Socialist Worker

The Tories and Labour are wrong on welfare

by Mark L Thomas
Issue No. 2397

Nasty cuts need nasty lies to justify them—and to divide opposition to the pain and suffering they cause. So scapegoating unemployed people on benefits has been central to the government’s plans to drive through austerity.

The Tories and the right wing press have relentlessly contrasted hard working “strivers” with the supposed lazy “skivers” on benefits. They expected the cuts to welfare to be popular. 

And scandalously Labour is still unwilling to defend benefits. Last week it backed the government’s cap on welfare spending, with just 13 Labour MPs voting against.

But a year on from the introduction of the bedroom tax and the household benefit cap last April, there are signs that the Tories aren’t getting it all their own way.

The bedroom tax has become a hated symbol of the government’s brutal attacks on the poor and has been effectively scrapped in Scotland.

Atos, the private company carrying out the government’s vicious Work Capability Assessments on disability claimants, has become so hated that it has been forced to give up its lucrative contract early. 

Iain Duncan Smith’s flagship Universal Credit scheme, which bundles together six major benefits into one payment, is in danger of sinking. One million claimants were supposed to be on the scheme by now. Instead only a few thousand are, at a cost of around £225,000 each.

Cabinet tensions over the scheme between Duncan Smith, George Osborne and Francis Maude have threatened to erupt as a result. 

Osborne thinks Duncan Smith’s crusade costs too much. And senior civil servants are briefing that it might have to be scrapped after the next election.

Some Tories are even questioning whether the war on welfare is quite as popular as they had initially assumed. 


Tim Montgomerie, a leading Tory commentator, pointed to a poll that showed support for welfare changes dropping from 25 percent to 11 percent between April last year and February this year. 

Despite claims that society has become more individualistic, collectivist ideas remain strongly entrenched in Britain. 

The government’s authoritative British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA) shows that as many people identify today as working class as in the early 1980s. Polls consistently show huge support for renationalising of the energy, post, rail and water companies.

The belief that the state should curb the worst excesses of the free market has not been eroded. But one exception has been over welfare benefits.

Support for the idea that the government has a responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed fell from 81 percent in 1985 to 59 percent in 2012.

The constant scapegoating of the unemployed has had an impact. 

Significantly, the BSA points to the key period that support for unemployment benefits fell was under the New Labour government after 1997—a time when unemployment was falling.

New Labour helped to legitimise the idea that those out of work were to blame for their plight.

But while it may be possible to convince some people that benefit claimants are ill-deserving in the abstract, attitudes can start to change as the real impact of welfare cuts hits home. People see the effects on their friends, families and former workmates.

There are signs that this happening.

The number of people who think that unemployed benefits are “too high and discourage work” fell from 62 percent in 2011 to 51 percent in 2012 according to the BSA.

This shift in mood has then been reinforced as sections of the press such as the Guardian and the Mirror start to report the devastating impact of the cuts on peoples’ lives. 

There is a real potential for campaigns to win the argument in society and force retreats over aspects of the welfare onslaught. And every victory helps show that our side can still win the war over welfare.

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