George Osborne has announced real-terms cuts in benefits. The attack on welfare is an act of class war, argues Adam Tomes

Osborne headlines

The Tories want to make a portion of the working class the scapegoat for the fastest decline in living standards for generations. They are to pay for a huge economic crisis caused not by them – and not by government overspending – but by the money lust of a deregulated banking sector.

It is dressed up in the familiar “we are all in this together” garb, whilst attempting to divide and embitter working class communities.

In the autumn statement, George Osborne introduced a £3.7 bn a year cut to the welfare budget by increasing benefits at a below-inflation 1% per year for the next three years. This is a real-terms cut.

‘Scroungers’ and ‘strivers’

The nature of the cut, and the language used to describe it, tells us all we need to know about the Tory assault on benefits. It is part of an ideological project and has been described by Donald Hirsch, the Director of the Centre for the Study of Social Policy at Loughborough University as “the most historic moment for the economic welfare of the poorest people in Britain for 30 years”.

The ideological motivation is clear and malicious. Osborne has painted the divide clearly between the “scroungers” and the “strivers”. The “scroungers” are those who apparently stay in bed in the morning with their curtains closed whilst the hard working “striver” goes out to work. There is no place for the “scrounger” to be receiving a rise in benefits in rise with inflation whilst the hard working “striver” faces a real wage cut.

The welfare state was created to protect the working classes against the worst excesses of capitalism. In times of bust, it provides people with the necessary security against destitution and poverty. The reason for their poverty was understood: it was as a result of the system.

Not today. The Tories argue that the reason some people need the state is because they are work-shy scroungers. They are poor due to their own moral and personal failings. They should not be rewarded for their failure, but should be punished through an increasingly punitive welfare system.

We are in the worst recession since the 1930s. Since 1979, successive British governments have destroyed well paid, skilled working class jobs in industry and manufacturing. The number of applicants per job has risen steadily.

People are not work-shy, as the Chancellor insists, but rather there is too little permanent work. Only someone as privileged and out-of-touch as Osborne could think that people really want to stay at home to claim their JSA of up to £71 per week.

Lack of jobs

People are desperate for work. They are desperate for rewarding work, which gives them a skill, a sense of purpose and a fair wage. They are desperate for permanent work on secure contracts with real prospects.

Yet Osborne and the Tories do not want to discuss the lack of quality work yet the evidence is stark. Only 3% of Remploy workers promised help to get back to work by this government have found permanent work. In the government flagship welfare to work programme, only 3.53% of people found sustainable work of longer than six months.

One of the claims of the current government – to mark their success – is the number of new jobs created, yet the majority of the work is casualised and poorly paid. Workers are bounced between benefits and low paid, casual labour and back again. A real welfare state and a proper economic strategy based on the creation of permanent jobs is more necessary now than ever.

Osborne’s aim is to split the working class and redirect the anger of hard working people against those without work. People feel anger at falling living standards and real wages, fear of unemployment and tax rises. Osborne wishes to redirect that anger from the wealthy to “scroungers”, who are receiving the strivers’ hard earned taxes as benefits and are not out to work because they are paid too much to sit at home.

This image is driven home by the right wing press which spends its time using individual stories and shock headlines to paint millions of people as scroungers and morally weak. The unemployed are demonized.

Yet when the well-off don’t pay tax – and corporations like Google and Starbucks don’t pay their corporation tax - it is a different story. The press praises Starbucks for agreeing to pay £10m in corporation tax. Tax is not voluntary: it is a legal and moral obligation to ensure that those hit the worst by capitalist crisis are protected and that we have a more just society based on much lower levels of inequality.

Changing the debate

The attack on welfare is simply a further step in the redistribution of wealth into the hands of the few. The lowest earners in society spend all their income out of necessity and generally in the local economy. Further attacks on benefits will drive down demand and furthe damage local economies, damaging all working people alike from the unemployed through to the retail worker and self-employed plumber.

The attack on welfare and the accompanying neoliberal media message must be challenged. It is not about strivers against scroungers. It is about the Tories engaging in class war against the working class.

The time has come to change the terms of debate about the role of the welfare state and tax in society. The welfare state is there to protect us all against the failings of capitalism. People are unemployed through no fault or wish of their own.

The debate should focus on the need for a real economic and welfare strategy based on creating skilled, permanent, rewarding and well-paid jobs through a sustainable, green economy. That debate is needed in homes, workplaces and on the streets of Britain. That debate is needed now.


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