Has the Tory myth about people on benefits finally shattered?

This debate has provoked civil war within the Conservative Party at its conference in Birmingham

Hannah Fearn
Wednesday 05 October 2022 11:38 BST
Treasury secretary suggests benefits may not be uprated in line with inflation

In years to come, it will probably be the mortgage crisis we’re now in that will be ascribed the label of the “poll tax moment” for the Conservatives – the point at which voters could no longer swallow the spin, and began a revolt. But for me, there was another moment that proved the slow-turning tanker had finally done a full pivot.

That moment came when left-wing columnist Owen Jones appeared on Jeremy Vine’s Channel 5 daily debate show yesterday morning. When a clip of Jones attacking the government for apparently refusing to raise benefit payments in line with inflation (as former PM Boris Johnson had planned) appeared on Twitter, the response was…. well, sympathetic.

“Address the elephant in the room. If the gov increased the living wage, those receiving in-work benefits would be able to cope thereby reducing the [universal credit] bill,” said one poster underneath. “If people in work need benefits then the minimum wage is too low. The government needs to stop subsidising badly paid jobs,” chimed in another.

And then, the gut punch: “A friend of mine is a job coach in the job centre, he claims universal credit because he doesn’t earn enough.” Ouch.

To clarify, this is not the reception that Jones and his stridently leftist views usually receive on that programme’s social media threads. His political position and presentation often cause a bit of a digital bunfight. Not yesterday; the majority is now in full agreement that Liz Truss is making a mistake.

A graph illustrating data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and circulated by the BBC has become a talking point this week. It demonstrates in lurid pinks and purples what people claiming benefits, and those who work either within or for adjacent or allied public services, have understood for well over two decades.

That is, the rapid rise in benefit claims are subsidising two things that individuals themselves have absolutely no control over – wages below the level of subsistence (around 40 per cent of universal credit recipients are in work, often working full time), and housing costs well above the level of affordability for people on ordinary wages.

For a long time, the Tories could rely on well-oiled myths about the benefits system to prop up their policies on austerity, meaning the bedroom tax, the two-child limit on family claims, and a failure to link benefits increases to the cost of living in modern Britain failing to prompt a wider moral objection.

Many people spoke about what this meant in reality – that deep poverty, not relative poverty, was the biggest growing problem for Britain – but it didn’t trouble the Tories at the ballot box because the majority of voters were themselves unaffected by the changes and held onto their false beliefs that benefit claimants were work-shy, feckless or in some other way deficient as individuals.

And that, happily, is no longer the case. The public discussion this week is no longer about the mythical moral deficiency of those who need to claim benefits, but about the genuinely moral emptiness of a government that, by virtue of their own policies, condemns those already impoverished by an economy that prices them out of basics such as food, shelter and heating to potential destitution. While also talking about the critical need for tax cuts for the wealthy. That curtain has been ripped clean off.

This debate provoked civil war within the Conservative Party at its conference in Birmingham. Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said it “doesn’t make any sense” not to shift benefits upwards in line with inflation.

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Of course, that is the sensible view when inflation is rising in such a rapid and chaotic manner. His fellow dissenters within the Tory ranks have seen what the rest of us can see also: that saving money on one set of benefits payments is a false economy that will end up costing far more in the short and longer term. On the cost of supporting homeless families. On mental health treatment for broken parents. In the lost potential of a generation of children who grew up in such abject need that it scarred their life chances.

Among the throng there are those, including home secretary Suella Braverman, who think Truss is right to operate a “reverse Robin Hood”, penny-pinching from those who can’t pay their rent or make their wages meet their outgoings while also allowing the wealthiest to – in the words of the Conservative mantra – “keep more of what they earn”.

So, given that the Conservative membership elected Truss and Truss is now a zombie leader, should we prepare for PM Braverman? Perhaps, but it would be a very short-term thing. Because the myth that has dogged British social policy for so long, that if you need to claim benefits it is in some way your fault, is shattered. It is over. And unless you count this column, I won’t be writing its eulogy.

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