Now that the Tories have at least agreed within their own party that they can find £10 billion of further cuts to the welfare budget, they are starting to ramp up the rhetoric on why it’s fair to do this, and how they can achieve it. Yesterday, Chancellor George Osborne said this:
‘Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits? When we say we’re all in this together, we speak for that worker. We speak all those who want to work hard and get on.’
Today, David Cameron described the sort of person that he thinks the Conservatives don’t speak for as he fleshed out some of his thoughts on where the next round of welfare cuts might fall. He said:
‘But the point I’d make is this: we do send some strange, strange signals in the benefit system If you’re a young person, you leave college, you get a job, you’re often having to live at home – often into your thirties, because you can’t afford a flat – and yet if you’re out of work you are able to claim housing benefit and get a flat. So you’re able to live separately from your parents, while the working person isn’t able to. Now is that fair, I’d ask?’
The Prime Minister makes a compelling point. A welfare state under which people out of work are better off and have more choices than those in work is a failing system. But there is one flaw to his argument that I find extremely difficult to believe he hasn’t grasped yet. This would all be very well if most housing benefit claimants were indeed out of work. But they aren’t. In fact, analysis of the government’s own figures suggests that 93 per cent of the increase in housing benefit claimants between January 2010 and December 2011 came from those in work, and a quarter of people who are renting a property and in employment claim housing benefit. Overall, 17.5 per cent of claimants in that period were in work. So when George Osborne is talking about a shift-worker leaving home in the dark, he’s describing someone who may well be getting state help to pay their rent. Housing benefit claimants are quite often the strivers who work hard, do the right thing and struggle to make ends meet that the Tories are so keen to reach out to.
There’s clearly an argument here about wages, which Boris Johnson, with his voluntary London Living Wage, might want to contribute to. But Conservative MPs I’ve been chatting to over the past 24 hours since the chancellor announced his intentions to go ahead with welfare cuts are actually getting a little bit nervous. Some are worried that the new round of cuts will either hit low-paid strivers like that shift worker, while others are muttering about threats to benefits for families. They are concerned that cutting the latter will affect swing voters while previous cuts have either hit those who don’t vote at all, or those who would never vote Conservative. The Prime Minister isn’t wrong to talk about entitlement, but he is wrong to assume that all housing benefit claimants are scroungers. They could well be his dream voters.