So the party conference season is here and once again our glorious leaders have come up with plans to help the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Help them to be poorer and more vulnerable that is.
Labour, those champions of the poor and oppressed, kicked things off with Ed Balls pledging to keep the Tory/Liberal imposed benefit cap, raise the state retirement age and scrap the winter fuel allowance (after all those old folk won’t need to heat their homes so much if they’re at work will they?). According to Jessica Elgot of the Huffington Post he also said they would “introduce limits on overall ‘structural’ welfare spending” (Huffington Post, 22/09/14). Presumably it was left to Ed Balls to announce these attacks on benefit claimants and pensioners so that the other Ed could ‘forget’ to mention them and play the good cop.
Commenting on Ed Balls conference speech Matthew Reed of the Children’s Society said policy “is about making choices and the shadow chancellor has made a choice – to look for savings by cutting help for children” (ibid) referring to the cuts to child benefit which the Labour party are refusing to reverse if they win the next election.
As awful as these plans are and as much as they are a slap in the face for many a prospective Labour voter it is, of course, still true that when it comes to kicking you when you’re down the Labour party are still amateurs. The warm up act over it was time for the headliners to appear on stage. Like some aging band playing to the faithful who have followed them since Woodstock the Tories got their show underway belting out old favourites like Class hatred, Tax cuts for the rich and, of course, Make the scroungers work. They’ve even had time to pen some new material like Iain Duncan Smith’s madcap Prepaid benefits cards. All much stronger stuff than Ed Miliband’s weak folky set which included My pal Diamara and I met this bloke down the pub.
OK I think the music festival analogy has gone far enough and it makes the Tories cooler than they are. The point is the Tories were playing to their audience and their audience are a really nasty selfish bunch. Exactly the right kind of people to put a plan for prepaid benefits cards to. Iain Duncan Smith presented the policy to the Conservative party conference by saying it was aimed at benefit claimants with “destructive habits” such as alcoholism, drug abuse or even debt (Guardian, 29/09/14). The reality is it was aimed at those voters, and MPs, thinking about defecting to another party. He claimed it would help them by making sure the money they got was spent on essentials like food. It went down very well in the hall but his apparent concern for those on benefits would be easier to believe if it wasn’t for the fact that his policies have pushed many of the people in question into debt and other problems. This is, after all, the same government minister who came up with the idea of paying housing benefit to claimants rather than directly to landlords. So on the one hand he wants to teach those on benefits responsibility, which is really insulting coming from a man who lives off the wealth of his wife’s family, by giving them their rent money to pay to their landlords but on the other hand they’re not to be trusted with their JSA.
The Tories weren’t finished with just one attack on benefits claimants. Oh no, there’s an election in a few months and they need to shore up their support in case that party of Mad Hatters (maybe that should be mad haters) to their right steal too many votes from them. So, just to assure the tory faithful that the nasty party still hates poor people as much as ever, George Osborne announced a freeze on benefits for 2 years.
When asked about this policy on the BBC, the Prime Minister said it was “a basic fairness” that benefits shouldn’t rise faster than wages. A typically Tory trick – deflect attention from the rising cost of living, and the government’s failure to do anything about it, by claiming someone is getting a free ride. The PM was then pressed on the issue of ‘fairness’ and asked if he thought it was fair for the poorest to pay off the deficit to which he responded that his government had made the rich pay their share. When asked to provide examples of this he pointed out stamp duty on expensive houses and the Chancellor’s pledge to make corporations like Google (which Osborne didn’t actually name you’re just supposed to guess who the tax dodgers are) pay the corporation tax they should be paying. What an insult! While freezing (in effect cutting) in and out of work benefits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance and Working Tax Credit this is all they can come up with?
The highest rate of stamp duty is currently 7% and is applied to homes that cost over £2million. That means is you buy a home that costs £2million you pay £140,000 in stamp duty. That’s a fairly hefty amount of tax. The problems with this approach to making the rich pay their ‘fair share’ of the deficit are that firstly – it’s avoidable, if you don’t want to pay that much don’t buy a house that costs £2million and if you don’t want to pay it at all just don’t buy a house; secondly – if people are buying houses that cost 2 or 3 million quid they can not only afford to pay that stamp duty but they’ve already had an income tax cut as well as a variety of other tax cuts; and thirdly – whether people are paying huge amounts on stamp duty or not that doesn’t change the potentially devastating effect a benefits freeze could have on people who can only dream of having the problem of paying £140,000 in stamp duty.
As for making Google et al pay corporation tax – how dare George Osborne even bring that up? They’ve been in power since 2010 and now they decide to do something about companies not paying tax. We already have a low level of corporation tax which companies choose to avoid paying and this government (and previous Labour governments) have chosen to tackle the issue with spectacular inactivity but we’re supposed to believe that if they’re re-elected they’ll sort out Google and make them pay their ‘fair share’. If they were serious about tackling tax dodging (by the wealthy) they’d have at least made a start – they haven’t.
One side issue here is that the above discussion of the Prime Minister’s comments is largely based on the 1 o’clock news on BBC1. In that programme the main thrust of the report was about the freeze on benefits but by the 6 o’clock news the same report had been changed to focus on the issue of an in/out referendum on EU membership. I’m not suggesting that the BBC were ‘got at’, far from it Cameron seemed even less comfortable with the questions on the EU referendum, but it does show that attacks on the poorest people in our society, attacks that will lead to deepening levels of poverty and quite possibly contribute to rising suicide levels among benefit claimants can’t even hold the media’s attention for a few hours.
So, there it is, the poorest pay more, benefit claimants are attacked again, claimants are once more linked with social problems like alcoholism and drug abuse (a classic IDS ploy to lessen any residual public sympathy for them) all while those who really could afford to pay off the deficit get an easy ride.
I said earlier that the audience the Tory ministers were playing to are a nasty selfish bunch – they are, and if you’re not convinced of that the fact that so many of them are looking for an even nastier party than the Tories should be proof enough. As for the Labour Party seem to want to ignore their own audience and please the Tory faithful instead.