An Ex-Tory Voter Criticises The Government For Cutting Tax Credits: Is She Entitled To Sympathy? Yes.

by richardhutton

As reported widely today, a woman who had voted for the Conservative Party in the General Election of 2015, berated a Tory MP and her government on the BBC panel show, Question Time, for cutting tax-credits, after pledging not to. As quoted by Owen Jones in the Guardian:

“You’re about to cut tax credits when you promised you wouldn’t. I work bloody hard for my money, to provide for my children, to give them everything they’ve got, and you’re going to take it away from me and them. Shame on you!”

The reaction to this has been surprisingly mixed – particularly among those who could probably be expected to sympathise with the woman in question; both in terms of her predicament and her sentiments. The comment-thread under Owen Jones’ short piece in the Guardian is brimming with innumerable posts to the effect that – to paraphrase one – she was a turkey who voted for Christmas; complaining about what is now on the menu. Reading through the thread, it’s striking how many people are enjoying this instance of somebody who voted for the government, getting their comeuppance.

Those who have taken issue with welfare reforms, at any level, during the years of the Coalition government – if not at any period, under any governing party – will undoubtedly be acquainted with how successfully the government and the media have divided people into the supposedly deserving, as opposed to those considered undeserving. It’s not long ago in fact that Owen Jones was himself calling for tax credits to be cut, in the pages of the Guardian; on the grounds that they were unfair subsidies to ‘scroungers’ who didn’t need them – namely employers: “tax credits are, in effect, a subsidy to bosses for low pay”. Quite why anybody imagines that reducing in-work benefits will lead employers to suddenly increase somebody’s salary is open to question. There is no evidence which indicates this would happen.

However, in the run-up to the general election, the Conservatives stated in their manifesto that they would remove £12 billion from social security. Although whenever asked to say where precisely the reductions would hit, they refused to specify; the fact remains that people who supported the idea must nonetheless have sensed that it would affect people, presumably beside than themselves – and were evidently not troubled by this. They voted for a government, knowing it would undermine people who depend upon benefits – and have suffered the consequences themselves.

It is obvious why people would react to the woman at the centre of this incident with indifference. Somebody who voted Conservative genuinely believed that they didn’t intend to renege on what they said about cutting tax-credits? You can’t even trust politicians to lie, these days! What’s perhaps less obvious, however, is the problem with this response. Those who support the government are often amongst its primary victims. Or – viewed in more partisan terms – people who vote for austerity policies and reductions of welfare expenditure, believing it to be in their interest, have frequently suffered as a consequence.

It’s not difficult to work out why many people believe that the social security system functions as a system of largesse, which unfairly benefits the supposedly undeserving, while they themselves struggle despite being in work; and therefore warrants having ‘fairness restored’ via severe benefit cuts. Politicians and journalists have long directed peoples’ resentments at their own circumstances towards the wrong targets – particularly a caricature of benefit claimants and immigrants, created via the media and government ministers; rather than address the causal factors really behind living in poverty, even when somebody works, and lives conscientiously: be it low wages, poor employment protections, or – especially – the extraordinary cost of housing.

The fact that somebody struggles on a low income does not leave them immune to being misled by politicians and journalists. If anything, it’s liable to leave them more susceptible. It speaks for the contempt that many politicians have for the electorate, when they mislead them about the cause of a problem, exploit their misguided support for a policy which damages their own interests, and then cast their electorate aside at the first convenience. David Cameron pledged not to cut tax credits. He lied about this; and despite popular beliefs to the contrary, the largest group of people in Britain who live in poverty are people who work. People in these circumstances – who fell for a false promise – are going to be harmed by the Welfare and Work Bill of 2015, just as much as those who have been damaged by cuts to disability benefits, unemployment support, or any other welfare reforms in recent years.

Rather than focus on this, a dispiriting number of people are turning on somebody who fell for what should arguably have been a transparent confidence trick – but one which evidently was not so obvious to everyone. Surely this is the upshot which people who care about the problems of poverty and government policy should be considering here? It was one empty promise among many; and whether somebody did or did not vote for the government, they are still entitled to trust that it won’t pursue reckless and harmful policies which damage them; and they’re justified in being aggrieved when it does.

The government’s response to this has been no less cynical than its actions, however. As quoted in the Guardian:

Tax credits have increased over the years, PM’s spokesman says

This is true; and yet not quite. Tax credits have increased below inflation; which constitutes a real-terms cut. This is why the Benefits Uprating Bill was enacted in 2013, which indexed them at a 1% rise per annum – and this indexation is set to continue for at least four years, due to the Welfare and Work Bill. As the spokesperson continued:

“the changes we are making in tax credits are part of an overall package of changes, designed to ensure we push wages up.”

It’s the other way around, of course. The ‘National Living Wage’ is functioning as a pretext for reducing in-work benefits. It will actually cut wages for many people – namely those between 21-24; and those who live in London. It is also no substitute for society providing reliable support for parents and their children. Furthermore, there will be a 9 month gap between cutting tax credits, and introducing the pseudo living wage.

On this issue, as with many others, the government bluffs with an empty hand. While it may prove tempting to fault its supporters the moment they begin to suffer, it needs to be borne in mind how many people have been deceived by popular myths surrounding benefits and poverty; and purposely misled by politicians and the media. These are pervasive. For many, it only dawns on them how important benefits are when they suddenly find themselves in need; and realise that all of the nasty scapegoating of ‘benefit scroungers’ bears little relation to reality.

It’s unedifying to see opponents of the government engage in victim-blaming on this; making statements to the effect that it’s somebody’s own fault: they made a poor decision – they have to live with the consequences. It’s exactly the same dynamic of thought that supporters of the government make, when dismissing any damage caused to people left homeless, or worse, following benefit cuts. Playing the government at their own game, and winning, is still worse than calling their bluff. The ‘Hard-working, tax-paying strivers’ of repute are being hurt just as readily by this government, as those who are deemed ‘scroungers’ or ‘shirkers’. There is therefore a mutual interest which everybody has in protecting the welfare state. This is what the Question Time incident really brings to light: the benefit system exists for everybody. Those few-ish people who have no need of it are the fortunate ones. It’s time that people stopped playing politics with the subject of benefits and poverty – and it applies to all parties. It’s more pressing still that they begin to address the actual causes of peoples’ problems in our society.