The ostriches of the left need to understand the risk of a “strivers strike”

by Kevin Meagher

Contrary to popular belief, ostriches do not in fact bury their heads in the sand. Like most logical animals, they leg it when a danger presents itself.

Alas, many on the left do not seem to possess the good sense of our feathered friends and do, in fact, propel their heads into the ground to avoid hearing a few home truths.

I wrote the other day about how curtailing the costs of the welfare state through instituting a basic golden rule that all adults should be in paid work for the vast majority of their working lives was vital to addressing the public’s mistrust of Labour when it comes to managing benefit costs.

To recap, a YouGov poll to accompany our forthcoming pamphlet ‘Labour’s manifesto uncut: How to win in 2015 and why’ finds that over half of those who think welfare spending is too high (54 per cent) blame Labour, ten times more people than the five per cent who hold the coalition responsible.

Who do they rate best able to keep costs under control? 45 per cent trust Cameron, compared to 14 per cent who back Ed Miliband. It seems obvious that this is a not insignificant difficulty for the party looking to rebuild trust with the electorate.

Yet it’s an argument some people don’t want to hear. The Independent’s Owen Jones dropped me a line on Twitter to ask whether “perpetuating myths” about the welfare state was helpful in repairing public trust (a question framed as an accusation). I’m not exactly clear which thought crime I have committed, but expecting all adults, save for the most vulnerable, to work and contribute is clearly some sort of heinous proposal.

He helpfully sent me a link to a story citing some TUC research which claims hardening views about welfare are because voters are fed “myths” about the actual benefits people receive. Unfortunately this is the age-old ‘ordinary-people-are-too-stupid-to-understand’ explanation favoured by princes of the left down the generations.

I like Owen and his efforts in riding out to defend the welfare state are well-intentioned, but a carte blanche defence of the status quo is a definition of madness. Reducing the share of working-age claims is a prerequisite for meeting new demands for things like universal childcare, keeping the system rooted as a ‘something for something’ offer for hard-pressed working people, with everyone paying in and everyone drawing something back out.

This is why I suspect Owen and I agree about the undesirability of means-testing child benefit, albeit for different reasons. He is rooted in the left’s politics of ‘no change’ while I sense (and the polling confirms this, in spades) that a resentful electorate is increasingly reluctant to pay for something it doesn’t benefit from.

As ever, it comes down to a basic question of arithmetic.  Although 600,000 people are affected by the reduction in housing benefit for the temerity of having a spare room – the so-called bedroom tax – this amounts to roughly 1 in 100 people in Britain. The remaining ninety-nine are not affected. That’s not a great basis for starting a mass movement.

And that’s why there isn’t one. Unless we count Owen’s People’s Assembly events taking place around the country, with barely a flicker on the public consciousness.  That’s not a sneer of disdain, just a statement of the bleeding obvious. It is right and even useful that the coalition’s actions are met with a stern public response, but it has to be more than shroud-waving from the fringes. Without a hard-headed counter proposal it’s beginning to feel like the 1980s, with the left engaging in a lot of conscience-salving, to little practical effect.

Thatcher was eventually brought to book because the poll tax affected millions of households. This government will face angry electors who feel short-changed because of declining living standards, not benefit cuts (however egregious the bedroom tax may be). The extent to which there’s a feel-good factor will determine the outcome of the next election, nothing else.

The issue of getting people off benefits and into work is not some Thatcherite final solution. Indeed, having many fewer people reliant on state benefits should mean, for instance, that benefit levels are set higher for those genuinely unable to work.

But the risk of inaction when it comes to welfare reform is that we switch from a founding principal in which everyone pays something in and draws something out to a system where fewer pay in and get less back, while some pay nothing in at all and only ever seem to draw out. This becomes economically – and politically -unsustainable.

The collectivist principles of the welfare state become unstuck and the remaining contributors become increasingly resentful. The next stop on this journey is a demand from the more affluent for an opt-out from paying for benefits they will never themselves receive.

This is the issue – the looming spectre of a “strivers strike” – which should cause everyone from Owen Jones to Labour Uncut writers to have sleepless nights. Time for the left to pull its head out of the sand.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut. “Labour’s manifesto uncut: How to win in 2015 and why” is launched on Monday 23rd September at the PragRad fringe at Labour conference

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19 Responses to “The ostriches of the left need to understand the risk of a “strivers strike””

  1. swatantra says:

    Owen Jones a a far better presenter on LBC 97.3’s slot filling in for the nasally challenged boring snoring Ken, God Bless Him. Give Owen a permanent slot.
    The Essex Peoples Assembly met in Chelmsford last Saturday and lots of interesting community activities are being planned. Extremely good turnout

  2. Ex-labour says:

    I really wish you would stop the assumption that the UK population is collectivist. This is incorrect as we are one of the top three most individualistic nations in the world behind the US and Australia. Furthermore if you base political decisions and strategies on this misconception then you really are heading down a dead end street.

    The problem with Owen Jones and the left in general is they do not believe in the concept of personal property and they believe the state has a right to everything. This is why people do not trust Miliband and Labour with the finances. Our pockets are not deep enough for what the left wants to do and they have already taken much of what people earn.

    The real irony in all this is that Labour love “banker bashing” but the 1 percent they complain about provide 28 percent of the income tax take – and where would the welfare state be if they decided to go elsewhere?

    The only sensible and credible way forward for Labour is to commit to the contributory principle not just for our own claimants but for new immigrants also. They should commit to welfare to work which means you work for your benefits. If you refuse a job placement or get yourself fired so you can go back on benefits ( this is a common ruse in my local area) then you lose all for a period of time.

    Labour cannot be seen to be soft on welfare anymore and you can argue all day long that its those “nasty Tories” who are spreading rumour and lies, but the truth is Labour have got themselves into this mess and someone should tell Miliband if you’re in a hole stop digging.

  3. bob says:

    Kevin: in your later paragraphs you state and I quote ‘The collectivist principles of the welfare state become unstuck and the remaining contributors become increasingly resentful. The next stop on this journey is a demand from the more affluent for an opt-out from paying for benefits they will never themselves receive.’

    It is not just the affluent but those, me included who are working and receive salary/wages that are above the levels to receive any benefit but have to survive on our income, this includes the elderly who have a small occupational pension being eroded by inflation and poor returns on saving interest rates.

    Owen Jones and his ilk really do need to remove their heads from the sand and look around. Countries around the world are moving to the Right, collectivism is dying slowly and resentment against those who are able to work but will not is rising and has become, in the UK, a sizable majority.

  4. aragon says:

    You are wishing the ends (more employment) not the means (more better paid jobs, economic stimulus) and blaming the victims (benefit recipients) and think they should accept even lower living standards especially when the crisis is manufactured and the growth in benefits is due to increased housing costs (inflated by government policy), the payment for which go to the landlords (the rich).

    Your analysis is superficial and unfair, benefits recipients are on the margins of society and constantly subject to a permanent squeeze, you wish to exacerbate the problem, while the rich who benefit most from the benefit system (through rents), continue to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

    Nearly half of benefits go to pensioners what is your solution their Logans Run type euthanasia? And the spare room issue, yes punish people for having a spare room, when there is no where to move to and the costs where sunk when the properties were built.

    Yes pick on the people on the margins of society who have no control and no options, it works for the nasty Tories, so why not New Labour.

    A more equal society, the rich might go on strike?
    The majority have more in common with the poor than the rich.

    Paying your taxes is not supposed to be optional, but the law does not apply equally to the rich, and the poor are already taking less from society than the rest.

    Let put the burden of failed and unfair Government economic policy on the people with least power and least resources, while the rich deserve their good fortune and while they have already most of the cake they may strike for the crumbs and we should capitulate to their demands.

    With analysis like Rob’s a Tory government is not a mystery.
    The debate needs re-framing, but the two Ed’s are not up to the Job.

  5. bob says:

    Aragon: you have attacked the original poster but lets look at your post: Pensioners have contributed all their working loves, so therefore have contributed to the collective good through tax and National Insurance, those who have not in any way contributed to the collective good, should they if fit and well be allowed to withdraw any benefit if they haven’t contributed to the common good. If someone is unable to contribute due to illness/disease we should look after them to provide a good quality of life. There are some who have never worked due to illness, such as Spina Biffida, Cystic Fibrosis and Cerebral Palsy they should be helped and supported to life as normally as possible.

    You complain about taxation, as Oscar Wilde said, it’s one of the two certainties in life yet it was Ed Balls who said the financial sector should have ‘light touch regulation’ see You Tube and Peter Mandelson who said ‘he was intensely relaxed about people being filthy rich.’ He should know along with Blair. Brown made the UK tax system very complicated, if you close a loop hole you create another. How many Labour MPs flipped houses, but it is legal, done it myself.

    Remember it was the government under Blair and Brown who had a top tax rate of 45% for 13 years which only went up to 50% three months prior to the 2010 election, hardly any tax take obtained

    If as you assert that government policy is unfair, it is the result of the mess the present government has to deal with. The majority who are taxpayers are a little fed up providing for those who will not help themselves in this world. Remember the readership of the Daily Mail/Telegraph/Sun and sites like Guido Fawkes far outweigh the readership of the Guardian/Morning Star/Labour List/Uncut. these unfortunately only talk to a self selecting group.

    Who to lead and project the Labour Party, they are to a vast majority tainted by Blair/Brown/Mandelson/Campbell, mass uncontrolled (Brown: British jobs for British workers and Gilliam Duffy) immigration and Iraq and the lies to go to war. The frontbench are with some exception complicit in what happen from 1997 to 2010 and the British public is not ready to forgive or forget.

  6. e says:

    Any number, perhaps most households of differing ages and abilities have been repeatedly hit by the vagaries of the jobs market over past decades. And in just a few short years of this government overtly blaming individuals for the state of an economy that doesn’t work for them, mendacious, advantage taking employers have blossomed.

    Work for welfare or job guarantees, which is it to be? The former amounts to continue to eat shit in common parlance, the latter is as near as damn it Labour’s raison d’être

  7. Allan says:

    If anyone needed any more evidence of the divergent political landscapes of England & Scotland, this is it. While the pro-Independence parties are creating arguments for independence that enshrine’s universal benefits and helping the poor – all enshrined in the Common Weal proposals (that look to create Scandinavian levels of quality of life). The group of parties that make up Bitter Together look more and more to scrap Universal Benefits.

    You only need to look at the fankle that Scottish Labour ministers get themselves into when the “Bedroom Tax” appears. The want to say that a Labour government would scrap it because the SNP are getting milage out of opposing this… yet they can’t because… well they can’t. One wonders why Jackie Ballie was slapped down and Annas Sarwar was not though?

    Never mind the next UK Election, the New Labour ostriches are in danger of throwing the Scottish Refferendum away.

  8. uglyfatbloke says:

    Means-testing child benefit…let’s remember that child benefit was A:WAYS means-tested, but only if you wee very poor, in which case it was deducted from what was already a pitifully low income. …the smae applied to Lone Parent benefit.
    If we can’t afford to give it to the very poorest people in the country then we certainly can’t afford to give it to the rich. I have raised this issue with several MPs – all Labour – and was ignored by each and every one of them.
    It’s no use pointing the finger at the Tories on child benefit, Labour’s record is no better and there’s no sign of any change. It would be the cheapest and easiest and most effective way of helping he poorest people in the country if we simply let single parents (they’re not all mums you know) to get the same benefit as wealthier people so.
    If we can’t do that we should just scrap it for everyone.

  9. aragon says:

    The unemployed can’t help themselves as their are not enough jobs, and if you are restricting yourself to a small proportion of the welfare budget any savings will not be significant, making a nonsense of tyhe argument that we cannot afford the welfare bill.

    I am not an MP, so I can not be held responsible for New Labour policies, but I despair when I see Labour contributing to the diversionary neoliberal attacks on the welfare state.

    It is not the poor who are responsible but always the Government and their poor economic and social policies.

  10. Fred smith says:

    Fukk da poh lease.

  11. bob says:

    Aragon: The unemployed can help themselves, by being out there in the job market, why and I do stay in hotels around the country due to work find that in a high proportion of them many of the staff are from the European countries. What has happened to the young and not so young British in this group of workers. the jobs are there but people have to get off their backsides and go and look for them, even if it means moving to gain employment.

    We cannot afford the ballooning welfare bill, we are broke as a nation.

    e.: What is your objection to people working for their benefit, this is a not a something for nothing world. Work plus training plus travel expenses for benefits, what is not to like for people to move into employment. Sitting on your backside should not be an option. For those with a substance should be detox’d if necessarily by the use of a court order, if required under a Sectioning procedure of the Mental Health Act and stop substituting Methadone for Class A drugs and treat them not maintain their addiction by the crutch of a substitute.

  12. Robin Thorpe says:

    This subject is complex; particularly for those who would rather that policy was based on an ethical basis, rather than on a vox pop. T

  13. Robin Thorpe says:

    This subject is complex; particularly for those who would rather that policy was based on ethics, rather than on a vox pop. The subject is further muddied by the divergent views on immigration.

    Ideologically I agree with the analysis of Aragon and Owen Jones; the majority of working age payments (excluding pensions for now) go to people in work. The biggest portion of which is housing benefit. That the government subsidizes the buy-to-let property owners through housing benefit and many employers through the provision of tax credits is disgraceful. Furthermore Job Seekers Allowance is barely enough to subsist on, let alone enough to provide a nutritious diet.

    However, I also agree that in order to retain public support for a welfare system, that includes social security payments as only part of it, then it is necessary to have some safeguards in the system to prevent public money being frittered away.

    I think that both Owen Jones and Kevin have some credit in their arguments; but it needs both solutions to be implemented. That is to say that it is necessary that the public are properly informed that benefit fraud is actually rather low; that it is necessary for more houses to be built to both give people the option of downsizing rather pay contributory principle is important; where people can work they should. At the moment though, despite what Bob may say, some people cannot find a job. Where people cannot get productive employment it is counterproductive to issue sanctions. Removing a basic subsistence payment (JSA) does not incentivise work; it just means that your family get further mired in poverty.

    Having said that pensions, pensioner top-up payments and the NHS budget dedicated to looking after the elderly dwarfs the sum paid out to working age people. Without increasing the working population (back to immigration) then the exchequer cannot hope to maintain adequate pensions in the long-run.

    Who’d be a politician?

  14. bob says:

    Robin Thorpe: You make some very valid comments in particular to the problem of aging, longevity and the cost of pensions. Over the years with the increase in preventative health care, screening and early intervention in the management of lifestyle influenced diseases such as Coronary Heart disease, Hypertension and Cancers in most forms with the great contribution that obesity and smoking brings to these disease processes, the death rate is falling. Add to this we have not had a major war since 1945, have dealt with TB and childhood diseases which were killers, which to put it bluntly these reduced the population so therefore the population has increased, advances in medical technology has improved survival. My father had a chest operation for TB in the mid 50s, six went for surgery at the end of the operating day only he and another were still alive. That sort of mortality would today have a unit closed down.

    Why do we not have have people receiving working three out of five days who receive working for their benefits doing community work and allow two others to seek full time work, what is wrong with that idea. Where there household of four or five people who are not working how would incentivise them?

    Benefit fraud has now been placed under the Fraud Act is a good thing, as the deterrence was not effective enough.

    Again the likes of the Guardian/Morning Star/Labour List and Uncut only speak to a small self selecting audience but the Daily Mail/Telegraph/Sun and Guido speak to a far larger proportion of the population in fact a vast majority.

  15. e says:

    @ bob

    I prefer job guarantees to working for benefits because the exchange of one’s labour for money is at the core of our economy and is the seed of our modern political economy’s success. Being required to work for benefits amounts to being pushed outside of this structure into something else altogether, something quite distinct, and something I fear future governments will allow to flourish.

    And it’s beyond my comprehension that anyone should think this a good idea. Allowing anyone’s labour to be exchanged for the ‘State’s’ charity devalues all labour.

    The addled drug addict is your depiction of unemployment, mine is the parent who watches their enthusiastic youngster fail to find work and subsequently grow resentful, mistrusting and unsure of their own worth. Another is the 58 year old with a lifetime of work experience behind them. And then there’s the many that have never been drug addled, but nevertheless, what with governments kowtowing to greed and mismanagement, have little or no experience of secure employment.

  16. Ex-labour says:


    One of the main reasons why benefits go to those in work is that Labour has tried at every opportunity to redistribute wealth and in so doing have created a Frankenstien of a tax system. It means giving working people tax credits to offset the tax taken off them in the first place. Labour then position this as doing something good for the workers.

  17. David Mathers says:

    ‘He helpfully sent me a link to a story citing some TUC research which claims hardening views about welfare are because voters are fed “myths” about the actual benefits people receive. Unfortunately this is the age-old ‘ordinary-people-are-too-stupid-to-understand’ explanation favoured by princes of the left down the generations.’

    There needs to be a name for common (especially amongst Blairites) comments of this sort. I think ‘Public Ignorance Denial’ might be a good one.

    Public ignorance denial=The denial that the public base their opinions on X issue on a tissue of false beliefs, even when a) there’s abundant evidence that the public have those beliefs and b) there is abundant evidence from reliable sources, sources which the person engaging in public ignorance denial would typically trust (official statistics, academic consensus etc.), that those beliefs are false. But somehow, this does not show that it’s likely that most of the public are basing their opinions on false beliefs because, snobbery!!!(etc.)

    Usually public ignorance denial is accompanied by the following other beliefs or claims:
    1) Anyone saying that policy ought not to be made in accordance with public wants, when those wants stem from obviously false beliefs is in denial about what the public really wants, and believes them all to secretly share their opinions. (No one could be so anti-democratic as to think that policy SHOULD diverge from what the public really want!)
    2) The public has a magic ability to somehow through ‘common sense’ or ‘experience of hard work in the real world’ to be more likely to have true beliefs on issues that they’ve barely investigated, hardly think about and have never consulted any actual statistics on, to somehow get things more correct than people who’ve actually thought carefully about the issue and have looked at the relevant statistics, and have spent a lot of time on it. (Disagree with this magical thinking of course, and you merely reveal your hatred for ‘democracy’, criticism of ‘democracy’ never of course being allowed at any time.)

  18. SB says:

    The “Public Ignorance” isn’t the public’s fault. How many people have the time and resources to fact-check everything they see on the TV or read in the papers or on the internet? No, the fault lies with the media, and it’s an institutional failing. I advise everyone to read Nick Davies’ excellent book, Flat Earth News, to find out why.

    And before anyone accuses me of snobbery I’d like to point out that Public Ignorance is no respecter of persons and knows no social boundaries. The history of the MMR scare shows that the wealthy and educated are just as likely to fall victim as anybody.

  19. John David Jones says:

    Of course, what Mr. Meagher conveniently forgets to point out is that although perhaps only 1 person in a hundred is directly affected by the bedroom tax, each of those persons have mothers and fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbours – any or all of whom may be saddened by the effects that these draconian coalition policies have on their relatives or friends. Is Mr. Meagher suggesting that those persons, even though unaffected themselves, would not be supportive either actively or at the ballot box in 2015..? If Mr. Meagher cares to cast his memory back to the fall of Thatcher due to the Poll Tax, he might just remember that many of those folk who railed against her policy were NOT directly affected by the tax themselves, but hated the effect it had on people close to them.

    Critics and so-called “social experts” often tend to forget that the effect of the hurt felt by those directly affected can – and generally does – affect the feelings and attitudes of many of those unaffected, which makes for a far greater groundswell of public opinion against the perpetrators of the hurt. In this case of what appears to be a swing of national support for the Tory-inspired attack on the UK benefits system, we only have the quantitatively small opinion poll results and the usual loud-voiced anti-anything to do with socially supportive policy (generally also Tory-inspired) to indicate that there IS a swing of opinion against the UK benefits system..!

    As I always relate to anyone who argues the point with me, I have NEVER been asked to comment to any UK opinion poll politically inspired or otherwise, and I know no-one who has been – and (sadly) I must admit that I have frequently asked this of many of the people I have discussed these sorts of issues with: 2,600 were polled apparently in the last result I read in a right-wing newspaper – and THAT is “representative” of the UK population as a whole..?

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