A Treasury minister has warned the Conservative Party not to divide the British people into “shirkers and strivers” as it defends the Government’s squeeze on the welfare budget.
Greg Clark, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, appeared to distance himself from the more hardline approach of George Osborne, the Chancellor, who has contrasted early risers who leave for work with neighbours who prefer “a life on benefits,” and Grant Shapps, the Tory chairman, who issued a party advert showing a benefit claimant on a sofa. Some Conservatives want to see less harsh rhetoric, to ensure they do not regain the label of “the nasty party.”
Mr Clark said that “worklessness is a complex problem” and that “talk about ‘shirkers’ is too simplistic.” Writing on the ConservativeHome website, Mr Clark said there is nothing wrong with being a “striver” but argued that not everyone wants to be one. “What many people want from life is not a relentless struggle for advancement, but a reasonable working day, in which they can do a good job, but still have time for friends and family,” he said. “Not being a striver doesn’t make you a shirker – it’s simply a matter of working to live, not living to work.”
Mr Clark said the Tories must champion ordinary working people. He cited a report by Neil O’Brien, former head of the Policy Exchange think tank, who has been appointed a special adviser to Mr Osborne, on how the Tories can fight back in areas like the north of England. His research found that only 13 per cent of the British people identify strongly with the “striver” label, and are even less likely to see themselves as “aspirational” or “upwardly mobile”. The most popular description of themselves (cited by 40 per cent) is as “ordinary working people, trying to get on in life.”
The Treasury minister said the Conservatives must show that they understand the instincts of this group as much as those of the strivers. Their values — quiet responsibility, mutual reliance and family loyalties — could be described as conservative, and the party had a powerful story to tell them.
Opinion polls appear to have shifted against the Government since Mr Osborne announced last month that most benefit and tax credit rises will rise by one per cent for the next three years. The latest survey, by ICM, found that 36 per cent agree that “squeezing benefits is fair, as wages for workers are also being squeezed,” but that 58 per cent agree that squeezing benefits and tax credits is “unfair, as it will hurt the vulnerable, including many people who work hard for low pay.”
Labour has accused the Conservatives of “demonising the unemployed”. On Monday night, nine Liberal Democrat MPs, including the former party leader Charles Kennedy, voted with Labour against the Bill imposing the cap on benefit rises, and another 11 Lib Dems did not vote. The measure was approved by a majority of 59, with the 37 other Lib Dem MPs voting in favour.
Mr Kennedy said: “The insidious thing about this legislation is that in seeking to open up a philosophical divide of that type, it is not an issue of political leadership, it's an issue of political pandering to some of the fears, the insecurities and indeed the downright prejudices that can be stoked up in society, the us and them mentality, the sense of resentment, the sense of envy.“