Welfare reform and denial
For a while now, it has felt as though ‘slashing benefits’ is a founding principle of the Tories. They have made lots of speeches about it. It’s something of flagship policy, in the sense that they hoist it up whenever a storm threatens, and they trust that the resulting media frenzy will distract people from the fact that they are drowning. You might come to believe, through sheer repetition of the message, that slashing benefits is important to this government.
They’re going to slash benefits because there is no money. They’re going to slash benefits because benefits trap people in a culture of dependency. They’re going to slash benefits because benefits are unfair to Alarm Clock Britain. Because of all the people coming over here and taking all our benefits. Because there’s still no money. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. In any case, they’re definitely going to slash benefits.
This week it emerged, through the unearthing of evidence, that the DWP has in fact been slashing benefits. Leaked emails suggest that staff at job centres are instructed to impose sanctions on jobseekers. In fact, the evidence suggests there are targets for how many jobseekers should be sanctioned, and that jobcentre staff may themselves be sanctioned if they fail to, well, slash enough benefits.
So imagine my surprise when the government denied this! Denied that the DWP is carrying out government policy! Denied it strongly, as though such an accusation was unreasonable and bordering on the libellous. Their wounded cries could be heard for miles: How can you accuse us of carrying out the thing we said we would do?
The Work and Pensions Secretary reacted to the news that the DWP are carrying out the stated goals of the government as follows:
“There are no targets, there will be no targets and anybody caught imposing a target will themselves be dealt with.”
And yet this accidental carrying out of government policy would seem to have been going on for at least two years.
So how to reconcile the stated goals of the government with its horrified reaction to discovering that its stated goals are being carried out? Well, there would seem to be a few possible explanations.
The impulse to deny that they are doing the thing that they said they would do could be attributable to simple habit. What do you mean, of course we didn’t do it. Oh, you have evidence. Well, whatever you have that you think shows we’re doing the thing we said we’d do doesn’t prove we’re doing the thing we said we’d do.
After all, this is just another episode of The Thick of It, albeit one from which we can’t escape. They didn’t listen to the question and haven’t yet realised that they’ve spent the week heartily denying the successful implementation of their own policy.
The government fears that carrying out the thing they said they’d do might not yet be legal. This seems unlikely, due to the exciting new option of retrospectively changing the law so that whatever you’re doing was always legal. QED.
3. Public opinion is complex
The government is concerned that its rhetoric may be interpreted differently to the reality of carrying out the goals implied by the rhetoric. This is little more complicated, and may imply that there is hope for the country. The rhetoric about welfare focuses on a stooge character, a stock figure that almost everyone can easily locate if they concentrate. Close your eyes. Imagine a benefit scrounger. They’re eating a deep-friend baby, aren’t they? And smoking something illegal and immoral and expensive? And watching TEN flat screen TVs at the same time, via new google glasses that you can’t afford, developed specifically to allow them to watch ten flat screen TVs simultaneously. Do you want your taxes to pay for this? Think of the children. Think of the deep-fried babies. Think of what you could do with ten flat screen TVs. IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT? If this is not what you want, then you agree that benefits must be reformed.
This is how the current national conversation about the welfare state tends to go.
Of course there is an alternative version of the conversation, which might conceivably happen if we discussed the sanctions targets being implemented.
Imagine a person you know. Close your eyes. It’s your dad, maybe. Or your mum. They’ve worked all their lives. They’ve paid their taxes, paid into the system. They got caught in one of the umpteen rounds of redundancies that for many people are now a bi-annual tradition. That was two years ago. They were good at their job, but their CV is not filled with transferable skills and their confidence is at a life time low. They’re seven years off retirement. They do apply for jobs, but it’s really fucking hard. There aren’t many jobs. They’ve applied for jobs in shops stacking shelves in shops too, before you ask.
But they’re claiming benefits in Walthamstow, and Walthamstow needs to pulls its socks up, because Walthamstow is 95th in the league table of jobcentres applying sanctions. That’s not good enough. Walthamstow needs to apply more sanctions.
Does that mean they’re next?
I can’t work out why the government has so stringently denied carrying out its own policies. Maybe time will tell. Maybe no one will notice. Maybe at some point over the next few years, when we have expanded the rhetoric of a punishable ‘them’ to include an awful lot more of ‘us’, the government will admit that they’ve been doing what they said they’d do all along.