Today’s blog probably makes me sound like Dave Spart, so apologies in advance to those of a tender or neo-liberal persuasion….
Ed Balls and George Osborne are having a row over whether the Autumn Statement measures hit ‘strivers’. According to the commentariat this is because the Chancellor sought in his statement to trap Labour into having to choose between backing welfare cuts (which would appal its activists) or opposing them (which would appal an electorate polls show to be ever more hostile to those on benefits). But Labour now thinks it can turn Osborne’s punt into an own goal by pointing out that most of the welfare cuts will actually impact on the working poor, a group which gets a lot more sympathetic attention.
Many people will find the whole deserving versus undeserving poor thing unpleasant, but there are three other reasons why the distinction is highly problematic:
1. Notwithstanding the point about in-work benefits, many people are continuously moving between being ‘strivers’ and benefit dependents. People on the lowest wages and who have experienced recent unemployment are precisely those most at threat of future joblessness. Not only do they face penury and many other social economic and social risks if they lose their job, but they will suddenly move from the sunshine of Mr Balls’ and Mr Osborne’s admiration to the darkness of their admonishment.
2. It is a lot easier to be a ‘striver’ in some places than in others. Given that the unemployment rate in Darlington is three and half times that of Reigate, does this mean the people of the commuter belt are inherently more striving than those in the North East? In fairness, perhaps we should have a regionally adjusted striving index which reflects local labour markets. So anyone who has had a job in the last three years in Darlington can get a ‘striver’ badge but anyone in Surrey with a job on less than, say, £20k should be labelled a feckless loser.
3. Is striving restricted to paid employment? How about those on benefits who provide 24 hour care to loved ones, or who volunteer in the local community or who are coping with severe physical and mental illness. As, apparently, none of this counts as striving perhaps they should just leave their relative in a wheelchair outside the town hall, stop helping out around the neighbourhood and perhaps do the decent thing and stop being a burden to us all.
I am no political innocent. I worked for a politician who was fond of the morally freighted phrase ‘ a hand up, not a hand out’. But whilst this kind of stuff is tolerable at the margins and when things are going well and there is a reasonable supply of jobs that pay a living wage, right now it feels like the worst kind of reactionary, intelligence-sapping populism.
Or perhaps I just don’t get it. I must strive harder.
Public services, commercial corporations and spontaneous social movements: what's the power they all lack? How might public service reform not flounder through shoehorning dynamism into a universalist and planned approach? How might businesses become genuinely socially responsible rather than merely intoning fine sounding rhetoric?