Cutting vital income and stigmatising the low paid? The Conservatives are no workers’ party
The Conservative party conference has dominated the news this week, not only due to coverage of the thousands of anti-austerity protestors (mostly peacefully) marching through Manchester, but because of the whirlwind of controversy surrounding cuts to tax credits. In George Osborne’s July Budget, he outlined changes to the tax credit taper and threshold, which warned of a £4.4 billion cut to the income of low to middle income families across the country. Yesterday, David Cameron rejected calls to rethink the planned cuts to tax credits, and gave further details which revealed more than three million low-paid workers will compassionately be told just before Christmas how much they will lose from the changes to tax credits. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned it is "arithmetically impossible" for nobody to lose out under the changes, while The Resolution Foundation said more than one million households would lose an average of £1,350 a year. In some cases people stand to lose more than ten per cent of their take home pay.
Alongside this announcement, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt stirred up a media storm by telling a fringe meeting that cuts to tax credits were designed to send an “important cultural signal” about hard work, as well as saving money. Hunt claimed that British workers should be prepared to work as hard as the Chinese and Americans. Multi-millionaire Hunt, who once claimed 5p in expenses for a single paperclip, also suggested that those reliant on tax credits and benefits lacked “independence, self-respect and dignity”. Does Hunt not realise there Chinese workers who are working so hard in such exploitative conditions that employers need to install suicide nets to prevent them from jumping to their death?
Cameron defended Hunt, saying he had been “misinterpreted”, but remained firm on the issue, claiming the old system of tax credits and the threshold for personal income tax was an “expensive and unworkable merry go round”. The same description could be used when talking about the ‘low pay, no pay cycle’ that many workers are caught up in. A record 21 per cent, or 5.5 million workers, are now in low-paid jobs according to The Resolution Foundation’s latest report. These are workers who often work not one, but two or even three low paid, insecure jobs, yet still find themselves heading through the doors of their local food bank – a similar situation to that of America’s low paid workers who Hunt believes workers here in Britain should ‘aspire’ to.
But this level of contempt for low paid workers fits into a wider rhetoric of false dualisms from the government concerning ‘strivers’ and ‘shirkers’ which has seen benefit claimants pitted against workers, and now low paid workers are being compared to other workers who are can apparently work even harder, with more dignity and self respect than they do. Boris Johnson added to this discourse, stating the party must protect “The people who get up in the small hours or work through the night because they have dreams for what their families can achieve... the aspiring, striving, working people that Labour is leaving behind”. The Poverty Alliance has warned against the increasingly pejorative language used to describe people living on a low income, and warned: “We have noticed a marked increase in the use of stigmatising and divisive language both by politicians and by the media”.
Branding people lazy and undignified at the same time as removing vital income from their already low budgets will not instil any self-confidence to workers who are desperately trying to make ends meet as further sweeping cuts become rooted in the social security system.