Monday, 4 October 2010

The families we aren’t all talking about this conference season, but should be.

David Cameron says on the eve of his party’s first conference since returning to power that we should all stop worrying and learn to love the spending cuts, or at least put them ‘into perspective.’

The comments were made in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, as the government confirmed big changes to the benefits system. Changes that Mr Cameron called ‘refreshingly radical’ and which he promised would always make people better off to be in work than claiming benefits.

Welfare reform is at the heart of Conservative plans for cutting the deficit and will see most current benefits combined into a ‘universal credit’ that will be more responsive to changes in the circumstances of claimants. Iain Duncan Smith, the architect of the reforms promised they would ‘break the cycle of dependency and poverty that has become so entrenched in poor communities.’

Who could disagree with that? It should pay people to work; benefits should be a short term support not a life sentence. The trouble is reality tends to play havoc with the best laid plans of politicians.

For a start the economic outlook is far from promising, Ireland is tottering on the brink of bankruptcy again and may drag other European economies into the abyss. At least one Tory ‘big beast’ has expressed reservations about the future and since it is Ken Clarke, Chancellor during the recession of the Major years, it might be a good idea to listen to what he has to say.

Speaking to the Observer on the eve of the party conference he said he was ‘at the more pessimistic end’ of opinions about the economic future and was not ‘sunnily optimistic about where the Western economy is going.’

He expressed support for the cuts to public spending and said there was a below 50% chance of a double-dip recession hitting Britain, but refused to rule out the possibility of one being caused by ‘some fresh wave of global fear and crisis’ in the near future.

Last week’s Labour conference was all about families, or rather the feuds within a particular family; it was, if you like, Eastenders with policy documents.

This week’s should be too, but this time about families who live in the world outside the Westminster bubble. Not the families claiming universal benefits when they’re rich enough to do without or the ‘feckless scroungers’ who normally surface whenever welfare reform is discussed.

The families in question are those of people working in threatened public sector jobs or struggling to get by on benefits. They aren’t ‘public sector fat cats’ of the sort pilloried in some sections of the tabloid press or guilty of making a ‘lifestyle choice’ to be on benefits; they’re just doing their best to get by.

Later this month they’re going to be dealt a body blow by the cuts to public spending from which many may never fully recover. It is by no means, despite all their talk about ‘sharing the pain’ and all being ‘in it together’ whether a government composed largely of people with first rate educations and little idea about life as lived by ordinary voters, fully grasp the extent of the suffering they are about to unleash.

They will have to learn quickly though, this goes as much for the Labour Party as it struggles to come up with a credible alternative as the Tories making the cuts in the first place, because vague talk about the ‘blitz spirit’ from politicians will cut little ice with people who didn’t have much to start with and now risk losing the lot.

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