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Last night the Coalition pushed through its bill to cut benefits in real terms. That they would pass such a measure is hardly surprising. Yet what is more intriguing is the unusual way in which the conservatives justified this move.
Whenever the Conservatives have attacked benefit claimants in the past they have argued that benefits incentivize worklessness, and and that making the experience of unemployment more onerous will get more people into work. Yet on this occasion, the government have not dared to rely on such an argument. Indeed we have seen Tory ministers rushing to disassociate their government from it’s previously deployed rhetoric about “shirkers”. Instead the govenrment has relied on vague arguments about “fairness”, asserting that it is “unfair” that benefits have “risen” more than average earnings over the past four years (this argument is of course economically illiterate, benefits have not “risen” but merely kept pace with prices).
This change of tactics is perhaps understandable. Throughout the Coalition’s period in office, the unemployed have outnumbered vacancies by at least five to one. As such, we appear to have reached a point where even the Tories themselves do not feel they can convincingly argue that benefits encourage people to “choose” worklessness, and that cutting benefits will get people into jobs. A traditional piece of Tory (and yes New Labour) rhetoric has proven useless in the current economic context.
This may be little comfort to those about to see their benefits cut. But it is perhaps indicative of an important historical shift. One important legacy of the great depression was that it established the consensus that unemployment was not an individual failing but a social problem, arising out of the organisation of the economy, and that govenrment had a responsibility to address it. By the 1990s that consensus had been reversed. Those who have screeched with indignation at labour’s approach to the unemployed have sometimes failed to appreciate the wider picture – that for most of the past two decades, public opinion has overwhelmingly viewed unemployment as the outcome of individual laziness and inadequacy. The fact that the Tories now feel unable to prominently argue that cutting benefits will get people into work, and the fact that a leader of the Labour party finally has the gumption to stand unambiguously on the side of the unemployed, suggests that things finally might be changing. The prolonged failure of Britain’s capitalist economy to provide work is, at long last, and beginning to alter the politics of unemployment within society at large.
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