There has been much comment in the British media this week about the Conservative politician Iain Duncan Smith (also referred to as IDS). He is Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and claimed, on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday that, despite earning a reported salary of £134,565 per year from his role in government (£2,587 a week), he could live on £53 per week if he had to. This low figure represented an amount that a market trader named David Bennett believed he would have to live on once the tax and benefit changes being discussed came into effect. An online petition was promptly started urging IDS to try living for a year on £53 per week. So far, it has attracted more than 350,000 signatures.
Both IDS and David Bennett have since been subjected to personal and often vitriolic examination as their brief encounter on the radio show has been discussed and dissected. The speed with which the petition has attracted signatures has undoubtedly been impressive but is, as IDS put it the following day, nothing more than a stunt. Even without his government salary, IDS is a very wealthy man. A temporary curtailing of his lifestyle is unlikely to change his self confidence, aspiration or overall circumstances; it would merely prolong the publicity surrounding a probably foolish, throwaway remark and thereby encourage the detractors of both the wealthy and the benefit claimants to dig deeper for more personal examples and details with which to stoke the public fires of hate.
This latest, political storm in a teacup has reminded me of the 1995 song Common People by the band Pulp. The song was written by Jarvis Cocker who described a fad for class tourism as a sort of ‘patronising social voyeurism’. If IDS were to take up the challenge he would know that, at any time, he could bail out.
‘But still you’ll never get it right
‘cos when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall
If you call your Dad he could stop it all.’
IDS may not call his Dad but, if reports are to be believed, he could certainly call his wealthy wife.
The Champagne Socialists love to draw attention to the wealth of those in government. If they believe that Members of Parliament’s salaries and benefits should be cut then perhaps they should campaign for that and accept the consequences. It requires a great deal of time (campaigning) and money (publicity) to become a Member of Parliament so those who also need to hold down a regular job are at a disadvantage already. Whatever his detractors may think of IDS, at least he has some previous experience of working outside of parliament which is more than can be said for many of the current crop of career politicians from all sides. IDS was voted in by his constituents; it should be their choice whether he stays or goes.
The tax and benefits system in Britain is convoluted and complex. The impact of change is always going to be hard to understand allowing clever critics to come up with individual examples of the apparently undeserving beneficiaries or the cruelly ignored and abandoned. We are regularly subjected to stories of large families from foreign climes living in luxurious properties at tax payers expense; of large families who can buy a huge new television, take a holiday abroad and still have money left over each week to go drinking with friends; of families who have never worked because there is no need when their benefits are so generous.
Then there will be the stories of the disabled and maimed or those with serious mental health issues who have had benefits removed but have no hope of being offered any sort of job; of those who hold down a low paid job topped up with benefits so mean that, however carefully they budget, a requirement for new shoes for their child or a repair to the car needed to travel between school and work can mean that there is no money for food or heating. We are led to believe that children starve and old people freeze purely because the benefits system is so stingy.
I do not doubt that these individuals exist but are they representative of a wider population? It can be very hard to know the scale of the issues being dramatised in sound bites and vitriol. Public perception can be moulded and existing prejudices fed by the extremists on both sides as they whip up hate and judgement. It seems that no economic policy change can be implemented without an outcry from at least one side of the political spectrum.
Most people recognise that the way the economy is currently being run needs to change, but it seems that nobody wishes to suffer those changes; they always want someone else to pay. The wealthy are criticised for making money and the poor for claiming it unearned. The needy are not given as much support as they require while others who already have plenty claim benefits because they can. As attempts are made to address apparent loopholes and waste, the critics will find those who are being unfairly made to suffer. Those who shout the loudest drown out the voices of reason as the politicians chase the elusive, vote winning policy that always seems to dance just beyond their grasp as public opinion is shifted and manipulated by the media and those who seek power and influence.
I do not believe that answers will be found while reason is ignored. More people need to listen and try to understand rather than just react. Alternatives need to be discussed and sometimes hard policies applied. A solution that does not sound immediately fair or right can still benefit those who need help the most.
As an example, critics of universal credit cite the unfairness of giving benefits to the wealthy as a reason not to introduce a system that would free up so much money in savings by removing the bureaucracy of establishing entitlement that the needy would receive more than they can currently claim. What are they trying to achieve if not to help those in need? A stronger argument against, in my view, would be that government cannot be trusted to use the money saved as promised rather than on an alternative pet project. Vast sums are already being poured into so many dubious schemes that benefit only a few. If these pots of money could be used instead to directly help the less influential but poorer members of society then there would not be the need for so many controversial changes to wealth redistribution.
Asking a particular politician to do without the luxury lifestyle he is used to for a limited period is not going to improve the lives of those already living in poverty. The speed with which the petition calling for him to do so gained support shows that many people are angry with how the country is being run. We have a number of opportunities to vote for representatives in this year’s council elections, next year’s European Parliament election and the following year’s General election. Perhaps if we can find some people who agree with our views to stand in these we might have a chance of influencing the changes needed. The main political parties have skewed the way the voting system works to their advantage so a lot of people will need to act if change is to happen. It will be interesting to see how engaged the majority of the population become when they are asked to risk the unknown or accept the status quo.