Against George Osborne’s war on the poor and the vile stupidity of his “workers vs shirkers” narrative



Sunday 9 December 2012

Amid talk of setting political traps for Labour, the Chancellor of the Exchequer used his Autumn Statement to attack many of the most vulnerable people in our society

It is right to be disturbed by the psychology of a politician who uses millions of working poor and unemployed people as a political football. That is exactly what George Osborne is doing with his 1 per cent cap on spending increases on benefits and tax credits over three years – which, in real terms, is a cut. That six out of 10 of those who will suffer are in work is irrelevant to the policy’s architects: here is an attempt to divide people with rhetoric of “strivers” versus “shirkers”.

The hope is that, by opposing such a cap, Labour can be painted as the unapologetic champion of the widescreen-TV-watching, multiple-child-producing, closed-curtained-home-dwelling “shirkers”.

Class warriors

That a gang of multimillionaire class warriors is intentionally attempting to turn poor people against each other for political advantage is as shameful as the often grubby world of politics gets. When even the mildest suggestion is floated that Britain’s booming wealthy elite should cough up a bit more, the Tories slap it down as “the politics of envy”, and yet they shamelessly attempt to direct the resentment of struggling low-paid workers towards the supposedly luxurious conditions of their unemployed neighbours. Has there even been such a concerted, deliberate attempt by a postwar government to turn large chunks of the electorate against each other? Thatcher would blush.

It surely represents the most aggressive attempt to drive down the living standards of the poor since the second-ever Labour government was destroyed in 1931 after an attempt to slash payments to unemployed people and wages. Disastrously, it will further suck desperately needed demand out the economy. Austerity has proved self-defeating (just as the critics, smeared as “deficit-deniers”, warned) and it is the working poor and unemployed who must pay the price.

Just look at what this ideologically crazed cabal has done to our economy. According to Citibank, further large revenue shortfalls will drive the Government’s debt-to-GDP ratio close to 100 per cent of GDP, up from 43 per cent before the crisis unfolded. The underlying deficit is growing, despite attempts to massage figures with raids on the Bank of England’s quantitative easing coupons and the gifting of assets from the Royal Mail’s pension funds.

Osborne is borrowing £100bn more than expected. We are in the most protracted economic crisis in modern times; the economy is still 3.1 per cent below the pre-Lehman Brothers crash peak, and analysts warn that an unprecedented triple-dip recession is approaching. A “lost decade” is upon us. As the catastrophe unleashed by this Government worsens, so the campaign to redirect anger to our neighbours must intensify.


To be clear, the situation facing the working poor and unemployed people was already bleak. The Resolution Foundation predicts that, in 2016, wages will be no higher than they were at the turn of the century. The poorest 10 per cent face a slide in living standards of 15 per cent by the end of this decade. Unlike the economy, food banks are booming like never before. Osborne claims his measures are to make work pay but, given that the majority of people in poverty are in working households, this is a nonsense.

There is now talk of the Labour leadership taking a stand against Osborne’s cuts. It comes after backbencher John McDonnell sent a desperate plea to his fellow MPs that, “instead of falling for this grubby trap, let’s take them on”. Labour’s response to the onslaught against the welfare state has been weak, partly because its spokesperson on the issue is Liam Byrne, a man who sums up all that is wrong with modern politics – technocratic, obsessed with tactics and stripped of purpose or belief. It has proven totally counter-productive: while the Tories can claim a clear message, Labour’s top team has risked looking hopelessly muddled and cowardly.

If the Labour leadership does show courage, it must defend the interests of the battered working poor without fuelling the sense that unemployed people are “shirkers”. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, there are now 6.5 million unemployed or under-employed people, all looking for work that does not exist. Neither are unemployed people a static group: at least one in six of us has claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance in the past two years, and millions are trapped in a cycle of low-paid work and joblessness. And as a recent report from the foundation showed, the widespread belief in ”three generations who have never worked” is a total myth. “Despite strenuous efforts,” reads the report, “the researchers were unable to locate any such families.”

To be fair to the Labour leadership, the political space for challenging welfare cuts is limited indeed. While a YouGov poll in September revealed that more than half opposed further welfare cuts, there is a Government and media-fuelled pandemic of hate against “scroungers”. There urgently needs to be a campaign led by trade unions and charities to challenge myths and give a voice to those affected – challenging the all-pervasive extreme caricatures of layabouts.

There is an alternative

Such a campaign needs to push alternatives, too. It is often alleged that the original plans of the Beveridge Report have been subverted, but it was published at a time of near-full employment. In the 35 years after its publication, unemployment rarely topped a million. Long-term unemployment alone was higher last year than all forms of unemployment in the early 1960s – the damning legacy of the trashing of British industry from the 1980s onwards. Most do not realise that by far the biggest chunk of welfare spending is on elderly people. And if Beveridge’s original aims have been corrupted, it is because the welfare state has become a subsidy for landlords charging extortionate rents and employers paying poverty wages.

Today, Labour unveils plans that move towards German-style rent controls. If combined with a council house building programme – creating jobs and stimulating the economy – the £21bn wasted on housing benefit (which should be renamed “landlord subsidy”) would be reduced. Similarly, the number of working families receiving working tax credits has risen by half since 2003 – because of a surge in low-paid jobs. A living wage would bring down spending on tax credits, and increasingly in-work benefits like housing benefit and council tax benefit. Improving workers’ rights stuck in the Victorian era would allow working people to demand better wages from their employers, too, at a time when big corporations sit on a £750bn cash mountain.

Osborne has set a trap made out of the livelihoods of the poorest people in British society. Labour must call his bluff, but a campaign challenging the Government’s demonisation campaign must create the space to do so. Let this ruse backfire – and expose the inhumanity of a Conservative Party determined to make the poorest pay for the economic calamity it is responsible for. 

The Independent

14 thoughts on “Against George Osborne’s war on the poor and the vile stupidity of his “workers vs shirkers” narrative

  1. jed goodright says:

    this is all very well but the words need urgently to be translated into action.
    the labour party is generally very happy with the current situation so who do you reckon is going to take up arms along side the many disabled, ill and unemployed of the UK?????

  2. DAVID SHAW says:

    Why the hell is Owen Jones not the leader of the Labour party ?,He may be young but he has the knowledge and i consider the skill to wipe the floor with cameron and his bunch of elitist tossers. Plus he is a man of principle, many New Labour MPs lack anything of the sort and are just tory lite. We need people like Owen at the forefront, people who know their politics and understand what needs to be done. One day this man will be Prime Minister , you heard it here first.

    1. Marion says:

      I have to admit I hadn’t been really aware of Owen Jones(possibly read an article by him in the i Paper?)and when I watched Question Time where he slated IDS((Conservative), and I did fall in to the trap of initially thinking, “who is this man and he’s too young to know much”! How wrong I was and I’m not good at admitting when I’m wrong! I was blown away by him, his knowledge, his manner, how he put his views across etc. And boy do we need people like him more than ever and I will be making sure I watch and follow him from now on.

      1. jefflph says:

        well i thiught the same as IDS said i am proud of what i have done after all some have been on IB for 10 years,oh so i will recover from my life long illness in 10 years.and as for 10 years so what the army bosses ritire 10 to 12 years early is that not welfare.. jeff lph..

  3. Humanity2012 says:

    We Need Decent People Running this Country NOW

    Those Tory Lot with Liberal Democrat Sheep Suppoty are Not That

    2 and a Half Years of that Shower is More than ENOUGH

    We Need Compassion Not Capitalism

  4. humanonearth says:

    Can I call people’s attention to some hateful pages on facebook where ignorant people vent their spleen about so called ‘benefit scroungers.’ I’m not sure how they discriminate between ‘the deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. I would say that it is impossible to tell who is a ‘deserving disabled’ person and who is not. I feel that some of the language and imagery is inciting hatred, stirred up by the Tory Govt. pitting people against each other, with misinformation in the media. I have reported one page for inciting hatred against disabled people. I urge you to see the pages and make up your own minds. It seems our humanity is being manipulated by those who see us a problem and a burden.

  5. jay says:

    Labour should sack Liam Byrne immediately. Osbourne’s drivel about shirkers has gone on long enough.

    This article misses the fact that many poor people will be forced out of their homes in four to five months time as many will be unable to afford the cut in housing benefit.

    The house I have lived in for more than ten years will have two spare bedrooms when my daughter leaves home next year and we will expected to pay one fifth of our benefit towards the rent.

    In the meantime posh boy and his smiling chums live in their mansions of many rooms paying little more for them than the average council tax payer.

    That austerity doesn’t work is hardly news Greece’s pursuit of austerity in the name of brutal fiscal adjustment has created record levels of poverty and unemployment, trapped it in recession and repeatedly resulted in missed budget targets that have plunged the country into an ever-deeper death spiral. (Sounds like the UK doesn’t it?)

    To say that the unemployed are living in luxury is so farcical and quite pathetic, as for closed curtains – many stay in bed to keep warm, some are ill, some suffer from insomnia, basically what someone’s neighbour does or how they live their life is their business and no one else’s.

    Many people have been abandoned on benefits and given up hope as a result of politician mishandling of the economy .
    Their is no initiative or any hopeful ideas from politicians just bully boy tactics.

    Their is no alternative we are told. It’s pantomine season so I’ll say Oh yes there is!
    Stop tax avoiding schemes, make them illegal. Off shore accounts, ban them. It’s time the tax office collected tax from multi national companies and the rich. We don’t get the choice to choose to pay tax unlike Starbucks who can OFFER to pay something.

    The article above shows the truth that Osbourne’s record is a complete disaster this after only two and a half years.

  6. terminator says:

    IMHO it’s about time politicians were paid for the cheapest option on their expense accounts, if they want to travel by taxi when a bus is cheaper they should be paid the bus fare and the rest should come out of their pocket. If they shop at one store but another sells the same for less their expenses should be reduced to the cheapest option. Second home should be removed and sold with every penny going back to the public purse.

  7. Pink Parrot says:

    Great article by Owen Jones, as usual. Wish the leadership of the Labour party had his passion and maturity. I am still trying to figure out why, after 2 1/2 years they are still stalling over tackling the ConDems over benefit cuts…unless somewhere in their minds they are in idealogical agreement with the Tory/Dems (Tories are Tories, Lib Dems are Tories…FFS are Labour Tories too???)
    They have the moral high ground, they have the stats – what is it, less than .03% fraud on disability benefits for example, they even have a body count for WCA -what are they waiting for??
    Surely they’re not STILL making policy with one frightened eye on the Daily Heil readership? Has the Leveson enquiry taught them nothing? Don’t they realise most people with an ounce of intelligence think the ‘skiver/scrounger’ rhetoric-spouting tabloids are a sick joke??
    If Miliband doesn’t despise the Tory cull of the poor with all his heart and soul then he should step aside and let someone who still has a sense of moral outrage take them on. I don’t think there is any decency left in politics while he sits on his thumbs, umming and ahhing and watching the public opinion polls of middle England while parents in poverty have to choose to heat their homes or put food on the table.
    I was truly sickened watching Osbourne’s autumn statement, when he announced MORE welfare cuts and the Tories cheered…like a pack of rabid hyenas jeering…baying for blood. The blood of the poor. I will admit, it made me cry. The sheer inhumanity of them was unbelievable.
    We need the spirit of Old Labour back, and not before time. How many in poverty will die this winter? And how many deaths will be reported in the biased media??
    Labour shouldn’t be pussy-footing around Osborne and co. They should be ripping into them with all the statistics already out there as their ammunition!!

  8. Humanity2012 says:

    It is Beyond Diabolical that People were so THICK and IGNORANT to Believe
    the Rubbish about the Poor having a Life of Luxury

    The UK is such a MESS because People have been THICK ENOUGH to Believe
    such Codswallop

    We Need Someone Running the Country with a Heart who is Not a Plastic Dummy
    who will Protect and Care For the Poor and Vulnerable will Redistribute Wealth
    from Rich to Poor Nationalize Utilities and the Railways as well as Scrapping
    Nuclear Weapons Ending the Bloodbath Occupation of the Nation of Afghanistan
    and Pursue a Policy of Care For the Poor and Vulnerable at Home and Peace in the
    World Now and Forever in Matters of Foreign Policy

  9. Boadacia! says:

    To the excuse of a government.

    I’m disabled, but refusing to die without a fight! Give us our rights and dignity we worked and paid for, you abominable excuses for humans!

    We all understand the politician’s aims to deviate the ignorant masses attentions away from political privileged crimes and corruption, by using their media friends and commanders, just as it was once done in the 1940’s to undesirable groups that could no longer be extorted, but could be used for similar propaganda reasons. But we will expose you publicly, at every opportunity!

    We’ll be thinking about you, when we p*ss on your graves!

  10. alan groggins says:

    who needs us pharmacuticals doctors carers consultants i could go on we need to strike starting at our doctors no tablets no pharmacuticals no jobs for many of organizations with out disable persons or even atos will have no jobs alan

Leave a Reply