TORIES whose consciences have finally made themselves felt over the looming impact of universal credit can sense that this welfare “reform” is a disaster in the making.
But demands from the likes of Heidi Allen, Ed Vaizey, Justine Greening and David Davis for injections of extra cash into the scheme, and changes such as raising the work allowance and cutting the waiting period, fall far short of the total rejection of the policy that is required.
Their acknowledgement that universal credit is driving people into poverty is an improvement on Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey’s conference claim that benefit cuts were a figment of Labour’s imagination. But it is unlikely to see them heed shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s call on all parties to vote down tomorrow’s Budget unless the roll-out is halted immediately.
We can expect Philip Hammond to whip out some cosmetic concession that satisfies the uproar within his own party. After all, Conservatives are unlikely to be genuinely moved by plight of the families losing out (estimates given by McVey herself indicate that half of single parents and two-thirds of working-age couples with children will lose £200 a month).
They have tolerated eight years of brutal cuts. A 169 per cent increase in rough sleeping since 2010 has not troubled them. A million more children in poverty — 100,000 in the last year alone — did not make them pause for thought. This is the party that waged a lengthy, expensive and ultimately futile legal fight to avoid publishing statistics showing thousands of people had died after being declared “fit for work” in work capability assessments — with McVey’s predecessor Iain Duncan Smith even trying to buy time by claiming the information he was eventually forced to release did not exist.
We can be sure that any changes made to universal credit in the Budget will be superficial — just as the much-mooted “end to austerity,” which Hammond did his best to avoid defining on Andrew Marr today, will be nothing but a con.
Communities have been devastated by cuts — A&Es, libraries and Sure Start centres shut down, councils bankrupt, lifeline social and mental care services cut to the bone, schools so starved of resources that last month we witnessed the unprecedented spectacle of head teachers marching on Downing Street.
Years of pay “restraint” have seen nurses forced to rely on foodbanks to survive and created the longest squeeze on incomes since the beginning of the 18th century.
It is highly unlikely that Hammond will call a halt to the cuts, given he was planning on chopping another £1.3 billion from front-line council services less than a month ago, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies then calculated there were at least £7bn of welfare cuts in the pipeline and that abandoning all planned cuts while maintaining all planned expenditure would require a £19bn increase in spending.
Even if he did, it would take a monumental change of direction and huge investment in the communities and services the Tories have wrecked to start to repair the damage.
It would also take admitting that “austerity” was never a bid to reduce Britain’s debt (which has more than doubled on the Tories’ watch) but was a bid to enrich the richest at the expense of working-class people.
And — as shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon pointed out at the weekend’s Labour Assembly Against Austerity — that class war waged by the ruling class dates back far further than 2010 — with economist Joseph Stiglitz pointing out that in 40 years the income share of the top 0.1 per cent has quadrupled, that of the top 1 per cent almost doubled and that of the bottom 90 per cent declined.
That great wages robbery coincides with the entire period of neoliberalism from Margaret Thatcher onwards. If we are going to take back what’s ours, we need a fundamental change of direction — which means driving the Tories from office and electing a Jeremy Corbyn-led government. Whatever’s in Hammond’s briefcase tomorrow, that task remains paramount.
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