Politics does not matter- or does it?

Michaela and I were sitting looking miserably into our tea cups today and talking about the vote in parliament to cut welfare payments.

All this depressing divisive and stigmatizing talk of ‘strivers and skyvers’. Tax cuts to the rich to encourage them all to generate ‘growth’ in the economy (best measured it seems by how much the rich get even richer.) As if the poor are somehow culpable- a useless drain on society that we are better without. As if they were the cause of all this economic turmoil rather than its primary victims.

Writing in the Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty pronounced this vote as the final nail in the coffin of the welfare state. Some may regard this as overdue- as we lurch to the right, and find our political language dominated by America. But we are not America. We have our own proud history- not the Kings-and-Queens stuff, but the history of the rise of a kind of shared decency that characterises these islands. The history of the small people in fields and factories. Here is Chakrobortty;

 the golden period of Welfare really came in the 60s and 70s as, thanks to the work of Barbara Castle, Jeff Rooker, Audrey Wise and others, pensions and allowances were made more generous and tied to typical earnings.

“If you were poor, you were far less behind than at any other time in contemporary British history,” according to Richard Exell, a senior policy officer at the TUC and a campaigner on welfare issues for more than 30 years. “It produced a Britain that was one of the most equal societies in western Europe.”

Just before Margaret Thatcher came to power, a single person out of work would get unemployment benefit worth almost 21% of average earnings; last year, jobseeker’s allowance was nearly half that, amounting to just over 11%.

Welfare’s big decline came in the 1980s, as the Conservatives moved more benefits from available to all to on offer only to the poor. This was justified as making public spending more efficient.

But, according to a famous and much quoted study by Walter Korpi and Joakim Palme, such means-testing is far less effective and more expensive than universal benefits. In a study of 18 rich countries, the academics found that targetting benefits at the poorest usually generated resentment among those just above – and led to smaller entitlements.

This “paradox of redistribution” was certainly observable in Britain, where Welfare retained its status as one of the 20th century’s most exalted creations, even while those claiming benefits were treated with ever greater contempt.

“If you look at unemployment and sickness benefit as a proportion of average earnings, then Britain has one of the meanest welfare systems in Europe,” says Palme. “Worse than Greece, Bulgaria or Romania.”

Some of that same meanness can be seen in the way Welfare was discussed as it moved into its sixth and seventh decades. It was no longer about social security but benefits. Those who received them were no longer unfortunate but “slackers“, as Iain Duncan Smith referred to them. A recent study by Declan Gaffney, Ben Baumberg and Kate Bell of 6,600 national newspaper articles on Welfare published between 1995 and 2011 found 29% referred to benefit fraud. The government’s own estimate of fraud is that it is less than 1% across all benefit cases.

Is this what we come to- this great nation of ours? Mean and whinging and judgmental?  Are we not better than this? Which brings me back to politics. Michaela remembered reading something recently about one of the finest politic speeches of the last 50 years in the UK- Neil Kinnock, speaking in 1985, at a time when we were young and fired up by ideas and hope that things could be better;

If Margaret Thatcher is re-elected as prime minister on Thursday, I warn you.

I warn you that you will have pain–when healing and relief depend upon payment.

I warn you that you will have ignorance–when talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right.

I warn you that you will have poverty–when pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a government that won’t pay in an economy that can’t pay.

I warn you that you will be cold–when fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don’t notice and the poor can’t afford.

I warn you that you must not expect work–when many cannot spend, more will not be able to earn. When they don’t earn, they don’t spend. When they don’t spend, work dies.

I warn you not to go into the streets alone after dark or into the streets in large crowds of protest in the light.

I warn you that you will be quiet–when the curfew of fear and the gibbet of unemployment make you obedient.

I warn you that you will have defence of a sort–with a risk and at a price that passes all understanding.

I warn you that you will be home-bound–when fares and transport bills kill leisure and lock you up.

I warn you that you will borrow less–when credit, loans, mortgages and easy payments are refused to people on your melting income.

If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday–

– I warn you not to be ordinary

– I warn you not to be young

– I warn you not to fall ill

– I warn you not to get old.

Neil Kinnock

For the record, Thatcher won the election and we live in her rain shadow still. Cameron and his whipping boy Clegg have now gone further than even Thatcher would ever have dared go however.

Politics matters. We need some more Kinnocks- for all their faults…

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