THE Conservative Party are past masters at turning working people against each other — but Therese Coffey may find that she has dangerously misjudged the public mood.
Her advice to the millions set to lose money when the government ends the £20 universal credit uplift to work longer hours ignores a reality in which British workers have among the longest working weeks in Europe.
As for the advice to find better paid work, it will not wash coming from a government that is holding down pay in the public sector and facilitating attacks on pay and conditions in the private sector by ignoring the clamour for legislation against fire and rehire and by subjecting trade unions to draconian restrictions on the right to take industrial action.
Coffey’s depiction of the £20 uplift as a special measure which nobody expects to outlast the pandemic and her insistence that the Tories want to see people work their way out of poverty are familiar.
Her party has deployed these lines to great effect in the past. The Conservative-Lib Dem government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg justified a brutal assault on social security with their division of Britain’s people into “strivers” (or, in Clegg’s lame attempt to coin a new political catchphrase, “alarm clock Britain”) and “shirkers.”
Then chancellor George Osborne stoked resentment by contrasting hard-working early risers with those who allegedly spent their lives “sleeping off a life on benefits” while over at the Crown Prosecution Service a certain Keir Starmer did his bit to feed the furore by vowing to get tough on benefit cheats with 10-year prison sentences.
The propaganda was as dishonest as it was nasty: research by the TUC showed that benefit fraud accounted for just 0.7 per cent of the welfare budget but saturation of the press and airwaves with claims of it had entrenched the idea it was rife, with the public estimating on average that 27 per cent was claimed fraudulently.
The Treasury was cheated of far greater sums as a result of tax evasion. But the disinformation deluge did its work and allowed the coalition government to wage a cruel, humiliating and periodically lethal war on the unemployed, disabled people and the chronically ill.
Coffey’s problem is that things have changed. The destruction of hundreds of thousands of proper jobs by the Cameron governments was accompanied by an explosion in a “gig economy” dominated by insecure work and irregular hours: workers fed up of unpredictable shifts and uncertain take-home pay will be in no mood to be lectured by ministers on the need to put in extra hours.
And the pandemic has brought home to huge numbers how precarious their existence has become in this bargain basement economy.
Even before Covid, housing charity Shelter was pointing out that nearly three million people in England were just one pay cheque from losing their home. But the virus has made it clear how close we can be to losing that pay cheque in a deregulated economy riddled with short-term contracts that deny workers job security or sick pay.
Millions more have been forced onto social security, especially universal credit, and many of these are in work. Turning ordinary people against “shirkers” who are supposedly getting something for nothing will be harder than it was a decade ago.
We should not be complacent. The Tories have advantages when it comes to this game, not least the connivance of the bulk of the British media.
But on universal credit they are currently isolated, opposed by every devolved government, by the opposition, by the labour movement and by the public.
There is an opportunity here to turn the fight to protect the £20 uplift into a high-profile campaign on pay, proper jobs and a social security system that protects us all.
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