Since Margaret Thatcher’s meteoric rise to become the great talisman of the conservative movement, conservatives up and down the country have increasingly ignored the cries of the poor. This vincible ignorance, as Aquinas would put it, is a canker at the very heart of the Tory Party today, and represents all that is wrong with the modern, money-orientated, right.
Take, for example, the recent proposition to cut Universal Credit by £20-a-week. The proponents of this policy, including all Tory MPs minus a handful of backbenchers, argue that this move recognises that we are no longer in a pandemic economy and, with wages at their highest in recent history, the extra £20-a-week is no longer required. However, to anyone who digs a little deeper, it is obvious that this extra £80-a-month is a lifeline for those on the lowest incomes. Take the average under-25 recipient of Universal Credit. If they are in a single-person household they will receive at present £250-a-month. This means that the cut is seeing them lose ⅓ of their yearly allowance, potentially making basic amenities like food and rent unaffordable. This injustice only grows when talking about families who are claiming. For a family of two parents and two children, they currently receive £500-a-month in Universal Credit. This means that they could see ⅕ of their income removed. Overall, the Citizens Advice Bureau believe that this cut could send ⅓ of recipients, or 1.8 million people, into poverty, and lead to average debts of £51-a-month for families involved. Let us remember too that these are not the wrongly bemoaned “scroungers”; these are working families who happen to need help from the state in order to survive. It is obvious, then, that all people of good conscience should fight this reduction.
One of the most worrying things about this debacle is just how few Tories seem to care about the policy change. Just four Tory MPs, or 1% of the Conservative parliamentary cohort, defied the government whip and backed the non-binding Labour motion to continue the £80-a-month rise in Universal Credit. This poultry showing exhibits Tory reluctance to back benefits of any kind, even those designed to keep working families out of poverty. It is telling that we seem to have abandoned Margaret Thatcher’s own mantra, that there are “individual men and women and there are families” and the sole role of the state was to protect and assist these two units. But it is not just here, in the realm of Universal Credit, that we should feel a deep sense of shame.
Throughout the last 11 years of Tory government welfare payments have decreased as inflation has soared. This has been aided and abetted by a Tory Party, in cahoots with the mainstream media, that has sought to demonise and, in some cases, dehumanise, those on critical welfare support. From the portrayal of all those claiming benefits as “work shy” or “scroungers”, through to qualitative examples of benefits cheats appearing throughout the tabloid press, the public have been encouraged to treat as “other” those who require state assistance. In fact, between 1987 and now, support for increasing taxes for welfare payments to alleviate poverty has moved from 55% to 27%, with those against the policy now forming 43%. This data suggests that the Tory Party is simply reaping what it sows when it comes to public policy regarding welfare.
In all, then, it is time for a return to compassionate conservatism. We must orientate ourselves away from a money-centric set of policies to one which upholds the dignity and worth of all people, especially those in desperate need. The cut to Universal Credit is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to welfare reform, and we must ensure that its status as an “easy target” is not used as an excuse to emaciate welfare payments to the most vulnerable in society in the coming economic struggle. We must build back better by building back fairer, raising corporation tax and the top rate of income tax whilst ring fencing funds to the poorest in society; there is no other acceptable way to rebuild. Our public policy approach must begin and end with the mantra “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”.
Alex Honey, EUCA Chairman 2019-2021