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Wednesday, January 02, 2013 

2013: the year of benefit bashing.

As pithy reviews of 2012 go, it's difficult to demur from TCF's "it was shit".  It most certainly was: the weather was god-awful, mainstream music was god-awful, the coalition was god-awful, the economy was god-awful, and life in general was pretty god-awful.  There were a few chinks of light: London didn't erupt in rioting again, despite my suggesting it wouldn't be a surprise if there was a repeat of August 2011; Barack Obama was re-elected; Iran wasn't bombed; and we managed to resist the temptation to intervene in Syria.

Plus, there was the Olympics.  Yes, all those cynical pessimists like myself were proved pretty much wrong (although I did also say that we should make the best of it when it finally arrived and that I thought once it was on everything would go pretty much without a hitch, so yay me) as almost everyone delighted in a enjoyable summer of one or multiple persons running/swimming/cycling/shooting/BMXing/kicking/punching/sailing/spitting/etc slightly better than everyone else in their competition.  The cost was still exorbitant and I doubt there'll be much "legacy" to speak of other than the possible regeneration of part of the east end, but without it a grim year would have been much, much grimmer.

The success of the Olympics also had the effect of bailing the coalition out somewhat.  True, the Liberal Democrats are behind UKIP in most polls and the Tories are languishing on average around 10 points behind Labour, but it could be a whole lot worse now we're half-way through this parliament.  The Tories' only asset is David Cameron, and all he can boast about is that his ratings are on parity with Ed Miliband's.

Something I returned to throughout 2012 was Cameron's new year message, such was its emphasis on the circuses while suggesting that those on benefits would be lucky if they got any bread whatsoever.  It was, he said, the year that Britain would see the world and the world would see Britain, "the year we go for it".  If we're being charitable, we can say the world did see the best of Britain: our athletes were great, the opening ceremony wasn't bad, and hopefully they didn't tune in for the closing ceremony.

As for going for it, we ended the year with manufacturing output improving after a dire 12 months, albeit with the majority of retailers reporting that they had an "adequate" rather than an outstanding lead up to Christmas.  A triple-dip recession isn't yet out of the question, even if the "fiscal cliff" in America has for now been avoided.  That 2012 saw the first double-dip recession since the 1970s and the worst overall "recovery" since the great depression are naturally things that Cameron deigns not to mention in this year's message.  He instead focuses on the deficit, continuing to claim highly selectively, that it's been reduced by a quarter, and once again, welfare.

For 2013 is clearly going to see yet another ramping up of the Conservative rhetoric on the welfare system.  Realising that about their only truly popular policy has been the welfare cap, Osborne's autumn statement with its effective real-terms cut in benefits has set the tone.  The Tories are going to take every opportunity to slam Labour as being on the side of scroungers, whether the "scroungers" be those who are in work claiming tax credits or housing benefit, or those doing their best to find work on jobseeker's allowance.  Only those on the support strand of employment and support allowance are spared the below inflation rise, and ATOS has done its very best to ensure that's an ever decreasing number.  Iain Duncan Smith spent the new year claiming that tax credits were all but the spawn of the devil, the devil being Gordon Brown, while Cameron went for a classic straw man argument in his message, suggesting that those opposing the coalition's welfare reforms think it's cruel "to expect people to work".  No, it's cruel to expect those who genuinely cannot work to work, as the government via ATOS is doing, just as it's cruel to impose a real-terms cut on those who are dependent on the state through no fault of their own.  Any and every misleading statistic that can be dredged up will be ahead of the vote on the 1% rise, all of them ignoring that regardless of whether or not benefits have risen by more than wages in recent years, the basic rates have fallen significantly over time when compared to average wages. 

There's another reason for pushing this narrative now, as 2013 may also be the year when the welfare system begins to fall apart.  The aforementioned benefit cap has been delayed by three months so that it can be trialled in four lucky London boroughs, apparently because of concerns over whether the computer system will cope, while October will see the phasing in of Duncan Smith's pet universal credit project, already being described by one cabinet minister as a "disaster waiting to happen".  It would certainly be a miracle if this turns out to be an IT scheme without teething problems, such is the government's execrable record on new systems, but this clearly has the potential to put all the others in the shade: the apparent 25% failure rate suggested so far is frightening. Even if only 5% of payments fail, that's going to leave a hell of a lot of angry and desperate people without the means to pay bills or buy essentials. 

This ultimately is the danger for the Tories. They can demonise the 0.001% of fraudsters and feckless wasters as much as they like, but when the changes start affecting real average people struggling to pay their way then they're inviting a backlash.  The tabloids will quickly turn if their readers are suffering, as will those currently supportive if their friends and family are failed by the system.  The polls after all show support for the welfare state, even if we don't don't want to pay for it. By smearing everyone claiming anything the Tories are setting themselves up for a fall, and this could be a year they end up ruing.  It certainly deserves to be.

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"The tabloids will quickly turn if their readers are suffering..."

I'm not so sure of that.

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