Monday, 7 January 2013

Reason Is A Chain, Not A Hammer

Tomorrow the House of Commons will vote on the Welfare Uprating Bill. This is actually its second reading in the house- it is normal for bills tabled by government to not be opposed in their first reading. No consultation has taken place and the impact assessment is only going to be out in the morning, just in time for MPs to see it before voting. This will not feature any assessment of cumulative impacts of the policy on top of all the others. Given how the impact assessment forms for welfare policies have been filled in without any evidence of any actual assessment being done, there's no reason to believe this will be any different.

The parliamentary Labour Party have already made it clear they are going to vote against. They have been making an effort in the media to promote their position. When this first became a news item I wrote the blog-post 'The Soft Paper Wall' to argue the case that Edward Miliband once won triumphantly in the house before when the issue was benefits and he adhered closely to the Reason and Evidence. This led to the Prime Minister looking like a fool to the extent that an almost universally supportive mainstream media had no choice but to pretend the exchange never happened. Mr Miliband can repeat this, except that this time the Chancellor has made it such an issue that this is going to be about a vote and it is going to have media outlets making a big deal out of it. The perception being that because welfare has been their most popular policy area, that this automatically translates into success. Unfortunately welfare has also been arguably their most incompetent policy area, hidden in part because of widespread public ignorance and because the media feeds it. That won't last, so what Miliband and his party say now matters because once it starts getting obvious that the government don't know what they're talking about, they'll want to hear coherent points from the other side of the house. I had a list of the key points to make, they were:

1. Most of those affected are not even out of work.

2. The disabled are not protected. The WRAG are not 'fit for work', they are sick and disabled.

3. Of those who are out of work- most have worked before, want to work again and the data says that even in a recession they will. 

4. The IMF has had to adjust their fiscal multipliers for austerity, why hasn't the government or even the supposedly 'independent' Office of Budget Responsibility? This could be a measure that costs more than it saves because it sucks demand out of the economy. 

5. There is a repeated logical inconsistency in the government's arguments. Either you believe benefits are a basic safety net or you don't. If they are a subsistence-only net, then it is always immoral to cut them. If they are above subsistence, then you'd believe in cutting them anyway on moral grounds, but this precludes the financial 'need for austerity' argument.

6. If there was a Moral or Reasonable case for their welfare policies, they wouldn't need to lie and distort constantly. 

It is important that all or most of these are used: none of them make sense or have an impact by themselves. They are a chain of reasoning and most chains get their power through the cumulative weight of all the links; tip just a few of them and they drag all the others inevitably with them where they go, effortlessly. That said, these are key points and are not exhaustive- there are many arguments that are just as effective and added to these they would also add weight. So how has the official opposition done over the past few weeks building up to this? Well they started off with "Most of those affected are in work" which is good. Then "60% of those affected by people in work", right but what about the- "This is a striver's tax, it hits those in work" - I'm noticing a pattern here.

This isn't a chain, it's a hammer: a single point being banged on again and again. You know what? It's also not working. The TUC released the results last Friday of some polling they commissioned in regards to public perceptions about benefits, indicating a correlation between support for government policies in this area and ignorance of it. I have some issues with the conclusions drawn by the TUC, but my concern right now is that the work was done on the 11th and 12th of December, just days after George Osborne announced the uprating plan in the Autumn statement. Most people polled believed then that most people affected were the unemployed, even though the Institute for Fiscal Studies and numerous critics had already hit back and pointed out that it was mostly employed people taking the hit. I doubt repeating the real statistic over and over again will have changed that since, not without something to build on it. Labour have tried building on a 'striver's tax' narrative- it's another version of their successful granny/pasty tax theme. I don't think it's taken hold with the public and I don't think it deserves to; Labour have seen the figure and will have extrapolated the relevant issues from it as everyone else else, like in the points I've listed. The problem is that following them to their conclusion would mean Labour could not behave towards benefit claimants as they did do when they were in power from 1997-2010.

That they've dithered and tried making a rhetorical argument instead of a principled stand on Reason and Evidence reflects ill on them.

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