The pro-wealthy and anti-humanist budget indicates clearly that the Conservatives are preoccupied with highlighting and cutting the state cost of sustaining the poorest citizens rather than the costs of subsidising the rich.
I’ve pointed out before that the Conservatives operate a perverse, dual logic: that wealthy people need support and encouragement – they are offered substantial financial incentives – in order to work and contribute to the economy, whereas poor people apparently need to be punished – by the imposition of financial cuts – in order to work and contribute to the economy.
That Osborne thinks it is acceptable to cut the lifeline benefits of sick and disabled people to pay for government failures, whilst offering significant cuts to corporation tax rates; raising the tax-free personal allowance and extending inheritance tax relief demonstrates very clearly that the myth of trickle-down is still driving New Right Conservative ideology, and that policy is not based on material socio-economic conditions and public need. (And Cameron is not a one-nation Tory, despite his claims.)
Research by the Tax Justice Network in 2012 indicates that wealth of the very wealthy does not trickle down to improve the economy, but tends to be amassed and sheltered in tax havens with a detrimental effect on the tax bases of the home economy.
A more recent report – Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality : A Global Perspective by the International Monetary Fund concluded in June this year that there is no trickle-down effect – the rich simply get richer:
“We find that increasing the income share of the poor and the middle class actually increases growth while a rising income share of the top 20 percent results in lower growth—that is, when the rich get richer, benefits do not trickle down.”
It’s inconceivable that the Conservatives fail to recognise such policy measures will widen inequality. Conservatives regard inequality and social hierarchy as inevitable, necessary and functional to the economy. Furthermore, Conservatives hail greed and envy as emotions to be celebrated, since these drive competition.
Since the emergence of the New Right, from Thatcher to Cameron, we have witnessed an increasing entrenchment of Neoliberal principles, coupled with an aggressive, authoritarian brand of social conservatism that has an underpinning of crude, blunt social Darwinist philosophy, as carved out two centuries ago by the likes of Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer.
Spencer is best known for the expression “survival of the fittest,” which he coined in Principles of Biology (1864), after reading Charles Darwin’s work. Spencer extended natural selection into realms of sociology, political theory and ethics, ultimately contributing to the eugenics movement. He believed that struggle for survival spurred self-improvement which could be inherited. Maslow would disagree. All a struggle for survival motivates is just a struggle for survival.
Spencer’s ideas of laissez-faire; a survival-of-the-fittest brand of competitive individualism; minarchism – minimal state interference in the processes of natural law – and liking for private charity, are echoed loudly in the theories of 20th century thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand who each popularised Spencer’s ideas, whilst Neoliberal New Right Conservatives such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron have translated these ideas into policies.
Ideology has considerable bearing on policies, and policies may be regarded as overt, objective statements of political intent. I’ve said many times over the past five years that Conservatives have forgotten that democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. Conservative policies are quite clearly no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are increasingly authoritarian, and all about telling us how to be.
Conservatives have always coldly conceived society as a hierarchy of human value, and they have, from their pinnacle of supremacist, self-appointed authority, historically cast the vulnerable and the poorest as the putative “enemies of civilization.” Social Darwinism is written in bold throughout their policies.
Furthermore, such a combination of Neoliberal and Conservative political theory, explicitly opposes democratic goals and principles. Neoliberalism was originally used by academics on the Left as a pejorative to capture the policies of imposed exploitation, privatisation, and inequality.
Neoliberalism is now characterised by the use of international loans and other mechanisms to suppress unions, squash state regulation, elevate corporate privilege, privatise public services, and protect the holdings of the wealthy. The term became widely recognised shorthand for rule by the rich, authoritarianism and the imposition of limits on democracy.
Banks, corporations, the financial sector, and the very wealthy are exercising power and blocking any attempt to restructure the economic system that brought about the crash.
Meanwhile, the free market is a market free for powerful interests; the profit motive has transformed the organising value of social life, and those who the Conservatives evidently regard as collateral damage of this socio-economic dogma made manifest are paying the price for the global crash, with Osborne and the Conservatives constructing narratives that problematise welfare support, generating moral panic and folk devils to demonise the poorest citizens in need of support.
Growing social inequality generates a political necessity for cultivating social prejudices.
Such Othering narratives divert public attention from the fact that the right to a fair and just legal system, a protective and effective safety net for the poorest, free healthcare – all of the social gains of our post-war settlement – are all under attack.
I have said elsewhere that Conservative ideology is incompatible with our legal commitments to human rights. The United Nations declaration of Human Rights is founded on the central tenet that each and every human life has equal worth. The Conservatives don’t agree, preferring to organise society into hierarchies of worth and privilege.
Conservative austerity measures and further impending welfare cuts are not only a deliberate attack on the poorest and most vulnerable social groups; the range of welfare cuts do not conform to a human rights standard; the “reforms” represent a serious failure on the part of the government to comply with Britain’s legal international human rights obligations.
The cuts announced by the chancellor include a further reduction to the benefits cap – not only from £26,000 to £23,000, as promised in the Conservative Party’s 2015 manifesto, but down even further to £20,000 outside of London.
Child tax credit, housing benefit and working tax credit will be reduced, with child tax credit only being paid for the first two children. Presumably this is, to quote Iain Duncan Smith, to “incentivise behavioural change,” placing pressure on the poorest to “breed less,” though personally, being the direct, blunt, no-nonsense sort, I prefer to call it a nudge towards “eugenics by stealth.”
The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission say that any cuts to tax credits will cut the incomes of 45 per cent of working families. These cuts are particularly controversial, since the benefits cap was partly justified as a way of “making work pay” – a Conservative narrative that echoes the punitive 1834 New Poor Law Principle of less eligibility – see: The New New Poor Law.
The Government asserts that its welfare “reform” strategy is aimed at breaking the cycle of “worklessness” and dependency on the welfare system amongst the poorest families. It’s more punitive Poor Law rhetoric.
There’s no such thing as “worklessness”, it’s simply a blame apportioning word, made up by the Tories to hide the fact that they have destroyed the employment market, just as Thatcher did, and as the Conservatives always do.
Punishing the low paid, cutting the income of families who work for low wages directly contradicts the claim that the Conservatives are “making work pay.”
Yet Osborne has framed his welfare cuts with the “The best route out of poverty is work” mantra, claiming that slashing the social security budget by £46 billion in the next five years, (including cutting those benefits to disabled people, who have been assessed as unfit for work and placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG), and cutting in-work benefits, such as tax credits) is needed to make sure “work pays” and that: “we give a fair deal for those on welfare and a fair deal to the people, the taxpayers of this country who pay for it.”
The Conservatives always conveniently divide people into an ingroup of taxpayers and an outgroup of stigmatised others – non-tax payers. However, most people claiming benefits are either in work, and are not paid enough, through no fault of their own, to pay tax, or are pensioners who have worked most of their lives; or are unemployed, but have previously worked and contributed tax.
Most people claiming disability benefits have also worked and contributed tax, too.
Unemployment and in-work benefit claims are generally a measure of how well or poorly the government is handling the economy, not of how “lazy” or “incentivised” people are.
And only the Tories have the cheek to claim that raising the minimum wage (long overdue, especially given the hikes in the cost of living) is the introduction of a living wage. The basic idea is that these are the minimum pay rates needed so that workers have an acceptable standard of living. Over the last few years, wages have very quickly fallen far behind the ever-rising cost of living.
The increase is at a rate of £7.20 an hour for people over the age of 25. Housing benefit will be withdrawn from those aged between 18 and 21, while tax credits and universal credits will be targeted at people on lower wages by reducing the level at which they are withdrawn.
The chancellor’s announcement amounted merely to an increase in the minimum wage, and the curbs on tax credits would hit low-paid workers in other ways, unfortunately.
Whilst the announcement of a phased increase in the minimum wage is welcome, it is difficult to see how this will reverse the increasing inequality that will be extended as a further consequence of this budget without a matching commitment to improving the structural framework – the quality and stability of employment available. As it is, we are now the most unequal country in EU.
If the government were sincerely interested in raising wages to make work genuinely pay, ministers would be encouraging rather than stifling trade unionism and collective bargaining. But instead we see further cuts to public sector pay in real terms year after year and the raising of the legal bar for industrial action so that strikes will be effectively outlawed in public services. And let’s not forget the grubby partisan policy of two years ago – the Let Lynton Lobby Gagging Act.
“Is this really a living wage? The living wage is calculated according to the cost of living whereas the Low Pay Commission calculates a rate according to what the market can bear. Without a change of remit for the Low Pay Commission this is effectively a higher national minimum wage and not a living wage.”
Those most affected by the extreme welfare cuts are those groups for which human rights law provides special protections. The UK government has already contravened the human rights of women, children, and disabled people.
The recent report of the UK Children’s Commissioner to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, published in July this year, says:
“Response to the global economic downturn, including the imposition of austerity measures and changes to the welfare system, has resulted in a failure to protect the most disadvantaged children and those in especially vulnerable groups from child poverty, preventing the realisation of their rights under Articles 26 and 27 [of the UN CRC] … Reductions to household income for poorer children as a result of tax, transfer and social security benefit changes have led to food and fuel poverty, and the sharply increased use of crisis food bank provision by families.”
The parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights recently reported on the UK’s compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and found it woefully lacking:
“Welfare cuts will ensure that the government is not in compliance with its international human rights obligations to realise a right to an adequate standard of living under Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights (ICESR) and a child’s right to an adequate standard of living under Article 27 of the UN CRC. Further it will be in breach of the statutory target to eliminate child poverty contained in the Child Poverty Act 2010.”
Just in case you missed it, there has been a very recent, suspiciously timed change to the definition of child poverty, and a proposed repeal of the Child Poverty Act – something that Iain Duncan Smith has been threatening to bring about since 2013.
It’s yet another ideologically directed Tory budget, dressed-up in the rhetoric of economic necessity, detached from public needs.
And Conservative ideology is all about handouts to the wealthy that are funded by the poor.
George Osborne’s Political Masterstroke – A View from the Attic
Osborne’s class spite wrapped in spin will feed a backlash – Seumas Milne
Budget 2015: what welfare changes did George Osborne announce, and what do they mean? – New Statesman: The Staggers
How Osborne’s new cuts breach the UK’s human rights obligations – Lecturer in Law at Lancaster University
Thanks to Robert Livingstone