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Universalism and Tory small state ideology

The Tory attack on universal benefits this weekend is part of an ongoing ideological assault on the public sector, dressed up as an attempt to cut the deficit through the destructive austerity program.

Iain Duncan Smith’s attempt to play down the story today is clever, but the proposal is out there and the narrative set.

The reported call on wealthier pensioners to pay back entitlements they don’t need is simply the latest step in the Conservatives consistent plan to reduce state spending and the welfare state.

The proposal paves the way for a discussion on means-testing, through which the complexity of applying for almost guarantees a lower take-up than the number of individuals who are qualified. As George Eaton, wrote,

‘The great practical advantage of universal benefits is that they ensures support goes to those who need it. At present, 1.8 million elderly people eligible for the means-tested pension credit do not claim it due to the complexity and invasiveness of the application process.’

The progressive way to redistribute money, as Owen Jones points out, is through an interventionist state pursuing more progressive taxation, not through attacking universalism. The Tory project will generate greater social division whilst it increases poverty, as Owen explained,

‘Stripping the welfare state of its universalism will breed a middle-class that is furious about paying large chunks of tax, getting nothing back and subsidising the supposedly less deserving. It will accelerate the demonisation of the British poor … That is where the shredding of universalism ends up, promoting poisonous ideas of an undeserving poor, where the wealthy resent paying taxes in exchange for zilch.’

We are now in the longest slump for over a century and while the evidence shows the market is refusing to deliver the investment necessary for a recovery, the Tories are pursuing their small state agenda.

Carrying out austerity therefore requires isolating potential opponents through divide-and-rule, whether pensioners, social housing tenants or immigrants.

But while universal pensioner entitlements were targeted on Sunday, the myth of Eastern European ‘benefit tourist’ migrants was repeated on Saturday in the Daily Express, with the same old smears of their ‘abuse’ of the system, creating a ‘burden on taxpayers’, bearing no relation to economic reality.

The right are successfully framing the debate on the economy, with a divisive narrative on benefit payments, that distracts from their project of destroying the public sector.

Labour must reframe the debate. To begin this, Labour must first reject Tory scapegoating to divert attention from their destructive small state austerity program, with its attacks on universal benefits.

But if it is to win the argument Labour must shift the focus away from benefits and the deficit, and focus on a positive message of economic growth through public investment in social infrastructure and increased employment.

This article first appeared on Next Generation Labour.

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