The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition which currently run the United Kingdom (and running amok through the Houses of Parliament) have been a difficult lot to be governed by. As the country picks itself up and dusts itself down after being run over by the global recession of 2008, the politicians of the blue rosette have been at pains to usher in a new era of ‘austerity Britain’. As the ‘Big Society’ ideals of the uneasy political marriage of convenience (some have dubbed the Con-Dems) surely come to fruit, David Cameron, the prime minister, has insisted that everyone must make sacrifices to steer the nation and its economy through the tempest of financial meltdown. However, it does seem that it is the poorest in our society who are, not surprisingly under a Conservative-led government, bearing the brunt of the new austerity measures, as much as the quality tabloids like the Daily Mail bang on about the ‘squeezed middle’ i.e. the middle classes. To be fair to them, they too have not had an easy ride.
The Tories were from their earliest days, always more favourable to the rich landed classes, whereas the working and lower-middle class had the socialist, average person leanings of the Labour Party to cater for them. Those of you who remember the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher in the Eighties, will recall the near obliteration of the British manufacturing industry and the routine attacks on disadvantaged portions of society like single mothers and immigrants. Thatcher’s allies even stooped down far enough that they abolished free school milk for children, a Labourite initiative that had safeguarded juvenile nutrition for several years. Another hare-brained liberal scheme, as far as the Iron Lady was concerned.
Thanks to the failings of New Labour and it’s very much uncool Cool Britannia project, the UK economy was teetering on broken legs long before the recession came and finished the job. Whenever Labour slips up, it is the Tories who surf forward on a sea of protest votes and place their well-rounded derrieres on the plush leather seats at the House of Commons. Now the heirs of Thatcher have assumed the throne, and we are in for a rough ride. No sooner have they made themselves comfortable, they have turned their attention to the UK’s welfare bill.
While admittedly the welfare system has become too bloated, with a yearly expenditure running into the billions of pounds, the measures David Cameron and company has pushed through have targetted the most disadvantaged in the population. One example is the new cap on housing benefit, which require for example that a family needing a 2-bed house of flat can only receive £290 a week. This has particularly impacted on city-dwellers. In London, monthly rents in the private accommodation sector are among the highest in the country, and ministers have been accused of ‘social cleansing’ as families are forced to leave their homes and uproot elsewhere. Inevitably it means children having to change schools, people having to move far away from family and friends, desperate searches for those rare as hens teeth properties whose landlords accept DSS. This sort of disruption could be the last thing any family really needs.
But the welfare system is not something the Tories have ever found digestible. Still Cameron insists, the bill is just too damn high. In order to shave another £10 billion off the social security budget by 2016, our Prime Minister plans to engage another problematic section of society – the large numbers of young adults claiming Local Housing Allowance (the replacement for Housing Benefit) along with other benefits like Jobseeker’s Allowance and Income Support.
Currently about 380,000 under-25s claim housing benefit. Around 210,000 young people between the ages of 16-24 are social housing tenants and the total paid to these claimants amounts to around £2 billion a year, according to figures published by the Guardian newspaper (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/reality-check/2012/jun/25/is-scrapping-housing-benefit-for-under-25-s-a-good-idea). Abolishing housing benefit for under-25s will mean them having to give up their independent lives and then eventually to move back in with their parents. Only those who have been victims of domestic violence, orphans and those who spent their childhoods in care would be exempt from Cameron’s plans.
This will mean thousands of young people, many who have happily settled into new lives and homes, suddenly finding themselves without a roof over their heads and annoyed landlords beginning eviction proceedings against them. Those who have fallen out with their parents will find themselves in an even more difficult situation. Not every parent wants their grown-up offspring suddenly turning up at their doorstep, black bags and suitcases in tow. How about those parents who have downgraded their old family homes, for say, a little cottage? Where would they put them? What provision will the government make for people who have had to flee violent, neglectful or abusive parents, or those whose mothers or fathers have retired to another country. As if being reliant on state help was not humiliating enough. It will be likely that more and more of those affected by the cuts will end up homeless, as tensions rise between parents and children, and the children lose the battle and are thrown onto the streets. There are only so many homeless hostels and charities to go around.
It can be argued that there are advantages to the new cuts. Housing stock occupied by young adults who can easily move back in with Mum and Dad can be freed up for the more needy. The savings in the welfare budget can be transferred to other vulnerable groups, such as pensioners. Plenty would posture that it is blatantly unfair that some people can just breeze straight into a council house from Dad’s Pad, while rising property prices are forcing increasing numbers to continue living with parents until into their 30s, and many working families are unable to secure a foothold on the housing ladder.
Peculiarly enough, Labour have expressed concern at that £2 billion bill and last month, along with the centre-left thinktank IPPR, stated that in some principle they agreed with the cuts, but that it should supplement an increase in housebuilding. Under both Cameron and his Labour predecessors Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, the number of new houses being built has plummeted by several thousands.
In the dark days of the Thatcher years, housing benefit was withdrawn for 16 and 17 year olds, as old-school Tories took it in turns to savage the Welfare State. Many of these youths subsequently ended up on the streets as beggars or drug addicts, earning pennies for sandwiches and tea in a polystyrene cup, at least chiming in with Maggie’s ethos of individualism and “everyone-for-themselves”. Single mothers were expected to join the ‘Workfare’ programme and could only claim monetary support by doing compulsory work placements. In its own small way, Thatcher’s policies contributed to the decay of British society and disenfranchised a whole generation of people.
Even some Conservative backbenchers and the traditional support base of the Tories show signs of rebellion against Cameron’s latest scheme. A councillor in Torquay, Matthew James, angrily resigned from the party, stating that ““I now believe that this governments economic policies – cutting spending in a depression, reducing welfare benefits for the most vulnerable, removing employment protections and cutting taxes for the richest – are completely wrong, economically unjustifiable, and I cannot in good conscience defend their actions.” He now stands as an independent.
It is not just individual politicians defying the Conservative leadership. The housing benefit cuts for under-25s have offended even loyal lifetime Conservative supporters. A large proportion of readers of the considerably right wing Daily Mail newspaper were left aghast. A poll on the tabloid’s website revealed that 80% rejected the plans outright. Not surprisingly afterwards, the increasingly and universally unpopular Cameron received a hammering in the public opinion polls. Ipsos Mori pollsters announced that sixty per cent of voters had felt he had done a bad job as PM. A similar situation was also reported by the Daily Telegraph. Editors there repeated the poll the next day to avoid annoying their political ideologist overlords. It backfired and even more Telegraph readers voted against to speak out against Cameron’s cruel cuts.
Demonising the poor has worked well for the Tories. After all, it would not make sense for them to alienate the wealthy landowners, assorted aristocracy and City bankers who have always kept the Tories’ expenses regularly topped up. To go after the bankers’ billions would be the equivalent of political seppuku with a golden sword, and old Etonians can be counted on having each other’s backs. In some kind of reverse Robin Hood scenario, now the rich steal from the poor, their housing benefit, their jobs, their taxes…to make offerings to the Treasury goose that lays Cameron’s golden eggs.
Additional information and research for this opinion piece courtesy of The Guardian, Johnny Void (http://johnnyvoid.wordpress.com/tag/housing-benefit/) and DODS Politics Home.