East Meets Westminster: Politicians need to be wary of the underclass
- Credit: PA
Welfare state needs reform, but some people will suffer more side-effects than others, writes Richard Porritt
MANY Britons today have no real understanding of doing without.
The great swathe of people which now makes up the middle-classes might tell their children almost unbelievable tales of woe from the distant past, where not every bedroom had an en suite, there were only four television channels and hummus stocks often ran worryingly low.
Those children – many indeed now young adults – snigger at these ridiculous claims because they have never had to go without anything. If they open the fridge it is full, if they need new clothes they buy them and if they are bored they simply log on to yet another form of new media.
What happened in the late 1980s, through the 90s and into the early part of the new Millennium was similar to the boom that made America the world’s first modern consumer juggernaut back in the 50s and 60s while Britain was still rubbing her eyes and dusting herself off after the war.
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We wanted it all, and we wanted it now. And, for the most part, we got it. Of course there were sticky years and times of recession but nothing like this. Nothing like these austerity years. Reality is smacking Britain full in the face – repeatedly. And these young people are starting to get a shock.
In economics this problem is often referred to as scarcity – where the needs and desires of humans are unlimited yet resources are very much limited. A knock-on effect for government is plain – some goals are going to have to wait.
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Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has been the most honest about how this will play out in the years to come. He has predicted the 2015 general election will be a “scarcity election” with aspects like Winter Fuel Payments for all being abandoned. Although David Cameron has been quite clear that there are continuing tough times ahead his message is always coated with the promise that the country is “heading in the right direction”.
Mr Clegg warned that any party which does not focus cuts on the more wealthy “will be found out”. He saved much of his annoyance for the fact that “millionaire” pensioners get the winter fuel payment just like those on the breadline.
The Winter Fuel Payment was brought in to safeguard society’s most vulnerable – and that should be applauded. It has without doubt already saved countless lives and with the winter finally taking hold in the past few days will save main more before spring. But the bizarre situation whereby everyone of pensionable age gets the payment must not go unnoticed.
Here in East Anglia this paper has run a hugely successful campaign over the last two winters raising more than £100,000. The Surviving Winter appeal asks those who are better off and perhaps do not need some or all of their payment to donate it to those who need even more funds. The fact that the campaign has raised so much money proves how many people feel they do not need the payment. But for everyone one of those people who do donate their payment when they do not need it there will be dozens more who simply bank it. And all the while under-25s are being told that they can no longer have housing benefits.
There is something schizophrenic about this government’s benefits policy. It wants to cut the welfare bill and it wants to do this by getting more people in to work – that makes perfect sense.
But the brutality with which the axe is being wielded at the bottom end of society’s spectrum is terrifying. Mr Cameron needs to understand that not every case is the same – not all pensioners sit huddled around three-bar fires with blankets over their knees all winter. And not all under-25s are claiming housing benefit simply because they cannot be bothered to get off their backsides and get a job and a mortgage.
What about those teenagers kicked out by their parents? Or those who flee after years of mental and even physical abuse? Should society not help them? The Government appears hugely out of touch by simply suggesting young people should just stay at home with mummy and daddy a little longer – do the Tories really think that everyone lives in a beautiful cottage with plenty of room for the kids to return to after they bag firsts at Cambridge? If only that were the case. Sadly, although the middle class is bigger than ever, the working class is increasingly not working class, they are the underclass. And deep cuts and clamp-downs on benefits will condemn those who are determined to drag themselves out of poverty to a lifetime of disappointment and struggle.
The flat approach to how benefits are dished out needs a re-think.
Yes, the Welfare State needs reform and yes, in many areas it will have to be shaved in order to help the country back to its feet.
But the medicine to cure Britain’s ills – and no-one should doubt the coalition’s determination to succeed with the economy – plenty of political careers are pinned to it – has worse side-effects for some than others. Life is not always kind or fair and anyway, those who have worked the hardest deserve to be insulated from downturns. But cutting people adrift and withdrawing the helping hand is a grave decision.
Mr Cameron wants to leave the country a legacy and he wants it to be one of prosperity going forward, strong business and an all-conquering pound. But he must be careful that what he actually leaves is not an under-class trapped in an endless cycle of poverty without a flicker of hope.
If 2015 is to be the “scarcity election” Mr Clegg is right, politicians need to look long and hard at offering some protection for the hardest hit. For Mr Cameron and his party to leave a real, positive legacy they may have to take some truly brave decisions because if they carry on the way they are anger, hunger and hate will take hold.