Labour’s recent slippage in the polls is partly because of the excessive timidity in declaring what the party really stands for, but also because of the way that Labour has been worsted over welfare reform. This reflects the Blairite Tendency’s efforts to out-right the Tories in playing to public prejudices over benefits – a contest it can never win without turning Labour into a Tory party mark II – as well as a deep unwillingness to stand up and fight for the facts if it might risk unpopularity.
So far from courting popular favour by this tactic – the focus group approach – it actually alienates public opinion because of the perceived dishonesty. Yet the Tory position on welfare is so riddled with misrepresentation and lies that it ought to present Labour with an open goal.
First, contrary to the shock mythology perpetually run by the Tory tabloids on welfare which has caused the public to imagine (according to polls) that 27% of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently, the actual figure – according to DWP official estimates – is 0.7%, one-thirtyeighth of what the public has been led to believe by Tory propaganda.
By contrast the annual amount lost to the Exchequer through tax avoidance is some £25bn plus another £70bn through tax evasion. Why doesn’t Labour point this out continually?
Second, unemployment benefit, so far from being more generous than wages as is constantly implied, is actually lower in Britain than in almost any other EU country and has actually halved in value compared to average earnings over the last 35 years, from 22% in 1979 to just 11% now. Furthermore there are already draconian penalties in place against any JSA applicant who refuses to go on a training scheme or to take a job, including a 26-week loss of benefit.
Of course people should be expected to work so long as they genuinely can and are not prevented by physical or mental disability, but how they are all expected to find a job when there are on average nationally 8 people chasing every available job and in the North-East no less than 22 per available job?
Third, instead of pointing the finger at imagined ‘shirkers’, the governing class should actually be pointing the finger at themselves for the increase in welfare costs. Since Thatcher’s period in office unemployment has averaged three times the post-war rate, peaking at 3.2 million in August 1986, and it would have been near-4 million if she and her government hadn’t switched hundreds of thousands of jobless persons on to incapacity benefit instead.
At the same time the proportion of those in low-paid jobs has doubled to over 20%, while wage levels in general have now stagnated over the last decade. The fault lies not with the victims of the economic system but rather with the perpetrators of a neoliberal capitalism which has dramatically failed to produce jobs and decent wages.
Fourth, that is the reason why so many of those bearing the brunt of Cameron-Osborne’s benefit cuts aren’t unemployed at all: four-fifths of these tax credit and benefit cuts are hitting working households. So instead of penalising had-working families, why not go after the idle rich who live off capital, 1,000 of whom have just been revealed to have increased their wealth by £190bn since the financial crash of 2008-9, including by £35bn in the last year alone?
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