Monday, July 21, 2008

Cruel To Be Kind

From the cradle to the grave. Depending on your perspective, it's a phrase which can fill you with libertarian foreboding, or offer a warm reassurance that the free market can't be trusted to look after your wider welfare. However, the interesting thing is that the government's latest welfare proposals ( ) don't seem to line up the usual left/right forces.
Workfare has long been viewed as toxic on the left. It smacks of free market capitalism where you either sink or swim. It's tempting to see New Labour's plans in this context. Tempting, but inaccurate.
The correct backdrop is one of depressed, deprived communities for whom a culture of benefits & worklessness has become entrenched. In the Everton district of Liverpool entire communities are in receipt of some form of state benefit, a legacy of the 80s when healthy, fit male manual workers were signed off on Incapacity Benefit (IB) in order to fiddle the unemployment figures. Three generations have now grown up with no bread winner or role model in their households, a truly poisonous & corrosive force.
Johann Hari, normally a trenchant & astute critic of New Labour, is spot-on in his analysis of the issue ( ): "There are more than a million young 'Neets' --Not in education, employment or training-- in Britain today. We have a higher proportion than any other OECD country. Go to the place where I was born --Glasgow East, site of the potentially Brown-busting by-election this Thursday-- and you will see them spreading before you in great concrete estates of poverty. You can taste the ennui in the air. Ask the kids what they want to do when they grow up and they shrug with heartbreaking indifference and say, 'Dunno'.
"If those of us on the left get trapped into defending all this, we will lose the argument. This isn't what the Welfare State was intended to look like. You were not supposed to fall asleep in the safety net and raise your kids there so they know nothing else. What we need to do is transform the safety net into a trampoline that bounces you back up when you start to fall."
This isn't an issue of morality (although it could be presented in such terms), it is hard-headed economic honesty; a listless, aimless existence punctuated by daytime TV & cheap cigarettes is no life at all. Even the Tories, the party which created today's underclass with their monetarist mantra, grudgingly acknowledge the human & social consequences of their actions ( ) with a refreshing reappraisal of the single mothers they gloried in scapegoating:
"Shadow cabinet minister David Willetts said it was hardly surprising pregnant girls were raising their children alone, if the alternative was settling down with a man who had no means of supporting a family and no visible prospects."
It is, of course, valid to point out that obliging the long-term unemployed to work for state benefits could have the effect of undercutting the wages of those workers who normally perform such tasks (street cleaners, gardeners, etc.). It's an argument cogently argued by Gregor Gall, professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire ( ).
However, such qualms are outweighed by the need to address an issue which, if anything, has fettered many working class communities for the last three decades.

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