds of thousands of British workers out of jobs.

Britain’s emerging unemployment ordeal leaves Conservatives in a quandary. What do they think about welfare claimants now? What do they tell voters about those claimants? In other circumstances, a party might consult its guiding philosophy, its core ideas to help frame a response, but Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, which has been quite willing to abandon many of the old articles of Tory faith on economics and markets since taking office, doesn’t have much philosophy left to fall back on.

For a mock of the intellectual and political exam question fast approaching the Conservatives, consider the decision to maintain — or not — the £20 a week emergency increase to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit that was put in place in April. That’s scheduled to be withdrawn in April 2021, just as unemployment is likely to be nearing its peak. Conservatives including Stephen Crabb, former welfare secretary, and Mel Stride, Treasury select chair, say it should be extended, as does a serious coalition of anti-poverty groups led by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. I agree, for what it’s worth.

How do Tories view claimants? The Osborne worldview saw them as idlers who had chosen not to work. Will Osborne’s successors continue to see claimants as undeserving types who chose their fate?

And whatever the evidence, some voters believed that, at least partly because that’s what they had been told, for several years, by their leaders. It wasn’t just David Cameron who talked about welfare “scroungers”. In 2011, Liam Byrne, then shadow work secretary, talked about Labour standing for “workers, not shirkers”.

This was amplified via the media, and serious, well-organised efforts to make sure the public were served a regular diet of stories about excessive and fraudulent claims by undeserving claimants. I was a political reporter from 2001 until 2014 and remember the regular briefings and releases from CCHQ and its friendly organs such as the TaxPayers’ Alliance, all striving to feed the narrative that welfare was too generous and claimants too lazy.

Not all Tories sang that song, of course. IDS fought Osborne for years to make UC more generous. Boris Johnson once said Coalition welfare cuts would impose “Kosovo-style ethnic cleansing” on the London he then led.

And slowly, the narrative of feckless welfare claimants faded. The Theresa May machine had no interest in maintaining it. Boris was even keener to declare the end of austerity, though his 2019 manifesto took a characteristically have your cake-and-flog-it-too view of welfare, promising both an end to the benefits freeze and a crackdown on “those who cheat the system”.

So what now for the Tories on welfare? The dark Osborne magic of castigating the feckless has faded away. What story will the Conservatives tell about the hundreds of thousands of people who are about to lose their jobs? Self-sufficiency and rugged individualism run deep in conservatism, as does the notion that people are largely responsible for their own fate. But how many Tory purists will be prepared to argue that the coronavirus jobless brought it on themselves by choosing the sort of jobs that get cut in a pandemic? It seems likely that at least some voters will regard the Covid-unemployed as jobless though no fault of their own; some might even regard those claimants as unemployed as a direct result of Government policy.

And if you see those claimants as blameless, you need a better welfare provision for them. That’s a long way from Osborne’s scrounger-bashing, but it wouldn’t be much of a stretch for today’s Conservatives.

The logic of Johnson-Cummings Big State interventionism — and the political imperatives of retaining those Red Wall seats — would eventually transform the Covid-era Tories into the party of a much more generous welfare offer, at least for people with a solid history of work. Before the pandemic, there was a quiet debate beginning in Tory circles about a more contributory welfare regime, where people who have paid more in get more back when they need it. Offering higher rates of welfare to some workers who lose their jobs over Covid might have superficial attractions, and might play well with voters who like the idea of reciprocity. But some Tories worry about moving towards a system that divides claimants into the deserving and undeserving poor. This debate was only starting when the virus exploded. Expect to hear more of it when the smoke starts to clear.

Could the Tories emerge from the pandemic as a party that wants to do more for the unemployed? It might not be as implausible as it might seem at first glance.

No less an observer than Professor Sir John Curtice has concluded that public opinion on welfare issues is heavily influenced by the narrative offered by politicians: “Even though it might currently find itself in an unfamiliar policy position in expanding the welfare state, it is also open to the Conservative party to develop and secure support for its story as to how the welfare state should be run in future.”

The British labour market is in turmoil. Public opinion is up for grabs. The country needs a new story on welfare. Will the Conservatives try to write it, or fudge the issue and let Starmer inherit it?

James Kirkup is Director of the London-based Social Market Foundation


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