The Law of Declining Outrage

How serious are the government’s new welfare proposals?

Back in April the government said it was going to cut housing benefit for unemployed people under 25. Since then, nothing seems to have come of it. Now Cameron makes a speech saying he wants to cut housing benefit for all under 25s whether they work or not. This was part of a raft of seventeen different policy ideas including cutting all benefits for under 21s, cutting all benefits for the long term unemployed, cutting child benefits if you have too many children, and the routine arming of Work Programme subcontractors (alright, I made this one up. Still, wait on the 2020 manifesto).

The speech has had a predictable reaction. People are angry and scared and they are entitled to be. The policy rationale has holes you can drive a bus through. Housing benefit is overwhelmingly an in work benefit, in cities with rocketing rents many people can’t continue to work without it, many young people don’t have safe comfortable homes to go back to (the DWP seems to think the greatest hardship someone in their early twenties can face is to have to go back to their childhood bedroom in Herefordshire) the cut will prevent young people from rural areas or small towns moving to more populated areas where the work is, so it will slow down growth and keep people out of work. And it sends another clear signal to young people that they are barely tolerated guests in this country.

Johnny Void, the criminally underrated welfare reform blogger, noted a recent shift in benefits rhetoric. Before, only people who didn’t work at all qualified as Daily Mail cannon fodder. Now, you can work all the hours there are but if you are still reliant on some kind of state help then you are considered fair game – as the BBC’s treatment of lone parent Shanene Thorpe showed. Possibly the ideal is some kind of ultra libertarian society where people will be denounced for, say, calling the fire brigade if their house is bombed, or driving on publicly maintained roads.

But is any of this going to be implemented in practice?

The government has just passed a huge tranche of welfare reform legislation. Danny Alexander has said that the government should concentrate on implementing Welfare Reform Part One – which isn’t going that well so far. The Guardian‘s Andrew Sparrow said it felt like he was hearing an early draft of the 2015 Tory general election manifesto. Given the amount of time and effort it takes to turn ideas into law, surely Welfare Reform Part Two can’t fly before then.

So all these ideas depend on people electing another coalition government with the Lib Dems voting for these proposals (which is possible) or a full-on majority Tory government (which, at the moment, is just fantasy).

Political bloggers like to say that they know what’s really going on, but we don’t really and it could be that Cameron is completely sincere in this. Or he could be trying to look tough and distract attention from government clusterfucks on the economy, the NHS, Leveson, the list is endless. Or he could be trying to build up his base and outflank Gove as a successor. Just as Ed Miliband has to throw some bones to the white working class right and Nick Clegg has to occasionally pretend his party has a reason for existing. You can get obsessed with this Westminster village bullshit if you’re not careful.

The dance is an old one. The debate circles the same G-spot issues like lazy vultures returning to a declining corpse. Cameron gives us the same stupid and counterproductive ideas framed in aspirational volkisch rhetoric that pretends these ideas have never been tried and that they can work. The Mail and the courtier press love it while charities, unions, policy groups and the Twitter left react with fury. The silent majority is supposed to think that if the intellectual left is against something then it must be a great idea.

The leftwing take is that Cameron is exploiting working class resentment of benefit claimants. Perhaps Cameron thinks he is shoring up his Man of the People credentials and it’s worth alienating the under 25s because they don’t vote and certainly don’t vote Tory – although in my experience the apathy of youth is a shaky assumption.

However, I think that this kind of manufactured outrage is subject to diminishing returns. There’s only so much hate.

I think that it will take more than another ‘bold and radical’ welfare reform idea to save this farcical government.

Update: You should really read Red on this, but just one of her sentences sums the housing benefit proposal up completely.

Apparently though, our prime minister thinks you should be treated like a child until you’ve been alive for a quarter of a century.

Welfare Reform part 94: this time it’s gonna work. (Image: Guardian)

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