Heartless policies are merely adding to the plight of the needy. It is imperative that Labour does not follow the coalition's example
William Keegan, The Observer, Sunday 29 December 2013
It is a pity that the duties of the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, do not extend to running the country.
In a recent interview in the Times, the archbishop came out with some pertinent criticisms of the way the coalition is focusing the brunt of its austerity policy on the most vulnerable. Archbishop Nichols believes that too many people are being left behind in this so-called "recovery".
So much for the prime minister's "big society", which "hasn't helped". "Charity isn't an alternative to public service. At our last bishops' meeting, a number said that they never thought they would use the word 'destitute' again, but there are now families with nothing: that's shameful and shocking."
Nichols observes that the government's "welfare" policies are being applied without any degree of flexibility towards people's individual circumstances. I recall referring in this column more than a year ago to John Le Carré's powerful phrase about the coalition's welfare policies being tantamount to "planned penury".
The church sees the consequences of these heartless policies at first hand. The victims turn up on the doorstep. The churches see, in Nichols's words, that "there have been clumsily targeted cuts and the most vulnerable are suffering … The way assistance is administered is very degrading and the language around benefits recipients has become much harsher."
Again, the chairman of the Trussell Trust reports that the number of food banks it administers has risen to the point where they are now feeding over half a million people, compared with 41,000 in 2010. According to Iain Duncan Smith, the most prominent perpetrator of these ill-conceived "welfare" policies, the charities that draw attention to the plight of the hungry and the dispossessed are merely scaremongering and have a "political agenda".
Well, so they should have a political agenda. This is the season of goodwill but this right-wing Conservative government, thinly disguised as a coalition, is emerging as a government of ill-will.
And, as I pointed out a fortnight ago, it has a very political agenda, which is to reduce public spending not because it needs to be reduced, but because those people running the Conservative party have a religious belief in implementing tax cuts for the higher echelons of society at the expense of the social safety net that so many governments of both major parties supported for so many decades after the second world war.
David Cameron has at various times indicated his admiration for such past Tory stalwarts as Harold Macmillan and Ian Gilmour; both would be appalled by what is going on now. This government seems to be woefully bereft of any sense of humanity or fundamental decency when speaking about welfare – and, indeed, administering it.
The nature of its underlying strategy is forensically examined in a new paper by the veteran British economist Brian Henry (The Coalition's Economic Strategy: Has It Made a Bad Thing Worse?). In it, Henry gives the lie to the coalition's repeated claim that the austerity programme was necessary to clear up the "mess" it inherited.
Careful comparison of the so-called "structural" deficit leads him to the conclusion that this was no worse at the end of Labour's pre-crisis years than it had been under the Conservatives: by far the greatest reason for the deficit was the consequence of the collapse in economic activity induced by the financial crash.
It was a "demand shock" rather than the "supply shock" that took place after the oil crisis of 1973-74, when much capacity was made redundant by the huge change in relative costs of energy. The financial crisis required stimulation of demand, not further contraction.
Henry concludes: "The coalition has seized the opportunity at the moment of the UK's greatest economic crisis since the 1930s, and the widespread uncertainty about its causes, to impose a protracted fiscal contraction with the aim of reducing the tax burden."
However, Henry himself, while referring to "uncertainty", is in little doubt that financial engineering and lax regulation were at the root of the crisis. It is a mark of the success of the government's propaganda that so many people believe the "big lie" that it was all down to "Labour's mess". How long they can get away with the big lie remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, it is vitally important that Labour does not, out of timidity, try to ape the coalition in a "tough" welfare policy. Otherwise, what is the point of the Labour party?