Wednesday, January 09, 2008


Nasty ‘Nice’ Tories’ Latest: Back to the Workhouse

In the rosy glow of post-Christmas overindulgence, the Tories have hit on a bonkers brilliant Neanderthal new idea to prove they are the nasty ‘nice’ party, inspired by the nasty nice workhouse patrons in Oliver Twist. So, to bring welfare back to the Nineteenth Century forward into the Twenty-first Century, they would help the poor by making them toil for gruel. Meanwhile, the Chancellor and Prime Minister are offering their very best snake oil to public service workers as ‘good for you’ when what they mean is ‘good for themselves’. Both parties are bringing the word ‘patronage’ back to basics.

Twisted Tories

You can see how all this happened. Sitting back over their enormous meals in their enormous houses, Tory MPs watched the BBC’s new adaptation of Oliver Twist and empathised with the enormous workhouse patrons who were so nasty nice in the way they patronised the inmates. You know that scene where Oliver is dragged in from demanding extra gruel (which, like benefits, has fallen well behind inflation), and the workhouse patrons peer in outrage over their tottering towers of pies to condemn the young scrounger for his presumption? Well, you can just see the Tory front bench (educated at Eton, which is almost as character-building as the workhouse) nodding at these fine public-spirited chaps who look and sound so much like themselves: ‘Hear hear! That’s just what the feckless ingrates deserve. Now let’s have another goose’ [beckons nubile researcher]. You see, poor people are all intentionally evil and love living on next to nothing, so the Conservatives just can’t help their nasty ever so nice instinct to give these low-life-chance, low-life-expectancy people an extra kicking.

Of course, this chimes in terribly well with Mr Brown’s philosophy. Unlike the Conservatives, he doesn’t want to kick the poor, but he does want to boss them about. Labour’s whole approach is that they know what’s good for people much better than people themselves, and it’s not as if the Labour Government has a record of astounding cock-ups in their bossiness, is it? Oh. Since the Labour Government took office eleven years ago, Mr Brown’s iron hand – suffering badly from mettle fatigue since losing someone else to blame for his decisions – has enforced his dogmatic belief that everyone must be in any sort of work as a panacea to, well, everything. It doesn’t matter if some people or some families know something else would work better; Gordon Brown is better-informed about the lives of sixty-million-odd people than they are themselves. In this climate, it’s no great surprise that Labour’s response to the latest Tory wheeze is not ‘You’re a bossy, bloated throwback to the Nineteenth Century who’s in it to subsidise your mates in big business at taxpayers’ expense and to humiliate the poor while you’re at it,’ but a feeble ‘It would probably cost too much’. Well, the Labour Government should know about throwing wads of public money at private consultants and not getting much back for it, but I fear they’ve not learnt any lessons from it. So what they’re probably thinking is ‘Well, we didn’t think of it, so it must be wrong. But in a little while, when we do think of it, we’ll call everyone who then disagrees deliberately evil’. They’ve got form, and you only have to give them time before the cosy consensus between Labour and the Tories sees Labour adopting more Tory ideas, or vice versa.

Living on any sort of benefits isn’t luxury. It’s a crap life, and no Tory MP who claims claimants are on the life of Riley would consider that they or their families could get by on anything like it. Of course there are things that need to change in the benefits system: if you’re out of work for a long time, you feel hopeless, and there’s no-one giving you hope. There should be far better training to help you be, and feel, employable again. And the crazy poverty trap that I remember Liberal Democrats complaining about as far back as the 1980s must be changed – the trap where if you try to work you lose money through the Byzantine web of benefit bureaucracy. But that’s more difficult, and less headline-friendly, than just whipping up nastiness Tory niceness.

Of course Tories like Mr Cameron who’ve always had more to live on in a year than benefit recipients have in a lifetime say this is an easy life. That’s what I believe Freudians call ‘projection’. And that part of their mind-set that isn’t a nasty instinct of class warfare is a hangover from the blind alley of Twentieth Century politics, the Marxism and anti-Marxism that insisted there were only two sides to politics, and that both were all about money. Only the most stubbornly Tory economic determinist would insist that all people on benefits contribute nothing to society, and so must be made to do ‘something’. Being on benefits does not mean you’re anti-social; being in work does not excuse you from being a git because you pay income tax (or have fancy advisors to help you dodge it). It is both criminally stupid and morally offensive to argue that the only way to contribute to society is through money, but it’s exactly what both Tories and Labour believe.

Then What’s It For?

But let’s say for the sake of argument that that was true, that there were no charity volunteers or extended families or artists or any other sort of contributors among the people not ‘working’. What good is saying that all people out of work are by definition feckless and lazy and must be ordered into what the big government thinks is good for them going to do? Raise their dignity? Hardly. Is ‘community work’ just some worthless activity to make people feel punished for being out of work? Then it’ll only make people feel worthless, and be no use in getting them into real jobs. Is it, instead, doing real work for the Government that genuinely needs doing? In which case, will benefit levels rise to the minimum wage? If they stay as slave rates – and it’s pretty much the definition of slavery that you either do the work you’re ordered to or starve in the gutter – for work that needs doing, then surely that will put out of work the people who’d be doing it otherwise? Which means that they can be forced into the effective slavery too, if all their jobs have been undercut by the wageless ones. Hurrah! And so we have a deflationary spiral in government costs, at just the tiny expense of a new slave class denied all choice over their lives, unless they ‘choose’ to be starving and homeless. Which I don’t think is a price most taxpayers, being human beings before being economic units, are prepared to pay.

The Labour Government is, of course, also trying to drive down public sector wages, though not – yet – in so drastic a way. I don’t know enough, economically, to make an informed argument about whether or not three-year pay deals for the public sector are on balance the right thing to press for, though Millennium Dome and Bernard Salmon have each suggested that that sort of Labour Government target may not be altogether effective. What I do know is that the weasel words heard yesterday from the Prime Minister and his Chancellor were self-serving spin. I’m happy to listen to the economic case about stewarding the nation’s finances – but saying that fixed pay would be good for public sector workers because it gives them stability is a lie. At least, I hope the country’s top politicians were lying to us; the alternative is that they know less about economics than I do. Fixed costs make it easier for the Labour Government to plan ahead, which may or may not be good for the economy as a whole. But for the public sector workers involved, they have unpredictable costs on a fixed income. Without their knowing what inflation is, they have less “long-term stability,” not more; rather than being better able to plan ahead, they must simply hope that the Labour Government has got it right and they won’t end up losing money over the next few years. Because when has Labour ever made a mistake?

Like ID cards, this public sector price-fixing is being sold as something that’ll make people’s lives easier, but in fact it’s just to make people easier for the government to organise.

Sick Plans

The last thing I want to write about – pun intended – is the Tory plan to victimise people who are sick or disabled. Labour, too, have been increasingly targeting their invective against recipients of incapacity benefit; because whether you hate the poor (Tory) or believe work is the source of all moral virtue (Labour), through not being in work, sick or disabled people are probably scroungers and evildoers and should be criticised whenever possible. And, yes, some people on long-term incapacity benefit have had their lives complicated by living in areas the Tories dive-bombed in the ’80s and having been put onto a different benefit than whatever-that-year’s-thing-you-get-that-counts-you-as-unemployed was in order to cover up the collateral damage. But how exactly does setting an arbitrary target for getting people off any sort of benefit help anyone, unless you’re a cynical politician who thinks plucking a number out of the air sounds ‘tough’?

And now for the bit that I don’t really want to write. I’m on incapacity benefit. In two years of blogging, I’ve never typed that before, though some of you may have read between the lines. I’ve not written it because, in the way this country looks at people like me, I feel ashamed. I feel ashamed for being on benefit, and I feel ashamed of why I have to be. I suffer from a number of thoroughly unglamorous, unpredictable and generally humiliating long-term health conditions. Many people are worse off than I am, and some days are better than others. Some days I can get out, or type an article; some days I can do very little other than be stuck on the loo all day, and that offers precious little dignity, still less the life of Riley. Last night I had to miss yet another Federal Policy Committee meeting because I wasn’t well enough to leave the flat; I was sacked from each of my last two jobs because eventually, not every day but most of them, I was too ill to work. And when on occasion I go through good ‘patches’, though they never last, I wonder how, if they do, an employer is going to employ someone who can be very talented at their job when they’re there, but on a lot of days won’t be able to be there at all, and won’t know until it hits. It’s not exactly brilliant for planning ahead. My self-worth is low enough, and I suspect the same of hundreds of thousands like me. The government standing over me with a stick is going to make no-one feel better – except the sort who like hitting weaker people with sticks.

At this moment, I have a 20-page form in front of me that I have to fill out, as I do each year, to say just what is wrong with me and how it affects me. And soon I’ll be seeing a government-enforcement-doctor, who’ll ask me questions that I’ve answered on the form because no-one actually reads the things, and who I’ll have to stop before they ask me follow-up questions because they won’t have heard all the thrilling different things wrong with me yet. And I’m worried right now, as I am each time, because if it’s a better day and I can make it to that appointment, I might not seem like there’s enough wrong with me. And if it’s a worse day and I can’t make it, I’ll be penalised for that, too.

Best bit of bureaucracy: being told I’ve been struck from hospital appointments for one condition last year because I had to cancel more than two of them – because of a different condition. ‘Come back when you’re cured’ is a pretty weird message for a hospital to give, unless I’m very old-fashioned.

Tory rhetoric is designed to make people feel afraid – afraid, for people in work, that someone else is doing unfeasibly well by taking them for a ride. And afraid, if they’re not in work, that if they dare to pipe up they’ll be told ‘You’re well enough to make a fuss – so we’ll stop your benefit, and anyway no-one should listen to you because you’re by definition scum’. And that cynical threat is what’s made me stick my head above the parapet, though I’m afraid, too. But if someone like me doesn’t say ‘Sod off, you vindictive bastards, and how would you like it?’ then who will?

Update: Two extra references. On the subject of the Tories and Labour choosing as their victims the people least able to hit back, I was unable to find an online copy of the old Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch of a Tory Budget – raising taxes on wheelchairs, white sticks and so on – so here’s one of Call-Me-Dave-Kids Cameron-style kindler, gentler, more understanding solutions to social problems. For a more up-to-date take on the nasty ‘nice’ new policies, I’ve come across the Daily (Maybe), who sums them up in brutal style.

Further Update: Three more references! Gavin Whenman has drawn my attention to a brilliant Balloon cartoon.

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What I should like to know is how you are supposed to look for a new job while you on one of Mr Balloon's SLAVE GANGS - because it is not like some Pauline's Pens type won't stop your benefits if you don't turn up to pull weeds because you were going for an interview as a FIREMAN!
A fantastically crushing exposure of The Idiots as usual, and, without wishing to come over all People's Friend, also a really moving thing to read. Well done. You're also quite right (unfortunately, for your own peace of mind) that people like you *have* to make noise about these things. Otherwise it's easy for the more stupid and snobbish politicians to assume that it's all happening to some vague "other" class whose lives and motivations are a million miles from theirs anyway.

Oh I hug you in a useless way!
Ooh, sorry, forgot to reset. Matthieu is me. It's a long story (and contrary to how things may appear, it does not involve a sex change).
Thanks for the mention
Some days I can do very little other than be stuck on the loo all day.

Still, as long as you’ve got wireless broadband and a laptop, eh? Seriously though, I’m sorry things are a bit rough. Thanks so much for doing the interview last week. The double act worked out really well. I'm hoping to upload the footage to Facebook this weekend, but I’m struggling a bit with the technology! Take care. xxx
This posting has been nominated for posting of the year in the Lib Dem Blog awards.
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