Wednesday 6 October 2021

Protecting Tory voters isn't levelling up


For the PM to talk about moving to a high wage economy on the same day that his government reverses the temporary uplift to Universal Credit would look like just another example of incompetence and inconsistency if the clash of dates hadn’t been known for months in advance. It looks instead more like an example of just rubbing people’s noses in it. 

It’s true, of course, that the uplift was always billed as temporary but the rationale for moving from an inadequate weekly payment to a marginally less inadequate weekly payment for the duration of the pandemic was never spelled out explicitly. It clearly has little to do with any suggestion that the pandemic was somehow going to cost those receiving the benefit more, but always seemed to be associated more with the fact that more people were going to end up claiming the benefit, as a result of a furlough scheme which cut the wages of millions of employees. It’s no coincidence that the ending of the uplift comes at roughly the same time as the ending of furlough; it’s all about electoral politics.

It’s a sweeping generalisation to say that, in so-called ‘normal’ times, most of those in receipt of Universal Credit in England (and it's only England that matters to the government) will be either Labour voters or else non-voters, more concerned with managing their daily lives than with voting in an election where most votes count for little. (And who can honestly blame people struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis for being less than passionately concerned about which particular bunch of deficit fetishists are in charge of implementing an austerity programme?) But being a sweeping generalisation doesn’t necessarily make it incorrect. What the furlough scheme did was tip many more of the voting public – including a number who do, or could be persuaded to, vote Conservative – into the area where they needed to claim the benefit. The uplift was intended not so much to protect the interests of claimants as to protect the electoral interests of the Conservative Party. Now that very many fewer of their voters fall into the system, they believe that they can afford to revert to the even more inadequate level of benefit which pertained previously. People who don’t vote for them simply don’t matter to them.

The PM claims that it is better for people to be in high-wage employment than to depend on benefits. He’s right – but if his government were serious about that, they could legislate tomorrow to outlaw any employer paying a full time wage so low that staff need to claim benefits in addition. Such a proposal might give them a little difficulty with some of their own backbenchers, who seem to believe that not paying people enough to live on is a perfectly reasonable employment practice (and also effectively provides a handy public subsidy to companies who donate, or might be persuaded to donate, large sums to the Tory Party), but I’m sure that they’d get enough support from opposition parties to get the measure passed. Outside the ranks of the Tory Party, I doubt that there are many MPs who believe that paying people less than enough to live on is ever a reasonable thing to do.

There is nothing in the PM’s rhetoric about a high-skill high-wage economy which is going to help those at the economic bottom of society, doing jobs where there is little or no possibility of innovation or improved productivity. Even if it were possible for all those doing jobs on low pay to walk into higher-paid employment tomorrow, the requirement for most of those jobs would still be there; we’d just be faced with an unfulfilled – and unfulfillable – requirement. Levelling up (even if it were defined, which it has not been to date) is a not unreasonable aspiration, but the word ‘levelling’ is more important than the word ‘up’. Unless action is taken to reduce the disparity between the top and the bottom, it’s not levelling at all, and there will still be people left behind at the bottom. Ensuring that his party can win elections without ever needing the votes of any left in that group is a much more limited aspiration – but probably a better description of the overall policy aim.


Jonathan said...

I agree that the Tories are simply trying to win elections, that's all. There is a world-wide interest in Universal Basic Income. Democrats in US are fairly open in using Covid as an opportunity to bring it in, on ideological grounds. Boris is simply moving left to block out any advance by Labour. And he will cut "UBI" in the UK because he thinks he can. Which is true because Labour haven't found any traction yet.
There is a question over whether UBI is a good idea. Personally I think it's like MM Theory and later-stage feminism. Plausible theories I grant you, very convenient for many, loudly asserted, but unlikely to stand the rigours of testing in real life.
To me, levelling up really boils down to regional policy. I have spend most of the last 40yrs in the Welsh context. And much of the last 10 knocking around the Midlands and NW of England, and contrasting all this with London, where I also go. I'm sure we agree about the chasm between London and the rest. London bleeds England white, and stunts us. With our consent, sadly. I'm sure we also agree that London/Tories/same thing just don't have it in them to put the Osborne plan for the North into effect. Wales must fight its corner, and not take the dependency way just because its familiar.

John Dixon said...

I agree with most of that, although I think you're being a bit dismissive of UBI and MMT. But I'm a bit surprised that you've fallen for the narrative that "Boris is simply moving left...". We should judge him by his actions, not his words, and whilst he refuses to use the word austerity, that's exactly what his Chancellor is proposing. Whilst he talks about "levelling up", his government is still redistributing wealth from the poorest to the richest.

dafis said...

"Boris is moving to the left... " No, he is posing to the left in a few tokenistic ways because those things are part of the new totalitarian pathway, at least until it become safe, or prudent, to ditch them. Over the last 18-20 months some of the behaviours have of necessity been those often associated with some sort of interventionist ( socialist) mindset. They were however driven by crisis, not any particular care or concern about people. Furlough was brought in to make life a bit easier for corporate friends to keep workforces moderately stable. The lack of speed and no evidence of planning in dealing with self employed and those falling between the cracks is sufficient to prove that government didn't really give a sh*t.

MMT will be with us for some time whether the government likes it or not and will be seen as O.K unless interest rates start moving in which case, look out!. As for UBI, much as it appeals to me I think in the present shape of UK it will be diluted and butchered to a point of uselessness.