THE latest attack on recipients of universal credit is tagged with typical euphemism Way to Work.
It ratchets up the pressure on hard-hit working-class families, extending the threat of benefit sanctions to hit jobseekers earlier — for example, if they turn down any job or are not deemed to be making “a reasonable effort.”
It is not merely the jobless but the working poor — a huge and growing slice of the British workforce, with seven in 10 children in poverty coming from working households by February 2020 — who are in the Tories’ headlights.
Ministers say people earning “low amounts” might need “additional support” — the velvet glove around the iron fist of benefit sanctions aimed at forcing people to work longer hours or have their social security payments reduced.
Labour’s response to the announcement misses everything significant about it.
Shadow employment minister Alison McGovern tries to swivel the focus back to “partygate,” saying the policy “has more to do with trying to save the Prime Minister’s job than supporting people into work,” before describing it as “tinkering at the edges.”
The government’s launch quotes Chancellor Rishi Sunak but not Boris Johnson, so it is less likely to be about saving the PM’s job than about establishing Sunak’s Thatcherite credentials ahead of any leadership contest with a few well-aimed kicks at those perennial scapegoats, “benefit scroungers.”
Given that as director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer boasted of toughening the penalties for benefit fraud at a time when this abetted a horrendous Tory-Lib Dem propaganda drive pitting “strivers” against “shirkers,” it is perhaps unsurprising that Labour takes for granted the idea that this policy is popular (hence it is billed as a bid to save a PM in trouble).
Labour could savage the plans for their cruelty — taking money from people who are by definition struggling (since they are eligible for universal credit) at a time when the uplift in this has already been cut, National Insurance rises are about to hit people in the pocket and energy costs are set to shoot through the roof.
It could point to what this renewed attack on the welfare state says about the continuity of Tory policy since 2010, and the fact that however Johnson has revamped the Tory brand with his talk of “levelling up,” this is a regime which continues to actively persecute the poorest.
It could point to the tragic cases of people like Errol Graham, David Clapson or Mark Wood, people who starved to death after being hit with benefit sanctions, to emphasise the utter inhumanity of the party of the rich.
It could even set this attack in context.
Following a pandemic which exposed the appalling low pay of millions of “key workers,” amid a labour shortage and increasing industrial militancy winning serious pay rises across several sectors, with dissatisfaction among underpaid and overworked public-sector workers so severe that 70 per cent of NHS workers say they want out — what does the government do to “incentivise work”? Not raise pay, but raise the pain threshold to force people to accept less.
The tragedy is that if “benefit scrounger” rhetoric works — and studies like the TUC’s landmark 2013 report showing people assumed a rate of benefit fraud almost 40 times higher than the reality show that it does — the pandemic provides a golden opportunity for the left to hit back.
Millions have seen how precarious are their livelihoods in a capitalist country with a shredded social security system like Britain’s. Millions have had to apply for benefits who did not do so before.
This is fertile ground to change attitudes and to press for proper support for those out of work and proper pay for those in work.
The Tories are working industriously to close off the potential for any new, better settlement to arise out of the pandemic. Labour is doing nothing to stop them.
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