February 19, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
Margaret Thatcher’s lasting legacy to the Conservative Party seems to be that when they say “long-term economic plan” many people hear “a lot of pain for a lot of people for benefits far into the future that may not happen.” But it is benefits that is the key issue for David Cameron and the Conservatives this week. Or, more accurately, the fear that if someone doesn’t get a job soon after leaving school, they may be left to a life on benefits, and he wants to stop that being even an option. The problem is that this is an area it is just to easy to characterise his party as the ‘nasty party’ on, so, even though it is doing well enough in the polls, the public trust Labour to actually carry it out more than the Conservatives.
This reminds me of the 2005 General Election campaign. Tony Blair had taken the UK into Iraq, and that would have been more electorally controversial had the Conservatives not voted for it too. But there was another area of attack for the Tories, and their leader at the time, Michael Howard, went for it. Immigration was becoming more and more of a worry for the population, fuelled by the massive influx of new EU immigrants from Eastern Europe just after the accession of 10 countries to the EU. This, on top of the policy of pushing ‘multiculturalism’ which had not only welcomed people into the country but not required them to learn the language nor the customs of the UK, meant that a party that was strong on controlling immigration knew that it polled strongly. So this was the Conservatives’ main policy area going into the election, but it failed. It failed because rather than people believing that the Conservatives wanted immigration to stop because they were concerned about the effect on British people and its’ resources, people just believed Conservatives didn’t like immigrants.
This is the same problem I believe David Cameron has. On the face of it, the analysis he brought into his speech yesterday makes sense. “And then there were the messages we sent young people in this country. You could leave school, sign on, start getting your benefit, start getting housing benefit and the contribution you were asked for was minimal.” This, Cameron said, had meant that under Labour from 1997-2010, 2 million more children lived in workless households than before. I personally have seen the corrosive effect this has on hope, having been a tutor to kids in that situation who have never seen someone go out to work from their house in their life but are expected to understand what school is for. So, anything that changes that should be helpful, which is why policies in this area poll well.
Cameron’s announced policies were:
– Lowering the benefits cap from £26,000 to £23,000.
– Introducing Universal Credit, which, he said, replaces the complexities of the benefits system with a single payment.
– Continuing to increase minimum wage above inflation. He said we are on a trajectory for minimum wage to reach £8 an hour by 2020.
– Raising the tax-free threshold to £12,500 from £10,000.
– Abolishing Jobseeker’s Allowance for 18-21 year olds and replacing it with a Youth Allowance. After six months young people on the Youth Allowance will have to take an apprenticeship or do daily community work for those benefits.
– A Conservative government would use the savings made this and from reducing the benefit cap to fund 3 million new apprenticeships.
These all may make sense. Those on lowering tax and benefits and increasing minimum wage should ‘make work pay’ for instance. Yet Labour are able to drive an easy hole through these. Lowering the benefits cap would put people put on the street or force them to move away from areas they and their families have moved in all their lives. The Universal Credit IT system has so far been an expensive failure. Why hasn’t David Cameron said anything about the living wage when Labour are offering tax breaks for companies who offer it? The tax free allowance goes to everyone, not just the poorest, and in fact the very poorest in work don’t benefit from it at all. Those ‘apprenticeships’ Cameron talks about are just rebadged internal training schemes, not actual apprenticeships. Finally, ‘unpaid’ community work (even though benefits are actually a payment)? What are we, back to the workhouse?! Labour are offering to use a Bankers’ bonus tax to fund a guaranteed job for those people (along with about 5 other policies..it will be a busy tax).
Those criticisms may not be fair, or even correct, but they stick. Which is why, even though if you laid the policies put without a party name to the people will say they like them, once you say it is the Conservatives doing it they will think differently. One party’s giving the poor a helping hand into jobs is another party’s stick to beat the poor with. So this won’t be the week the Conservatives win the election, whether they are right or not.