‘Has the Secretary of State, like me, managed to watch programmes such as Benefits Street and On Benefits & Proud? If so, has he, like me, been struck by the number who complain about welfare reform while able to afford copious amounts of cigarettes, have lots of tattoos, and watch Sky TV on the obligatory widescreen television?’
This question, from the Tory backbencher Philip Davies in Parliament this week, was not one Iain Duncan Smith would have welcomed. The Work and Pensions Secretary is desperate to avoid any language that casts the poor as the indolent authors of their own misfortune. But as he knows, not all of his Tory colleagues see welfare reform that way.
So concerned is he about the survival of his ‘social justice’ agenda that he plans to make a series of speeches and interventions early this year to restate what he sees as the government’s compassionate mission on welfare. He wants to reinforce his argument that changes to housing benefit, and the £26,000 benefit cap for workless households, are meant to reduce long-term benefit dependency — and that they’re working.
He will also announce the details of a plan to increase support and training for people who have just moved into work, so that they improve their skills, take on more hours, and move out of entry-level jobs and up the employment ladder.
Duncan Smith characterises the difference between left-wing and right-wing compassion as ‘How can we help you in your current state?’ versus ‘How can we change your situation so you don’t live like this?’ The difference was further spelt out by Michael Fallon, the business minister, who recently told me that the party should question whether young people ‘really need the full panoply of employment protection and all those kinds of rights when they’re just starting off’. Reduce the protection, he thinks, and young people will get what they need most — more jobs.
Fallon, along with many other colleagues who are not metropolitan modernisers but compassionate Conservatives nonetheless, would like to see further proposals in the next Tory manifesto on deregulating the labour market, so that employers might find it easier to take on young people.
Critics of compassionate Conservatism do make valid points about some clumsy policies that undermine its core mission. The ‘bedroom tax’, the least-loved welfare policy in Westminster, has a noble cause, but fails to distinguish between those hogging a needlessly large space, and those who are trying to move but cannot. Tellingly, no minister will take credit for this benefit cut: some describe it as ‘Lord Freud’s policy’ while others blame the Treasury.
IDS and his allies always wince when they hear anyone on the right denounce benefit claimants — their goal is instead to reform a system that ensnares and impoverishes. But can they persuade voters that the Tory party, as a whole, agrees with them? That question will determine whether this much fretted-over tenet of compassionate Conservatism can keep breathing.