Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Farewell welfare - bedroom tax and the IDS mindset

It took a while, admittedly, to sink in.

Sometimes some outrages are so outrageous they don't immediately register; like some half-heard mumble of threatening intent amongst all the other dreary news of cuts, coming cuts and more 'prudent' austerity.

But then the realisation. A bedroom tax. A tax on a bedroom. An actual levy, a tariff, a charge on the poorest and most vulnerable for having a 'spare' room.

And then the wonderment, even a kind of grudging 'admiration' at their dark ingenuity: how did they even come to think of something so brutally grasping, so brazen in its thieving offensiveness?

'Let's see', some faceless policy maker in some ornate government office, in some smart multi-roomed building, must have asked, 'how might we claw back even more money from those already struggling at the lowest level of the economic chain?'

Perhaps the answer came with a rush of wicked realisation: 'Yes, of course, why hadn't we thought of it before. Let's check the size of their already meagre houses for the most basic vacant capacity and force them to pay for it, failing which, compel them to move, who knows or cares where, with all the dislocation, anxiety and upheaval involved, so we can slice their housing benefit.'

Those fearing an accompanying mansion tax needn't fret. The attack on social housing recipients will benefit those who own the mansions.

As the range of ConDem measures show, this is a landmark assault on the poorest in support of the richest. While struggling bedroom-taxed families will have to find on average £14 a week more for rent, the 1.5 per cent with incomes above £150,000 are about to have their tax reduced by 5 per cent, giving the UK's millionaires an average £100,769 a year more.

Iain Duncan Smith is, of course, the callous mind behind this and other such 'caring reforms', the department of workhouse and suspensions minister with the 'I know how to sort poverty' gleam in his eye.

Back in the Tory opposition days of 2002, during his short tenure as party leader, IDS was kindly escorted around Glasgow's multi-deprived Easterhouse by the honourable Bob Holman, a deeply people-devoted social worker who hoped he could show him a more compassionate way of tackling poverty. So much for the great 'conversion'.

In 2004 IDS founded the Centre for Social Justice, a spuriously-named right-wing think-tank which, infused with his own Christian sermonising on 'breakdown Britain' and the 'failed' Beveridge welfare state, provided ideological cover for his emergent Welfare Reform Bill.

Thus, have Duncan Smith and George Osborne now claimed, in a bad April 1 joke, that with the new range of cuts and reforms "we are just restoring the original principles of the welfare state".

Charities, churcheshousing support bodies and a raft of other front line witnesses see the very opposite: deepening turmoil and destitution for a mass section of society.

Duncan Smith also tells us that he could live on £53 a week if he "had to". If only such people were compelled to try - not just for a week, but in the prolonged and life disfiguring way that so many have to cope and worry.

Yet, maybe we shouldn't be too harsh on the man now labelled "scumbag" by welfare-cut protesters. That really only applies to those who might have been realistically trusted to improve things and then betray that trust.

What else should one expect from any career politician, ConDem or Labour, particularly those with all that steely conviction about how best to 'get the poor to help themselves'?

One can speculate as to the kind of dark, twisted mindset that can tell poor people to relinquish their 'oversized' homes, live on £53 and go find work that doesn't actually exist. But would even that take us nearer understanding the structural wickedness of the system itself?

In truth, IDS is but another predictable enforcer of that much darker system and all its rationally determined cruelty. It's a system which keeps the minds of politicians not just selfishly motivated, but ruthlessly honed to market priorities and class interests, placing corporate rules before social compassion, money before people, elite security before social security, mansion-dwellers before struggling tenants.

Alas, it's also a market-survivalist mindset which inhibits wider social concern for the poor, part of the same political and media promoted prejudice against welfare claimants.

A general antagonism to the cuts and reforms may be evident.  But it's still a largely mediated opposition, driven more by narrow sectoral interests than any particular empathy for those in deepest welfare land.

The castigation of those on welfare, even in the midst of such ruthless cuts, illustrates the pernicious normalisation of public sentiment to gross inequalities and the propaganda function of social division.

The policies of Duncan Smith and Osborne are widely reviled, but millions still harbour a crude and uninformed animosity towards the 'feckless poor' and 'benefit scroungers'. 

And it's this base mythology of the 'suffering taxpayer', 'those who pay to keep those who take', that Duncan Smith and Osborne seek most to cultivate.

Maybe IDS and his Centre for Social Justice are working on that very idea right now: a 'compassion tax' on anyone with spare regard for the poor.

* A gathering petition asking IDS to try living on £53 a week. Please sign.

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