Benefit “Reforms”: Is a politician’s idea of fairness is the same as a human’s?

Many people see the nation’s social security budget as a product of ‘left wing’ thinking; it is true that when the Attlee government followed the recommendations of Beveridge and introduced our social security system, part of ‘The Welfare State’, it was designed partly as a safety net to ensure that nobody in society would have to live life without their basic needs being met and also as a way to advance social mobility and equality of income in a post-war society. For three decades from the late 1940s, the welfare state was part of our ‘post war’ political consensus. In the modern era, people such as Iain Duncan Smith have attempted to place words in the mouth of dead man, saying that Beveridge would be horrified to see how the welfare state has grown; I think he would too but not for the reasons that libertarians such as Duncan Smith would. Beveridge never planned the welfare state against the backdrop of long term unemployment, falling wages and ever increasing living costs. His vision was a holistic one in which the needs of the many would be met through employment, equality of social mobility and advancement for all.

Since the introduction of libertarian economic policies in the UK in the late 1970s, the welfare state and our benefits system have become the victim of abuse by this nation’s, and the world’s, wealthiest. Research by the TUC show that one reason for this is that since the start of the 1980s, the share of the economy going to wages has shrunk. And those with the highest salaries have done better than those below them. The result is that average workers now get a smaller section of a smaller pie. The average full-time worker is now paid around £26,000 a year. But if wages had grown in line with economic growth, and if the gap between those right at the top and the rest had not increased, the average worker would now be getting £33,000 a year – a £7,000 pay rise, rather than the massive fall in real wages that we have seen over the last few years. This has led to the rise of ‘welfarism’ in the neo-liberal UK.

‘Welfarism’ is a ‘free market’ construct; we have been subjected to an economic ideology where the market fully dictates the value of money, the distribution of money and dictates who is forced into the social security safety net in order to survive. That has led to a society where long term unemployment is the norm, where employment insecurity is rife and where incomes for millions fail to keep pace with primary living costs; the social security system is the only thing keeping those people from outright deprivation. And the biggest beneficiary of welfare has been government and private enterprise; schemes such as working tax credits allow companies to pay low wages, allowing them to create pay differentials between the top and bottom of organisations that have grown massively since the 1980s. (Howard Reed’s article for The Fabian Society ‘The Inequality Boom’ is worth reading; his data show that inequality rose consistently from 1979 onwards,  This allows private enterprise to pay out bigger share dividends along with bigger pay and bonus packages to executives, for example. Similarly, employers have closed final salary pension schemes and one in three employees are paid so little they cannot afford to pay into a pension scheme at all. Employers are therefore taking advantage of the state pension scheme to subsidise their operations. The private housing sector has also taken advantage of the nation’s largesse; the critical shortage of social housing has caused a huge increase in private landlords using buy-to-let mortgages, whose rents are bigger than those of social landlords, such as local authorities. This means that private landlords have become the biggest beneficiaries of housing benefit. And now we have the tax payer supported hyper-scrounge called ‘Help To Buy’.

In short we have seen the rise of the ‘rentier’ economy, where the proportion of income spent on life essentials such as housing and heating has increased, and is still increasing massively. So having created a system that works that way and to their huge advantage, those who have manoeuvred themselves into a position of social and economic power have also attempted, quite successfully it must be said, to shift the blame for that situation onto those who have had least influence in creating it; the poorer and poorest in society. In many ways it has been fascinating to see how those in a position of power have attempted to shift the blame for an economic and social crisis that was so blatantly caused by their greed, arrogance and apathy just as blatantly onto those who are its victims. Some might say it was ever thus; it has happened many times before.

In the past, people who found themselves in a victimised position had advocates in the trade unions and The Labour Party. Yet with The Labour Party pandering to the wishes of the economically powerful , wedded to austerity and cuts to people’s lives, along with the acquiescence to that thinking by much of the trade union movement, that has gone. BluLabour propaganda is moving to a situation where the parameters of their socialism are being defined by the very neoliberal market that it should be seeking to destroy, supported by the ‘establishment’ left’s top down position of ‘we can go this far and no further’. If Labour gain popular support from that stance, the argument for those who are fighting austerity, and want the real courageous reform needed, will enter a new phase; it will mean that, ultimately people are being told to accept a fictional ‘middle ground’ between austerity and growth. But this ‘middle ground’ will ultimately be a continuation and acceleration of the current wealth dividing, corporatist thinking currently being talked about by the exponents of austerity. If we are thus fooled into believing Labour can deliver what society needs then neoliberalism and the market will try to shape shift again, this time as a wolf in sheep’s clothing and hi-jack the ‘social contract’ for ends which equate to a more of an anti-social contract.

We, the people, must become our own advocates. And in my experience, as I talk to people who are being hit by austerity, that is happening. Many people are refusing to be seen as victims and want to become agents of change. It is my view that most people’s lives in this country have been abominably compromised over the last 40 years leading to today’s current disastrous social and economic situation; acceptance of austerity would not only be seen as capitulation by succeeding generations but also as a discarding of the achievements from centuries of human social advancement.

Comments

  • All true and only the tip of the iceberg as to what many of us have had to suffer from over our lifetimes- all unecessary.The latest diatribe from Duncan Smith about sick or disabled people on ESA taking too long to get a job shows that certain people in the Tory party will take it as far as we allow them to e.g a few thousand dead ones due to their policies does not trouble them. Whats next ? Concentration camps or selective euthanesia for those who will not or cannot fit into their self serving agenda? We spent 6 years in a world war followed by 7 years or more in austerity to make that point. It is true we cant rely on parties to mount a defence but we can call them to account. There are more of us – the ones that support a fair society -than there of the others. Its all a question of recognising where our strengths are and using them to defend ourselves. Inequality in whatever form is largely man made and can be unmade. I once went to a conference on poverty in the 70s and got next to a burly uneducated ex-boxer from America who exploded at the agonising that went on there and said in a thick brooklyn accent ‘just give the poor the money they need and they wont be poor no more’.
    Shirley Frost Sheffield Defend Council Housing & Benefits Justice Campaign

    shifroshirley frostNovember 25, 2013
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