Sunday, 7 April 2013

IDS should take the £53 challenge- even though he won’t learn anything from it.

Open mouth, insert foot; end up looking like a total idiot. This week must have felt like old times for Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, a reminder of those halcyon days when he led the Conservative party up a cul-de-sac of political irrelevance.

Asked by an out of work market trader ringing in to Radio 4’s Today programme if he could live on £53 a week benefits IDS airily replied, ‘If I had to I would.’ Bad move; very bad move, by midweek the petition urging him to put his money where his mouth is had grown so large the Royal Mail will have to borrow a monster truck to deliver it to Downing Street.

IDS had taken to the airwaves to defend the government’s welfare reforms, which came into force this week, on the same day George Osborne told an audience of bemused supermarket workers that the government were ‘trying to make the system fair on people like you, who get up, go to work and expect your taxes to be spent wisely.’

They’re making the system fairer by abolishing much of it, a bit like ‘saving’ a village from the enemy by burning it to the ground; only you wouldn’t trust this gang with a box of matches obviously.

Along with the infamous ‘bedroom tax’ they are also going to scrap access to legal aid for anyone earning over £32,000, get rid of the Disability Living Allowance and bring in the Universal Credit for all claimants. All of which is part of the epic struggle between ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’ the government is touting around in lieu of having a proper economic policy.

Speaking from a shared pulpit with an eloquence and sense of purpose that shames the opposition the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed churches called the thinking behind the welfare reforms a ‘systematic misrepresentation of the poorest in society.’

Len McCluskey of UNITE said that the ‘sight of the chancellor urging the low waged in work to turn their backs on the poor out of work’ marked ‘a new low for one of the highest offices in the land.’

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls, showing his usual measured tone said the government’s plans for reforming the welfare system were ‘inhumane’ adding ‘what planet are they on? I can’t believe they are so callous.’

The case for reforming a welfare system created in the 1940’s is as compelling as the one for not doing so in the ham fisted manner favoured by the government. What we need is a welfare system that supports, educates and empowers people; what we’ve got is one that too often parks them out of sight. What we might soon have, if the government get their way, is one that abandons people completely; dressing up cynical neglect as tough love in the process.

What has surprised and saddened me, yet again, is the attitude to the poorest people in society shown by Iain Duncan Smith. For some, seemingly irrational, reason I thought he was different, a Tory grandee who had come down from his ivory tower, boogied with the poor folks for a while and actually learnt something from the experience.

What he has learnt, it seems, is that playing to the lowest common denominator is the route to political gold, at least in the short term. To this end he ramps up the ‘strivers’ against ‘skivers’ rhetoric hoping as he does so that the resulting division will hide the fact that the government he is part of has no idea how to kick start economic growth and has painted itself into a corner with its deficit reduction plans.

The welfare state isn’t an unaffordable luxury; it is a bulwark against barbarism and like it or not it is the safety net we will all fall back on at some stage of our lives. We need to spend more on it not less, with our zeal for reform focussing on making sure every penny spent produces a socially valuable return.

This is a tough message to sell, the Daily Mail and the Sun would hate it, the movers and shakers in the boiler rooms of the three main parties would feel a bit nervous too. It corresponds to none of the received wisdom about how the business of politics should be done, it costs money, won’t produce instant results and requires a level of maturity and collaboration seldom seen at Westminster.

Unlike the solutions being offered by the current government it might produce results in the long term; one day someone will have to try it, you just have to hope it isn’t too late.

Until then it might do IDS some good to live for a year in £53 a week, a 97% pay cut, if nothing else it might rid him of the misplaced notion that the poor just aren’t trying; they’re trying harder than anyone, just to survive. Then again, on his current form all he’s liable to learn from the experience of walking a mile in a poor man’s shoes is what its like to be a mile away wearing someone else’s shoes.

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