Yesterday, I had the House of Commons debate about social security payments on in the background. The Tories and their Lib Dem sidekicks have decided that increases will only go up 1% rather than in line with inflation. Essentially, it's a cut, because inflation is the cost of living. If bread goes up 4% and your unemployment payment goes up 1%, you won't be able to afford bread.
The Tories think this is a brilliant wheeze. They didn't need to have a parliamentary vote to make it happen, but Osborne and their Australian strategist Lynton Crosby thought that it would make Labour look like softies, supporting those who, in the Chancellor's words 'sleep off a life on benefits' while you and I go to work. So they released this poster:
Is this poster's charge true? I hope so. My pay rises for the past four years have been below inflation, so I've got slightly poorer each year. But that's OK, because 'slightly poorer' for me means less caviar on my toast, not 'shall I eat today or have hot water?'. When Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister, unemployment benefits were equivalent to 22% of the average wage: not exactly generous. Now, it's 11% and declining.
I have a postcard of this old Labour poster on my wall - the same one David Miliband referred to in his speech yesterday:
It's exactly right. A 1% cut from my salary is a flea-bite. A cut from the £40 or so a young unemployed worker gets is enough to send her over the edge.
Some of this Tory poster is – of course – purest bollocks as we say in the trade. The Conservatives don't support 'hardworking people': they're bankrolled by corporate interests, and directors' pay increased by 50% over the past year or so. More importantly, the vast majority of people claiming state benefits are in work: ignore the crap about lives on the dole –virtually nobody does that. Instead we're a nation of underpaid workers. Thanks to New Labour and the Conservatives, low wages are subsidised by benefits paid for by taxpayers. We're not feather-bedding lazy skivers: we're feather-bedding shareholders and HR departments.
It's also true that the unemployed benefit claimants aren't an alien race of parasites. 400,000 civil servants lost their jobs since 2010. Teachers, nurses, police officers, health inspectors and a whole range of ordinary people. You might be one of them. You'll certainly know one. They're us, and they've paid their taxes: social security isn't a hand-out to be withdrawn on a whim: it's an entitlement awarded on the basis that we all have or will contribute to the exchequer. To claim otherwise is a vicious lie.
I've been reading a biography of John Lilburne recently, the Civil War-era leader of the Levellers, who were too leftwing and radical even for Cromwell and the Commonwealth. The Levellers published a manifesto called The Agreement of the People, debated by the Army council and others in Putney. For the Levellers, Colonel Rainsborough made a beautifully simple point about how a country should be run:
I thinke that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest heeWe're in the midst of a campaign to demonise those who are without work. There are 500,000 vacancies and 2.5m unemployed people. They can't all be demons. Yet the Conservative campaign to paint them all as 'shirkers' directly denies Rainsborough's call for respect for 'the poorest hee'. The mega-rich have had tax cuts. The companies they run don't bother paying taxes at all. They are the 'greatest hee', and they're nakedly in control. The 'poorest hee' is going to pay for the damaged caused by bailing out 'the greatest hee'.
What are our Parliamentary representatives going to do about it? The Leveller pamphlet Vox Populi (sorry, can't find a full text for this one) was pretty clear on this - addressing MPs who make even the most leftwing socialist now look lily-livered:
O you Members of Parliament, and rich men in the City, that are at ease, and drink Wine in Bowls, and stretch your selves upon Beds of Down, you that grind our faces, and flay off our skins, Will no man amongst you regard, will no man behold our faces black with Sorrow and Famine? What then are your russling Silks and Velvets, and your glittering Gold and Silver Laces? are they not the sweat of our brows, and the wants of our backs and bellies?The Levellers failed: land, privilege and human rights were retained by the moderate gentlemen of Cromwell's party, though the King was decapitated thankfully. What will be get? A few expressions of dismay from Ed Miliband, a scowl from Nick Clegg and a smirk from Cameron and Osborne.
Update: This has just been picked up by The Guardian as if to prove my point:
The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has said that MPs believe their pay should rise by 32% hike to £86,250. As the Press Association reports, a survey carried out by Ipsa also found more than a third believe they should keep generous final salary pensions. The findings emerged as Ipsa published a report on its initial consultation into pay and pensions, which ended last month. The research, which politicians completed anonymously, found that 69% thought they were underpaid on £65,738. The average level suggested for the salary was £86,250.