The sharp rightwards lurch of the post-recession political landscape of the UK is understandable in light of the recklessness of the previous, supposedly left-wing government, but its consequences have been highly damaging. The social security bill is indeed high, there is no denying it – 28% of government spending, some £200 billion a year – but crippling reductions to benefit payments, disguised as ‘reorganisations’, are not the answer.
I understand the concerns that many people have. There is a perceived unfairness that some workers earn a paltry wage, barely enough to sustain themselves and their families, and that their taxes contribute to the benefits payments of individuals who do not work. I understand because I have been in a situation where every penny was having to be counted as it came in the door, and double-checked again on the way out. I am sure many of us have, and we can therefore feel some sympathy with working-class people who feel this way. But the Daily Mail-fuelled frenzy of recriminations and punishment for uncommitted crimes has to stop.
The fiercest conflict, over the payment of unemployment benefits, is particularly damaging, demonising and vilifying an entire section of society. 7.7% of the UK working-age population are out of work, and though there is of course the odd fraudulent claimant, the numbers are relatively minute. Less than 1% of total benefits claimed are fraudulent (according to government estimates) and the total wasted in this way is less than the excess paid out due to bureaucratic error, yet if one were to believe the right-wing media an entire horde of lazy, good-for-nothing scroungers should be found lurking behind the front door of every council house in Britain. The fact that these people patently do not exist seems to be of little import to the media moguls and their extortionately overpaid editors – as long as it sells papers, who cares if it happens to be untrue?
Quite apart from being damaging, the furore over unemployment benefit also misses the real point entirely. Jobseeker’s allowance cost the UK £4.91 billion in the financial year 2011-12, just 2.46% of the social security total. Whilst a not insignificant sum of money, this is comparatively small when compared to other forms of social security. By far the biggest drain on the Department for Work and Pensions’ budget is the state pension – around 50% – but there are other significant areas where savings can far more easily, and more fairly, be made.
And instead of objecting to this deeply immoral state of affairs; instead of rectifying the wrongs of a capitalist system run rampant; instead, in short, of forcing those unscrupulous companies paying what they know full well is an impossibly low salary to clean up their act and pay a living wage, the government simply stand back, nod and smile whilst international corporate conglomerations treat their staff like serfs, and then run along afterwards to plug the gap with taxpayers’ money.
Taxpayers’ money which, as they themselves delight in telling us, is running rather low.
The answer is simple: raise the minimum wage to the ‘living wage’ standard arrived at by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – £8.80 in London and £7.65 in the rest of the UK. This will force the businesses benefitting from the labour of working people to actually pay for it, rather than expecting the public to subsidise their companies’ operation. We will cut nearly £40 billion from the welfare bill at a stroke, and without cutting a single benefit. From both a practical and political standpoint, it makes absolute sense.
Except, that is, if you happen to be a member of the established political class. Because, let’s face it, the majority of the Parliamentary branches of all three major parties in the UK have succumbed to the lure of big business. Industrial giants donate vast sums of cash to the political elite and provide favours and introductions wherever they are needed. In return, they expect certain benefits – and a subsidised labour force is part of that. Tax credits are just one part of this corrupt covenant – others include the Workfare Programme and the distribution of honours to government business partners – but they are a significant part, and cost the taxpayer huge amounts every year. We are paying through the nose to support capitalist interests perfectly capable of looking after themselves, only to be told the country doesn’t have any money.