It’s just not cricket
The Government’s assertion that everyone is sharing the burden of spending cuts is wearing thin, says John Healey.
Among the slew of soundbites that passed for serious political debate before the election, one struck home. It captured the attention of many who recognised the economic challenges we face and resonated with their sense of what was needed.
Regularly repeated by PM David Cameron and his team before the election, ‘We’re all in this together’ was the basis for other early statements about how the Government would go about its job after the election. Mr Cameron said his approach to the spending cuts he was planning would be ‘open, responsible and fair’.
This was part of a charm offensive designed to establish a public perception of the new government’s character. Sounding more like a cricket umpire than a conventional politician, people were being encouraged to think, ‘Decent chap, plays by the rules, good to have him in charge’.
Four months on, with a series of harsh decisions announced by government ministers – and a number slipped out during the Parliamentary recess – the sheen of straightforwardness and decency is starting to wear thin.
Any illusion that everyone across Britain is somehow tightening their belts to an equal degree is increasingly difficult to maintain.
It was always going to feel like this for the thousands of families set to feel the sharp end of the anticipated cuts to tax credits, benefits support, jobs and services. But the feeling that the country has been duped, grows when respected independent organisations such as the Institute of Fiscal Studies set out in detail the deeply-regressive consequences of the Government’s emergency Budget in June.
This onslaught on the vulnerable, and the dishonest debate which justifies such actions is well illustrated by announcements on housing benefit cuts, which were linked to outrage over a couple of unemployed families in Kensington in London, who were receiving remarkably high weekly payments to cover their equally-high rental costs.
Such exceptional anecdotes were generalised by the Government to suggest the system for thousands more families – many of them working but not earning enough to cover their basic housing costs – was rotten, and to justify sweeping swingeing cuts across the board.
Families, pensioners and single working people will have no way of making up the £10 or £12 a week average shortfall that the first wave of housing benefits cuts will cause in April. Many will be driven into debt and could be driven out of their homes and local neighbourhoods.
A wider government narrative of retrenchment, driven by a desire to reduce the role of the state, stretches far beyond financial cuts.
Mr Cameron spent last year refusing to respond to my challenges on his party’s secret plans for reducing tenancy rights for those in social housing.
He used an interview during the election to deny any plans for reform, furthermore accusing me and other campaigning Labour MPs of scaremongering. By last month, however, he was telling the country that such security of tenure – the basis on which people can build a life for themselves, start a family and contribute to their local community – was being reviewed and would be cut for new tenants.
It’s hard to accept the truth of what ministers have been saying for so long. And there’s a widening gap between what they say, and what they do.
Sometimes, however, the statements are different. When communities minister, Bob Neill, told the House of Commons in June that: ‘Those in greatest need ultimately bear the burden of paying off the debt,’ this was not an orthodox gaffe. It was somebody telling a truth that he wasn’t supposed to say out loud – confirmation that the Government knows the vulnerable will suffer most from the cuts it plans. Commendable, but unlikely to be a good long-term career move.
But, less than 150 days into Mr Cameron’s Government, and as we get more detail of the cuts and policy changes to come, ‘We’re all in this together’ looks increasingly like a big con.
Much of the electorate and many Liberal Democrats have been taken in. But with the spending review next month, and the detailed departmental decisions that will follow, the scales will rapidly start to fall from everyone’s eyes.
John Healey is shadow housing minister
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