I’m still in shock after that Tory Party conference.
It was bad enough we had a Home Secretary proudly announcing she’d love to tear up the Human Rights Act.
To follow that up with Osborne’s ignorant railing against “the long term unemployed” suggests that the Conservatives are no longer simply “the nasty party” but incredibly comfortable with their reputation, built as it is upon false assumptions and social prejudice.
The party of the hard working? No, more like the party of the hard of thinking.
But it fell to the Prime Minister himself to deliver the most stunning blow to reason and commonsense. The Prime Minister. Not Peter Bone or Nadine Dorries, but David Cameron himself. The same David Cameron who looked so at ease in the garden with Nick Clegg three years ago. The same David Cameron who apparently enthusiastically backed such Lib Dem policies as equal marriage (much to his backbenchers’ dismay) and once seemed to eager to present himself as a champion of the “new politics” has now given up on his grand projects of pluralism and the “big society”. His speech hinted not only at an obsession with Labour and the politics of the past, but that he has no interest in the coalition other than to look beyond it to the “promised land” of Conservative majority rule and what it will deliver. Make no mistake, Cameron is a “true blue”. He’s determined to lead a party that even Dorries is proud to be part of.
His announcement that the Conservatives will pledge in their 2015 manifesto to withdraw benefits for under 25s who are not “earning or learning” is stunning in its naïveté. It also shows the extent to which he is driven by the less sober voices within his own party and wider society, his fear of UKIP, his limited grasp of key social realities and the prejudice that continues to frame his politics.
On the positive side, it’s good that the Prime Minister is looking to deal with the problem of young people not in employment or education. However, his proposed solutions threaten to wreak social havoc and appear to have been roundly condemned by any individual or organisation with a modicum of knowledge in relation to housing, welfare, the employment market or indeed the diverse needs of the under-25 age group.
“There are still over a million young people not in education, employment, or training. Today it is still possible to leave school, sign on, find a flat, start claiming housing benefit and opt for a life on benefits. It’s time for bold action here. We should ask, as we write our next manifesto, if that option should really exist at all” raod Cameron, to incredible applause from the Tory faithful. That would be much better if it had been abridged to read: “there are still over a million young people not in education, employment, or training. It’s time for bold action here. We should ask, as we write our next manifesto, whether this problem should really exist at all.” The problem with Cameron is that he isn’t focused on the problem; rather, he appears to be looking for a problem onto which to tag his “solutions”. Mass unemployment isn’t the problem to be tacked – but those on benefits. It’s a curious logic, and one that omits to recognise that the most obvious means of reducing the latter is to deal with the former.
He certainly reinforces the case that the spending cuts were ideologically driven – on the part of the Conservatives at least.
For somebody who has previously referred to be welfare system as “a saftey net”, why is the Prime Minister so keen to take this away from so many young people? Why, when he has previously committed himself to “rebuilding broken Britain”, is he advocating policies that will increase poverty? How, when he has persistently promoted the “big society”, can he alienate and demonise large sections of it?
In combination with George Osborne’s speech earlier in the week, it would appear that the Conservative Party’s vision for a new Britain is as a centre of low-paid work and unambitious or inadequate training programmes.
It wasn’t so long ago that I was aged under 25. In 1994, I left home (on the Hebridean island of Islay) and went to Glasgow where I had a social work placement with Community Service Volunteers (CSV). It was a valuable time in which I learned a great deal, not least what pints of lager and girls were. But inevitably, when my placement finished, I was alone in a strange city, with no financial means and few connections. I did find work, but much of it was short-term; I also shared accommodation with a student called Ian who introduced me to most of Glasgow’s esteemed (and not quite so esteemed) drinking establishments. But when Ian finished his studies I had nowhere to live. In 1997 I ended up in a rehabilitation centre for people with addiction problems. And from there I went to a council flat in Sighthill, which was OK if you wanted easy access to the best range of drugs available outside Barlinnie prison.
Why is this important? Because at my lowest point possible I was able to receive some financial support. It was, in a very real sense, a safety net. Without it, people finding themselves in similar situations to where I found myself in 1997 will become increasingly dependent on independent charities, such as the Salvation Army or Shelter. Who, in the Big Society, will pay for that? Furthermore, I had no other network of support such as family to depend on. Many of the people I knew were single people, mostly under 25, many of them parents with a range of individual and social needs.
I suspect you don’t want to hear my sermons, but there were two things that became apparent to me as an impressionable 20 year old. Firstly, very few people (if any) opted for this supposed “lifestyle”. Of course, many were trapped and dependent on a demeaning system for their continued survival, but to equate this with “opt[ing] for a life on benefits” is not merely wrong. It shows a misunderstanding of how difficult it is to climb the economic ladder and to better yourself when your life chances have essentially been determined by accident of a combination of birth, location, relationships, connections and education. It is not easy finding employment when you are a service user in a rehabilitation centre, or a single parent, or have long-standing mental health issues, or live in areas where the prospects of working in any legal form of employment are minimal.
Secondly, I found the way out of poverty was through being supported and empowered rather than demonised and humiliated. I am eternally grateful to the many people who, for whatever reasons, encouraged me to look beyond my circumstances and to believe in myself. Moreover, many of them gave me the practical help I needed to make sure I didn’t end back up in the rehabilitation centre – or worse. True, education also helped, but to get to the place where I was able to seriously consider it as a viable option took some time. It is too glib to punish those “not earning or learning”; instead, we need to increase opportunity.
Will David Cameron’s and George Osborne’s proposed policies do anything to actually deal with the illness of unemployment that is the underlying problem – or will it simply make lie harder for those suffering from its symptoms? I think we know the answer to that particular conundrum.
We need Lib Dem MPs and ministers to take a stand against this destructive Tory rhetoric and the demonization of the poor. Nick Clegg today made a welcome intervention, referring to the Daily Mail as “overflowing with bile”. Some similar words directed towards our Conservative partners and their poisonous sound bites would be even more purposeful.
Furthermore, a sensible and socially responsible discussion on the future of the welfare state and the British benefits system needs to be facilitated. While the Conservative Party resorts to the politics of the lowest common denominator, to uninformed populism and to class war, the Liberal Democrats need to make their voices heard. It is not sufficient to know that the Conservatives are unable to press ahead with their ill-conceived social engineering plans until 2015; that merely provides yet another reason for Scots to vote “Yes” in 2014. These policies and the thinking behind them must be robustly challenged now.
We need more than timid objections from our party leadership. We need to attack the heartlessness of Tory social policy while simultaneously promoting a new programme for economic growth built on job creation and empowering young people. The fact that we are in coalition is no excuse for docility; the very real risk of a Tory majority in 2015 demands it.