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Editorial Rise in revolt over the universal credit cut – and the Tory lies on wages

TOMORROW the removal of the £20 universal credit uplift will punch a hole in millions of household budgets across Britain.

It will do so as millions are receiving letters informing them that their energy bills are going up.

As the end of furlough could spell hundreds of thousands of job losses in the sectors still suffering extreme disruption as a result of the pandemic. At a time when hunger is already so widespread that foodbanks outnumber McDonald’s outlets. 

Boris Johnson is isolated. The trade union movement and MPs of all parties, including his own, have expressed grave concern. Every devolved government in Britain has called on him to issue a reprieve.

The Prime Minister has performed a number of screeching U-turns in the past. Some at absolutely the last minute, as over sending children back into schools during a Covid peak in January, something he backed down on only on the first day of term.

Possibly he will do so again. But his fierce defence of the decision to cut universal credit today suggests not. It would not be the look he is going for on the day of his Conservative Party conference speech.

So he trots out some well-worn lines. The public should not be subsidising low wages, he says.

True, and Johnson tries to make a virtue of higher pay rates being offered in certain sectors — road freight, hospitality — currently suffering from labour shortages and significant resulting disruption. 

These are of course welcome, and unions like Unite are right to point to corporate underinvestment and endemic low pay as the causes of these shortages, rather than harping on about Brexit and making a virtue of the very reliance on super-exploited imported labour that has led to the crisis, as the Labour Party leadership still does.

But there is a problem with Johnson’s claim to be backing a transition to a “high-wage, high-skill” economy.

It is undermined by his refusal to ban fire and rehire, a pernicious practice that allows bosses to unilaterally downgrade the pay and conditions of their workers.

And it is exploded by his determination to hold down pay in the public sector, where NHS workers are being told to swallow an insulting 3 per cent raise while other public-sector workers are not even being offered that.

Tory mood music is already shifting in response to resistance to the universal credit cut. Where a few weeks ago Department for Work and Pensions boss Therese Coffey implied, with her advice to work extra hours, that those on universal credit were lazy, Johnson is careful to present his move as about challenging employers to pay more.

But he is still pushing the idea that “the market” will solve the problem. Cut government subsidies and wages will eventually rise. Longer-term measures to improve housing supply and move away from fossil fuels — we might note in passing that his government is doing nothing significant on either count — will cut energy bills in the long run.

As John Maynard Keynes quipped, in the long run we are all dead. The pain working-class households face is coming now. 

And the public will not be turned against universal credit claimants so easily as in the past. 

The pandemic has made millions realise how precarious is their grip on the basics of a comfortable life — a roof over your head, enough to feed the family, to go out once in a while. Huge numbers have come to realise the importance of a social security safety net and how threadbare that net now is.

There is no need for the Tory divide-and-rule gambit to win this confrontation. Cutting universal credit will do nothing for workers’ pay. 

The labour movement should be working out now how we raise revolt over this savage attack on our people.

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