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Labour Creates a Nation of Supplicants

Published in the Daily Telegraph, 5 February 2005

The term “malingering” fell into disuse for a few years, but it is making an unexpected comeback now that Tony Blair has acknowledged that more than a million of the 2.7 million people claiming incapacity benefit are capable of working. The Government has plans to get them back to work by cutting the benefit from about £74 a week to £56. The Conservatives have done their homework and yesterday came up with a carefully costed alternative, whereby charities and volunteers could help claimants back to work. But the Prime Minister is unlikely to lose much sleep over it: he is quite content for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition to play the political game by worrying about the affordability of policy proposals. His only concern is: “Will my plan help us win the election?”

As times goes on, we can see the true character of New Labour more clearly. Since taking office, the Government has produced a catalogue of incompetence in various areas of national life: law and order, immigration, school standards and university admission. But, above all, it has been guilty of subordinating policy to ruthless political opportunism. Its welfare reforms are a case in point. Labour came into office talking of benefits as a springboard into work, not a mere safety net; but all that was quickly forgotten as partisan calculations were made about votes.

The Government has, quite simply, set out to use its power to create client groups in the population, loyal to one party. Some of these groups look to Labour for their income, or enough of it to make them think twice about voting for a rival party that celebrates self-reliance. Others are ideological allies whose loyalty is rewarded with public-sector jobs. Labour’s penchant for multiculturalism, for example, has led to a proliferation of jobs designed to ensure the proportionate representation of ethnic minorities in the workplace, and to stamp out the illicit practices of the hegemonic white middle class, such as its fondness for guided walks in the Lake District. The strategy of creating interest groups beholden to Labour has increased public-sector employment by some 10 per cent since 1998. With nearly 5.5 million employees, the public sector now accounts for almost one in every five jobs (or non-jobs); more than half a million have been created in the past seven years.

The Government has also increased the number of people on benefits generally. There are now more people on benefits than during the first full year of Labour rule. Indeed, the number on what are termed “key benefits” has increased from six million in November 1998 to 6.6 million in December 2004. Of course, Labour has tried to hide what is happening by renaming a major benefit a “tax credit”, but the trend is unmistakable.

How does this compare with recent history? In 1951, less than four per cent of the population received national assistance or unemployment benefit. In 1971, it was still only eight per cent. In 2004, the proportion of the working-age population dependent on key benefits was 18 per cent. According to the Government’s Family Resources Survey, 30 per cent of households received half or more of their income from the state in 2002-03. Among households over pension age, the proportion was 60 per cent. The real story is that we have taken huge strides on the road to becoming a nation of supplicants.

Admittedly, Gordon Brown knows that you have to produce income before you can tax it. But he has combined his desire for more GDP with a strong liking for levelling. In a knowledge-based economy, the more skilled people in the workforce the better. So far so good, but it does not follow that half our young people should go to university, and it most certainly does not follow that places be allocated according to postcode. Moreover, if these universities offer too many degrees in golf-course management or media studies, we may find that our GDP does not grow quite so rapidly as that of China or India.

Mr Brown’s working tax credit reflects a different blend of egalitarianism and crude vote-buying. To be in work implies earning an income sufficient to support your family and to pay your share of taxes. But many of the people drawn into work by the Government’s policies are not making a net contribution to the economy. They receive more in benefits than they earn, and far more than they pay in taxes.

For example, a lone parent with one child under 11, paying £40 a week for child care and on the minimum wage of £4.85 per hour, would earn £77.60 from 16 hours’ work. After benefits, his or her total weekly income would be £257.35. A married couple, also with one child under 11 and doing their own child care, would have to put in 47 hours’ work a week at the same hourly rate to take home as much. About a third of more than a million lone parents receiving working tax credit work part time for only 16-20 hours a week and have their income made up to the equivalent of a full-time pay packet. The Government is pleased with itself for getting them into work and off income support – but the real challenge is to give people the self-respect that comes only from being self-sufficient.

Some Conservatives still talk as if they are in government, fussing about the administrative complexities of incapacity benefit. Meanwhile, the Government is entrenching the Labour vote, using public-sector funds to buy votes in a manner that would have embarrassed the 18th century. If the Tories are sensible, they will make more of this. Apart from mounting evidence of incompetence, the Government’s Achilles’ heel may be its embarrassingly naked appeal to self-interest. It has replaced our political tradition of liberty with a vision of equalised citizens whose pocket money is guaranteed by the state. But history suggests that Britons don’t much care for politicians who think they can be bought so cheaply. The Tories should stop trying to prove that their policies are “fully costed”, and instead attack the shallowness of New Labour’s idealism.

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