These things hit you when you least expect them. My low point of the last ten days was when I heard that Iain Duncan Smith had been reappointed to the Department of Work and Pensions.
Although most of the major players kept their seats in the new blue collar cabinet, there was reason to hope that a fresh broom might sweep into the DWP.
The other ideologues appointed in 2010 – Andrew Lansley and Michael Gove – had long since departed the stage. John Whittingdale will need to be watched if he tries to tear up the BBC Charter and Michael Gove should be locked up if he tries to tear up the Human Rights Act.
There is much evidence here for answering the stock A level question of whether the best minister is the man with a mission or the one with an open mind.
Underperforming or embarrassing Cabinet members like Eric Pickles and Grant Shaps lost their seats at the table but Duncan Smith sat tight.
His roll out of the possibly worthy idea of universal credit has been an unmitigated disaster. The scheme is over budget, way behind time and inhuman. The pilot schemes have shown that many benefit claimants have neither the access nor or the skills to claim on line. Their circumstances are too individual and complicated for a computer programme.
So my heart sank at the news that Iain Duncan Smith was to stay on, at his own request, to complete his welfare reforms. The chance to take a fresh look at a lumbering proposal had been missed.
Iain Duncan Smith could do worse than to put a copy of ‘Our Lives: Changing Attitudes to Poverty 2015’ in his red box to read at the weekend. It tells the stories of twenty people in different parts of the country living in poverty. One of the authors is Sally Young, Director of Newcastle CVS, who organised the launch of the report in the West End of Newcastle a few weeks ago.
The case studies include Maria who lost £50 a week in benefits after being assessed as ‘fit to work’ despite not having been able to hold down a job because of epilepsy and mental health problems for over 20 years. It took nearly two years, much anguish and several hearings, before this decision was overturned.
They include William whose benefits were withdrawn for three months because he did not complete enough job searches. People like William are expected to apply for jobs whether or not they have any realistic chance of getting them.
They include Laura, a care worker on a zero hours contract, who has to fit ever longer hours around caring for her children. Her husband has a full time job but Laura says ” We are working longer hours but finding it harder and harder to keep our heads above the water.”
Our Lives harks back to a similar ground breaking report written seventy years ago and the authors conclude that “the tendency to judge people in poverty and blame them for the problems they face seem as strong now as it was in the 1940s”
It reminds me of the Victorian distinction between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor. If life was made unpleasant enough in the workhouse, the ‘undeserving’ would be pushed into getting themselves together.
Reducing the amount any one family can claim in benefits, has got more people back to work according to the DWP figures. So now Iain Duncan Smith will reduce the benefit cap even further.
Don’t be taken in by the idea that people from humble beginnings, like Sajid Javid, can achieve great things just with the magic stardust of aspiration. Barack Obama nailed that fallacy: the poor are expected to pull themselves up by their bootlaces, even though they do not have the boots. Malik actually came into Downing Street from the boardroom of Deutsche Bank not from the back streets of Rochdale.
The new blue is all about “aspiring working people” which implies that if you are out of work, you do not have aspirations. Don’t believe it!
Now Iain Duncan Smith is charged with finding a draconian £12bn of cuts in the working age welfare budget. This is four times the cuts achieved in the last parliament. One of the great unknowns is where the cuts will come from.
As the Chancellor prepares an emergency budget in July for what he describes as ‘ working people’, will he give any thought for those who cannot work or cannot find a job or who struggle on low and insecure wages?
Give us a job
The April fool’s joke in our house was that Waitrose has bought up the garden centre just round the corner to open a new supermarket. This followed extensive analysis of where their best customers live. Mrs Hepburn’s face lit up.
We are lucky enough to be the kind of John Lewis and Waitrose family that the Labour party pundits want to attract. But for me, at least, the last manifesto was not radical enough. Where were the alternatives to austerity, the challenges to big business or the reappraisal of nuclear weapons?
The blasts of criticism from New Labour grandees in the days immediately after Ed Miliband’s defeat were insensitive. Playing in the centre of the park, risks losing the wingers to UKIP or the Greens and parting company with traditional Labour supporters.
It is a desperate conundrum. There is also the question of how to win back those forty seats in Scotland without which Labour may not get back into power in my lifetime.
A democracy needs a strong and coherent opposition. As someone reared in the Labour tribe, it hurts me deeply. As someone who has only slightly less experience at Westminster than the admirable Keir Starmer, I am considering filling in application forms for the all the current vacancies for party leaders. I may not get the job but it would have improved my standing with the DWP.