Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Moral judgements

In the course of a discussion about something else entirely over the last twenty four hours one of my correspondents referred to the "non working, working class".

This took place in the shorthand of twitter so I excuse the author who I know at greater liberty of expression would have put matters in more sophisticated terms.

Nonetheless the discourse of liberally minded  Labour  politicians over the Welfare Reform proposals does, it seems to me, betray a degree of miscomprehension (a word I have chosen with considerable thought) of the attitudes and principles our own supporters.

Not all of those at the base of the economic pyramid are the same and they deserve better than to be treated (even) the same in terms of economic well being.

There is, in so many ways, a difference between, on the one hand, the man or woman in marginal employment, at the victim of economic events beyond their control but nonetheless trying their best to contribute to society and, on the other, those who are content to make no contribution at all, ever.

I see no reason at all why the latter group should be worthy of any sympathy but that's not really important. What's important is that neither do those who are trying their best. And, in utterly cynical electoral terms, it makes no sense for the Left to argue otherwise.

I worked for many years beside a colleague in a support role whose whole life revolved around her children. She wasn't particularly well paid nor, I suspect, was her husband, who worked in a manual public sector job. Any overtime on offer and she would volunteer but you could always see where the money went. To the best of Christmas presents for her kids; for state of the art computers; to regular family holidays.

Once, at a Christmas Party, drink having been taken, I asked her why she had never had more than two children. Her answer was simple: "We couldn't afford it".

Now, this was before 1997 and Child Tax Credits but I have, nonetheless, found myself thinking over the last few weeks what she would make of those complaining that, having never worked, they will find it impossible to bring up seven children if a benefit cap of £500 per week (net) is applied. Or indeed of those Labour politicians, listening only to the loud voices of those directly affected, who have confused that with the opinion of the overwhelming majority.

It is wholly wrong that those at the top of the tree are rewarded disproportionately but it is equally wrong that those making the effort to struggle at the bottom are not rewarded at all.

Now there are counter arguments, I know them all.

Firstly, that this is nothing compared to the differential between the super rich and the working poor. True, but the numbers of the super rich are remarkably small. Tax them (much) more, certainly, but don't pretend that will by itself make any of this unimportant.

Secondly, that this is irrelevant given the levels of mass unemployment caused by the depression. But it's not. As those wanting work compare their efforts with those of the disinterested it only makes them more furious, particularly if the recently unemployed find themselves not personally entitled to means tested benefits because of modest savings or a working spouse.

Thirdly, that this is not about supporting the feckless but rather only the children of the feckless. This is where a degree of morality must enter the argument. Is it really our position that everyone is entitled to have as many children as they like on the basis that the rest of us will pick up the tab? Certainly there might be nothing that can be done over past events but do we really want to send the signal that this can continue indefinitely? Or to rule out financial sticks in relation to future behaviour. This is, I appreciate, difficult territory in relation to individual "mistakes" but we also have to be frank about this. If it is likely to have a financial consequence then such mistakes are less likely, not because it will financially disadvantage the "child" but rather because it will financially disadvantage the parent.

Fourthly, that cuts in housing benefit might require people to live only where they can afford to live. This is, apparently a choice completely beyond the experience of the Labour front bench. They should inquire of their voters. Thanks to the economic collapse the housing market has virtually ground to a halt but the one bit still, just, functioning, is in relation to those having to sell as they can no longer afford to pay their mortgages. Try telling them that some of their taxes should be going to those relieved of that choice.

And then, finally, there is the question of incapacity and disability benefits. Now, some of the changes the Tories are making are outrageous, particularly the means testing of ESA. And the implementation of some of the changes Labour brought in, particularly the ineptitude of the ATOS assessments, are equally outrageous. But it was Labour in previous opposition who argued that much "incapacity" was in fact disguised unemployment. We were right then and no amount of individual hard luck stories should deflect us from that. By doing so we not only insult both those capable of work, by encouraging them to exaggerate their own "incapacity", but also those who are genuinely not capable of work but who find themselves accused of malingering by association.

Let us not for a moment underestimate the current disastrous state of the jobs market. But, equally, let us not pretend that there was not a hard core, never anticipated by Beveridge, who, even through the long New Labour boom, mysteriously found themselves unable ever to find any work of any sort.

And let us not just shrug our shoulders and pretend that this doesn't matter. It might not to us in the comfortable middle class but it certainly matters to an awful lot of Labour voters. Even before they were struggling themselves.

1 comment:

  1. The numbers of benefit recipients who have massive families and live in big houses in posh areas subsidised by the taxpayer will be quite small. Yes it is outrageous but it’s also an anomaly and policy shouldn’t really be based on anomalies.

    That doesn’t mean everything is dandy because of course there are massive problems with housing benefit and there were always going to be because, as soon as the decision was taken to subsidise housing through housing benefit rather than actual bricks and mortar, this was inevitable. It was always going to happen because the market is not a god that solves all problems, it’s a means for people to make money.

    Much as I would share a general annoyance with this anomalous workshy family living in palatial splendour at the taxpayers expense what annoys me far far more is the much bigger number of unscrupulous landlords who are raking in a nice profit from housing benefit payments by renting out overcrowded substandard housing. It’s one of the reasons to see housing benefit devolved asap so the HB department can work hand in glove with local authorities and crack down on these shysters, many of whom should be going to prison never mind simply being taken off the landlords register – supposing they have bothered to register in the first place. Roll on the day.