Benefits uprating: the elephant in the room
In 2004 George Lakoff published a book that has had a profound effect on US politics. Its central argument was that the way issues are framed plays a central role in determining which side of the argument people come down on. This explains, for example, why opponents of abortion describe themselves as ‘pro-life’ and supporters as ‘pro-choice’. Few want to be against ‘life’ or ‘choice’, so the battle is partly about how the question is framed.
All of this suddenly seems incredibly pertinent to the current debate about the welfare uprating Bill, which goes through parliament today. The Conservatives have framed debate as a ‘strivers versus scroungers’ issue, confident that the public will side with those in work. Labour have responded with the accusation that the bill is, in fact, a ‘strivers tax’ because more than 60 per cent of savings will come from reducing the entitlements of working families.
Both sides ought to re-consider how they are framing the arguments. Once upon a time, modern conservatism was an optimistic creed: its basic frame was of good people in bad systems. Public sector workers were good people weighed down by targets and bureaucracy, for example. Welfare claimants were good people who wanted to work, but were being held back by a system that rewarded the wrong things. Today the frame is different: it’s the people with the blinds down who are the problem, not the system that is failing them and the country.
Labour too should do some reflecting. The problem with the welfare bill is not simply that it hits strivers rather than shirkers – it is that the distinction between the two makes little sense in many cases. As Claudia Wood wrote a few weeks ago:
‘The fact is the working poor are, often, those most vulnerable to job insecurity. Many work in junior, part time or temporary positions, in sectors such as retail and hospitality – easily buffeted by seasonal economic trends.
Many working poor ‘strivers’ are just a poor Christmas on the high street away from finding themselves on the wrong side of that ‘shirkers/strivers’ fence, and then the 1% uprating won’t seem so fair after all.’
Both sides are too focused on winning the battle rather than the war. The Conservative Party has adopted a frame that may ‘weaponise’ policy in the short-term but runs contrary to efforts to modernise the image of the party. It lacks warmth or compassion which were David Cameron’s watchwords in his early years – and which probably explain why he still outpolls his party by such a clear margin. Labour’s response may be an effective short-term rebuttal, but it is reinforcing the government’s chosen frame rather than challenging it.
Meanwhile, attitudes towards those out of work become more and more hostile. It’s hard to see who wins in the long-term.