Credit where it’s due: David Cameron, a Tory prime minister leading the most right-wing party since the 1980s, has committed his government to abolishing poverty, inequality and discrimination. These are noble objectives. We should all earnestly hope that he succeeds.
It is an abomination that two thirds of children in poverty live in households where at least one parent is working. It is a scandal that young people cannot afford homes and that, as the Prime Minister, put it, “a generation of hard working men and women in their 20s and 30s are waking up in their childhood bedrooms”. It is shocking that people with black faces, or the wrong names, or the wrong sexual orientation are still less likely to be interviewed for jobs.
In his final five years in office, Mr Cameron has promised to abolish these and other social problems he rightly says “blight our communities”.They do. The trouble is that his policies are making them worse.
His government is cutting working families entitlement to tax credits which, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says, will make millions of working families at the lower end of the earnings scale even worse off.
The National Living Wage of £9 an hour, to be introduced by 2020, will not compensate the working poor for their losses. The IFS say that it is “arithmetically impossible” for the increase in the minimum wage to replace the benefits being axed.
By 2020, this “all-out assault on poverty”, will leave 13 million families £250 a year worse off and three million will have lost £1,000 a year. These figures have not been rebutted by the Government. They are a result of the £12bn cuts in welfare entitlement Mr Cameron has already set in train.
The non-working poor and disabled are in an even worse state than those in work, with the bedroom tax, the benefits cap and changes to disability allowances. But no one seems to bother much about them. Many are assumed to be work-shy “skivers” who just need a bit of tough love to nudge them into the labour market.
As for the “affordable housing” revolution the Prime Minister promises will turn “generation rent into generation buy” – that is an even worse deal for the less well off.
Cameron has already depleted the social housing stock by selling off housing association homes. Now he is proposing to scrap the requirement for developers to include affordable homes for rent in new building projects.
Instead they will be allowed to build affordable homes to sell. But since these will cost around £250,000 (£450,000 in London) they will only be affordable to people earning around £50,000, according to housing charities such as Shelter, and a lot more in London.
As this housing stock is snapped up (often by buy-to-let landlords) the number of affordable rented properties will fall even further. Indeed, we are seeing, essentially, the abolition of social housing in England. The people who are supposed to be getting on the housing ladder will find themselves on the private rent ladder instead.
Tories such as Justice Secretary Michael Gove, get very angry when this is pointed out. He even accused the Spectator publisher, Andrew Neil, on BBC’s Daily Politics of indulging in “show-boating” and being “selective with statistics” on housing. But there is no other way of looking at this, unless there is a mass house-building boom the like of which we have not seen since the 1950s, a house-price crash the like of which we have seen only in America or a combination of both. There is not a cat in hell’s chance that the working poor, or even the younger middle classes, will be able to join the property owning democracy by 2020. It will be middle-aged working men and women waking up in their childhood bedrooms.
Voters aren’t stupid. People will be able to tell when their tax credits disappear, their living standards are reduced, their rents are increased or their homes are repossessed. So, how does Mr Cameron think he will get away with this? Won’t people remember how he promised “a great British take-off that leaves no one behind”?
He is right to say that the state should not subsidise poverty wages. But does he seriously believe that employers will start paying even higher salaries than the £9 an hour many now claim is unsupportable? Where are these well-paid jobs going to come from?
I suspect that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is closer to the reality when he says that Britain will have to become “a country which is prepared to work hard in the way that Asian economies are prepared to work hard”.
In other words, the new Britain will be land of minimal social protection, poor remuneration and long hours. It is a vision of Britain as a combination of a Victorian workhouse and a Chinese enterprise zone.
But here’s the thing: even this Gradgrindian vision is unlikely to be realised because those mundane jobs are no longer around in advanced capitalist economies such as Britain’s. And they aren’t coming back. Automation is set to destroy whole areas of even middle-class, white-collar employment.
Perhaps a new generation of service jobs will appear, based on the internet, to take up the slack. But it’s not at all clear what these will be or how people will be able to pay for them as Britain becomes a low-wage economy without low-wage jobs.
Many have compared Mr Cameron’s speech to one of Tony Blair’s, and there are obvious similarities. The nationalism, the praise for armed forces, the appeals to gender and racial equality. The Prime Minister always said he was the heir to Mr Blair; now he has claimed his inheritance.
He is appealing, not to the poor and dispossessed, but to the middle-class swing voters in middle England who, analysts still believe, decide general elections. In the past this was a plausible strategy, supported by a compliant media.
But times change. Many of the dispossessed are getting organised and becoming political as we have seen with the Corbyn phenomenon. They have new channels of communication. The assumption that these people do not vote, and can therefore be discounted, may be a fatal mistake. As we saw in Scotland, when the less well off do get involved in politics, the effect can be devastating to establishment parties.
Moreover, at least Mr Blair had a genuine vision of a fairer Britain and a means to realise it. Labour introduced the national minimum wage, in the face of Tory hostility, and also working family tax credits as a means of making work pay.
Mr Cameron was contemptuous of the Labour governments. “Labour ideas don’t help the poor”, he said, “they hurt the poor. That’s right. Labour: you’re not for working people, but hurting people”.
Well, the news is that millions of people are already hurting as Britain emerges from the swamp of recession. And under this government, many are about to join them.
from Herald 8/10/15