Conservatism of the left - the siren voice that stifles change

David Aaronovitch resisting the blair project

Share
Related Topics
This is a tale of two friends and a radio broadcast. Let us call first my old chum Otto. Over lunch yesterday, Otto and I reminisced over old times, caught up on mutual old flames - married, pregnant, lesbian and dying - and told each other secrets that we would not dream of telling our spouses. But, most intimate of all perhaps, we talked of our feelings about the Blair government - that great political project of our generation.

Otto was affectionate, but critical. He understood what Tony and Gordon were trying to do, but had found the single parents stuff a bit disturbing. In his experience some single mums would never get jobs. "Nobody will employ them," he told me, "they're totally unmotivated and they can hardly string two words together." If only, he went on, there had been some practical way of distinguishing between those who would work, and those for whom benefit might be as good as it was going to get.

So what about the disabled, I asked him. By way of answer he told me the story of his cousin and his cousin's wife. Eight years ago Otto's aunt had died. Otto's cousin, the oldest son of the family, and the old woman's favourite, had taken it very badly. A middle-ranking executive in the Post Office, married with two daughters of his own, he had become very depressed and couldn't cope. He had a nervous breakdown, left work, and was duly judged to be disabled. An educated man, he had not worked since the age of 39, living on various disability benefits.

But that was not all. Two years later his wife, a nurse, had injured herself while lifting a patient out of the bath. She too was declared to be disabled, and, having been hurt while at work, qualified for an even higher level of payment. So, in this suburban household nobody had worked for a living or paid taxes for more than half a decade. "He should work, he could work," said Otto of his cousin, "but instead he just mopes."

His moping is very expensive. And not just his. Forget for a moment all the earnest stuff about poverty (though, of course, it is real enough). Like Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, nearly all of us in the prosperous middle classes have mad wives hidden somewhere in our attics - family members or friends who live permanently or temporarily on benefits that were not originally designed for them, yet who claim without batting an eyelid. Except in our case it is the artist who gets thousands in housing benefit, plus the dole, but never declares selling a canvas. Or the struggling author. Or the single parent. It is one way in which state money, originally intended to relieve poverty, is haemorrhaging out of the system.

But you wouldn't believe it, were you to listen to the radio or watch the television. In recent days I have been absorbing a great deal of what has been said about the leaked memo to Harriet Harman on possible cuts to disability payments. The tone of virtually every single interview, or reporter's package, has been of undifferentiated, prejudged hostility to the idea of reviewing how disability payments are assessed. A spectacularly one-sided report on Tuesday's edition of Radio 4's PM ended with an old woman campaigner weeping at the very idea that anyone could consider looking at this area of exploding expenditure. Earlier, during a debate on the Today programme, another formidable lady was allowed to assert - unchallenged by the presenter - that only the disabled themselves could decide whether they were fit to work or not, and that the state's role was merely to fork out the cash.

I have seen this attitude before. It is good old-fashioned political conservatism at work, this time of the left. The Guardianocracy, though it laments the lack of resources for health and - most critical of all - for education, resists with outrage any change whatsoever in the way the welfare state (where many of its supporters work) is run. Last week, after my column attacking Labour's welfare rebels, I was rung up by a young woman at the BBC and asked to repeat my views on television that week. They couldn't get anyone else to argue that side of the case, she told me, her voice stiff with disgust.

So to dinner. My other friend, Paul, is a consultant. Recently he has been working, he told me, as a facilitator for those in government, for administrators and for advisers, charged with solving the problems of millennial Britain. He is sent people from different departments and backgrounds who have an interest in a specific project, and his task is to draw potential solutions and strategies out of them.

He had been stupendously successful. By using techniques designed to discourage participants from hiding behind group loyalties and to help them to confront their dilemmas head-on, he is seeing a huge amount of innovative thinking. His teeth flashing and his large hands windmilling, Paul described how, in a day and a bit, intractable problems could begin to be solved. He was taking these leading people in, timid and worried, locked in their unnecessary rivalries, and sending them out agents of radical change.

But what world, I wondered, was he sending them out to? Let us suppose, for a moment, that he had drawn together those responsible for coming up with an answer to the problem of spiralling disability payments. Further suppose that, shorn of their prejudices and prior judgements, they had devised fair methods of better distinguishing between those who might well work again, and those who genuinely could not. What chance, in the current climate, would their solutions have of a fair hearing, and of engendering a proper debate? Judged by the past fortnight, I'd say, sod- all.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform