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The strivers vs scroungers battleground

6 December 2012

Welfare will be one of the key battlegrounds at the next general election, and George Osborne’s Welfare Uprating Bill will certainly be one way the Conservative party can prod Labour on what is a hugely awkward policy issue for the party. It accelerates the internal debate about how Labour can appeal to the electorate on the issue of welfare while staying true to its own core beliefs, and, Tory strategists hope, will cause some ructions.

While the party appeared united in Manchester at its autumn conference in September, it faces hard times ahead as it tries to answer some of the big questions about what a Labour welfare state would look like. Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, is more switched on to this than some in his party, and this doesn’t always make him particularly popular with colleagues or the grassroots members. Today in the Commons, though, he attacked the uprating decision, calling it a ‘strivers tax’. Byrne said:

‘The news for working people was a disaster. Buried in the small print of yesterday’s budget is the brutal truth that this was a budget for unemployment… Today and yesterday we learned that it is working people who are going to pay the price. We already have over 6 million working people in poverty in this country, but the Resolution Foundation said yesterday that 60 per cent of the Uprating Bill the minister spoke of will be paid by working people. It is a strivers’ tax… These are the strivers and battlers that the Prime Minister promised to defend at his party conference, and they are the people paying the price for this government’s failure.’

The interesting question for Byrne will be whether Labour might support the 1 per cent rise in benefits if working tax credits and maternity pay were stripped out: it could be an amendment that the party brings to make the debate about supporting working people, and to try to defuse the Chancellor’s attack on the party’s welfare policy.

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But it’s not just Labour that the Tories want to provoke on welfare. That the pre-autumn statement briefings included the refusal of the Liberal Democrats to support cuts to housing benefit for under-25s suggests the spinners want to get the message across to voters that a majority Conservative government could do so much more of what voters want without the restraining influence of Nick Clegg’s party.

The Lib Dems are proud of that restraining influence: Vince Cable was also pretty keen to create some distance between himself and George Osborne on the way the Chancellor portrays benefit claimants when he appeared on the World at One this afternoon. Responding to an interview with a woman who claimed benefits and resented being labelled a ‘scrounger’, the Business Secretary said:

‘I think the thing I really identified with what she said was this resentment of being regarded as a scrounger. I think that kind of approach and language is completely wrong, she’s obviously working really hard and is a really responsible parent and we should do everything we can to support her, obviously.

‘I made it fairly clear that that stuff about people being unemployed at home with the curtains drawn is no the way, certainly I would have addressed it. I think most people out there are looking for work, most people in this country are very conscientious, and we should do what we can to support them.’

His remarks were quite clearly aimed at Osborne’s statement yesterday, and the imagery he used in his speech at the Tory conference. For what it’s worth, labelling benefit claimants who receive the amount of money they are legally entitled to as ‘scroungers’ is a lazy way of approaching reform to the welfare system. It blames people who are entitled to make those claims for the failings of the system itself such as its inflexibility and the inappropriate generosity that it might have in paying someone housing benefit for a property that should they return to work they could never hope to afford unless they immediately became a high-earner. That is not the fault of the claimant; it is the system, and politicians should not need to use such pejorative language when there is a perfectly reasonable debate to be had about fairness.

But though the Lib Dem leadership at least is signed up to the Welfare Uprating Bill, expect plenty of positioning by Cable and other colleagues over the next few months as the Coalition sets its elephant trap for Labour.

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Show comments
  • Robert Taggart

    Some of us Scroungers just want an easy / quiet life.

  • Troika21

    There are going to be a lot of unemployed 20 to 30 year olds, who, sick on not being able to get jobs, tired of doing unpaid internships and still living with their parents, might resent the Tories for going after the ‘strivers vs scroungers’ shtick.

  • barbie

    Well talk is at last out of the bag, the discrimitory talk against those out of work, throught no fault of their own. Demonising the unemployed was in the beginning a Tory ploy to gain headlines in the press; it is now back firing spectacularly. Where are the jobs for these unemployed to seek? There are none. Where is the investment for growth from this coalition, there is none. Many having benefits are working part time, as full time working is a rarity; and those on full time the wages are so low they can hardly make ends meet. Go to the food banks and see for yourselves, and be grateful you’re not in the queue for the out of date tins of food.
    I have seen all this before in the 1980s, again, a tory era, with strikes, loss of jobs, industry broken to the ground. Imports up to fill the gaps. We all know that the Labour party made massive mistakes with its spending, but one cannot and should not keep blaming them for, now. This lot have had three years and have made no impact on the debts but send it up, Cameron is no better than Brown for spending. Osbourne has made foreign aid ring fenced, yet many people say little about that while their fellow citizens queue at food banks. 15 billion could create some work here with invesment in infrasctucture. We do not have a moral duty to provide for foreign countries as Mr O suggested, but he has a moral duty to protect his own citizens, he failed to yesterday. The Tories are milking this crisis to change the welfare state as is their dreams have always sought to do, and yes, may be Clegg as tempered the Conservatives greatly, but neither are really it for purpose, and that includes Labour; I shall vote UKIP.

  • andagain

    ” Today in the Commons, though, he attacked the uprating decision, calling it a ‘strivers tax’. ”

    It is NOT a good attack line to denounce benefits cuts on the grounds that they attack “strivers”. (And don’t say “it is not that simple”. The public is never going to trust or follow any argument more complicated.)

  • Open_Palm

    Provoking Lib Dems and Labour on Welfare may seem on paper a winning strategy but it is not one without risk. With the number of “in-work” poor now exceeding the workless poor (6.1 million and 5 million respectively according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation), the claimants of benefits no longer fit conveniently in the narrative of “scroungers” and “shirkers”. With growth stalling and inflation rising, many may find people they know to be hard working ending up becoming the very same “shirkers” and “scroungers” that the government is so quick to label. How the electorate react to the new reality will be crucial to Tories success.

  • dalai guevara

    strivers vs scroungers – if only it were true.

    Where are the incentives for the bottom end? Stick?

    Whilst everyone on here would agree that strivers need to be encouraged, why are we not looking for them across society? What about that girl who lost her EMA? What about that average boy who now faces an extra student debt of £9,000 pa before he can set up his own business? What about the single mum who works 16 hours, but any further (declared) hour would cut her benefits?

    These are policies of blatant exclusionism, nothing less. And now let the blame game begin. Are the Ford employees who recently lost their jobs also scroungers? Are thos ecouncil workers who were let go all scroungers? Are those 1000 policemen scroungers? And all the Afghanistan returnees who now face the sack? You are out of your mind.

    • hexton

      “What about that average boy who now faces an extra student debt of £9,000 pa before he can set up his own business?”

      That’s not actually how student loans work, though, is it? In what way do you consider that the existence of said loan is a bar to the average boy’s setting up a business? Or, indeed, the average girl.

      • Anita Bellows

        Although you are right, the very introduction of workfare and the erosion of wages makes it more unlikely everyday that these loans would ever be reimbursed. Something not factored in the “benefits” of workfare, or is the fact that it falls under a different budget makes it irrelevant here ?

      • dalai guevara

        Explain it to me how it works – you leave university (6 year course, 1 practical) with £45,000 extra debt. Now you go to the bank and want to open a business. Can you finish that short story for me?

        • hexton

          Make your mind up. £9,000 extra or £45,000 extra? None of which is repayable until one’s earnings are high enough.

          And “the average boy” is spending six years at university, is he?

          • dalai guevara

            9,000 pa. Do you live in the real world? Finish the short story…

            • hexton

              More so thatn you, I suggest.

            • hexton

              Well, then, since you insist. Though short it isn’t.

              First of all, how about confirming a few of the parameters that you seem keen to change with every response you write? Let us be clear:

              (1) Less than 50% of school leavers go on to tertiary education, so your “average boy” does not actually go to college or university. He therefore has no student loan whatever.

              (2) An average college or university course involves three years of study not five (plus a practical year) as you assert.

              (3) You most clearly wrote “extra debt” more than once, and the tenor of your post implies you mean recent changes. The 2012 restructuring of tuition fees increases a student by a maximum of £(9,000 – 3,375) = £5,625 a year. Multiplied by three is an increase of £16,875. Large certainly, but equally certainly not the “extra debt” of £45,000 that you were stating as a given.

              (4) Student loans do not affect one’s official credit rating. Just thought I’d mention it.

              (5) Under the 2012 arrangements, nothing is repayable if one’s annualised earnings do not exceed £21,000 gross (with unearned income taken into account only if it exceeds £2,000 per annum); this compares with a threshold of £15,795 for student loans taken out between 1999 and 2012. The £21,000 figure is to be index-linked to earnings with effect from 2017, i.e. one year after the 2012 student intake may be starting to repay their loans.

              Hence a graduate on £30,000 a year would pay £67.50 a month under the 2012 arrangements and current thresholds; a graduate on £30,000 a year and a 1999-2012 loan would pay £106.67 a month. Which of those two graduates is better able also to afford the interest on a business loan? Or on a mortgage? Yet existing graduates have loans; they have mortgages. As (or if) their earnings increase they make higher student loan repayments, yes: but they also have more money in hand to pay interest on other loans.

              And your short story? It’s fiction. Speculation. You’re guessing; I’d be guessing. No-one is yet in a position to disagree with any half-way sensible hypothesis, because there are no graduates, as yet, with student loans under the 2012 arrangements. Do you really think the banks will have thought so far ahead as to decide their future lending strategy? With the UK and global economy up in air? One the one hand, banks must be prudent; on the other, they must lend in order to make money. But can you seriously believe they’ll refuse loans to graduates as a matter of principle? When those graduates will represent an increasing proportion of the population?

              • dalai guevara

                Thanks for that, you do deserve a response as you have made the effort.

                Or course it is true that anyone who now goes to university does not rake up *extra* 45k, as you quite rightly point out that pre-existing fees would need to be accounted for (which you did).
                The thing is, many students of previous generations would not have been exposed to fees at all, in fact they received grants. It facilitated entire sections of unexplored society to get an education, some went for three years, some for six, some longer. Even at that point it was clear that children with back-up had better chances, better choice of universities, better choice of foreign education, higher budget for books, excursions, special workshop lecture events, social events etc.
                Now, we know this is no longer affordable, but how do we now choose our first year’s? By ability to pay, not academic ability. Never mind not having to pay back before not earning etc. *Extra* debt levels will cripple most. When buy the first home? How pay for business set up, yet more debt? That is a huge risk and only those with inherited back-up will take that leap. That is a fact of life.

                So in conclusion, what we have is an artificially reduced pool of best brains due to finance. This policy will come to haunt us.

                • Fergus Pickering

                  When students received grants, old son, as I did, they made up 10 – 15% of the total pool of young people, say 1 in 7 or 8.. So the ‘average’ boy or girl did not go to university at all. As soon as you push up that small precentage to something like half then grants and free tuition are doomed. The present university population is not made up of the ‘best brains’ but of all the brains from best to well below average, since some of the best do not go to university at all for other reasons

                • dalai guevara

                  Grants 10-15%
                  No fees 100%
                  Debt 45k less than today

                  When a student today leaves university, he/she will have raked up 100k, or daddy paid of course. You are right, best brains is about choice – of course you may want to become a carpenter and take to the road, or design an icrap app in your bedroom. I am talking big picture stuff here, and when you reduce choice due to fiancial constraints, you close doors, not open them.

        • The Crunge

          I will have a go. While the scenario you paint is not, of course, impossible it does suggest a rather tenuous grasp of the personal and instinctive spirit of entrepreneurship. In the most basic analysis, an entrepreneur or ‘starter of businesses’ is generally concerned with making as much money as possible for the minimum outlay and as quickly as possible in order to fund the lifestyle he or she desires (think about that sentence before moving on and composing a rebuttal). He or she combines this desire with an innate willingness to take calculated business risks. In my considerable experience of successful businesses, few such people believe that accumulating vast amounts of debt not directly utilised in furthering their chosen enterprise (however generous the repayment terms) while gestating their money making brainwaves in an academic environmemt for as long as seven years is the best way to proceed. Immersing oneself in an environment which, whilst excellent for many professions, appears designed to crush entrepreneurial spirit and risk taking is perhaps not the best route to wealth. I am sure you can dream up exceptions to this hypothesis but in general terms entrepreneurship is not best nurtured by the scenario you have painted.

          A final point is that your attitude is peculiarly British/European. I worked in the USA for many years and encountered students whose educational debts dwarfed those painted in your scenario. Without exception, these students regarded their education as a hard earned privilege.They believed that their prospects would see them to a better job/business enterprise and that their debt (on terms far less generous than in the UK) would thus be eradicated by their own efforts. I can think of many, many instances where their optimism, originality and skill has been profitably rewarded by excellent careers and successful businesses.

          I feel depressingly certain that I have wasted my time but you did ask. .

          • dalai guevara


            Not at all, I am fully aware of the American scenario – from my personal experience, I have had chance to witness the fact that in the US, the less privileged end up in the army trying not to get shot whilst raking up the funds to allow a college ecducation. For many, this is a gamble with their lives. Thus, we can expect to see a higher value put on the result.

            Of course it is true that back in the UK, we have seen an immense (unnatural) growth in this ‘industry’. Kids who do not ‘deserve’ to be at a poly in Scunthorpe (is there one?), but nonetheless blow the cash they don’t have on vodka shots. That has got to stop (it already has).

            Which brings me back to my and possibly your common denominator: raise.the.standards.

            PS: some courses are 6 years, even in the UK, believe it or not.

  • William Blakes Ghost

    expect plenty of positioning by Cable

    That is like predicting that daylight is expected tomorrow morning and every morning after that. Cable is on manouevres all the time. He’s just gagging for the chance to depose Clegg. It would only be of note if Cable and his verminous stooge Oakeshott were silent on an issue….

  • telemachus

    I see the great giant Alastair Campbell gets an honourable mention toward the top of the thread.
    Were that he were back and active
    I am sure the Tories have the same feelings about Coulson

    • Colonel Mustard

      The mention is far from honourable but being a devotee of tribal Labour you will have absolutely no understanding of the meaning of honour.

  • Kevin

    Your headline is incorrect. It should read:
    “The savers vs. (low interest rates) scroungers battleground”.

  • Madame Merle

    The pity of yesterday’s budget was that there doesn’t seem to be a distinction between the working and non-working benefit recipient.

    However, Isabel is quite correct in saying that welfare will be a key battleground in the next general election, closely linked to immigration, immigration, immigration.

    By 2015 , the entire populations of Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria will have flooded here adding a further drain on the economy.

    • Colonel Mustard

      Ah, but think of the benefits. The vibrant sectarian diversity and cultural riches we must all embrace and celebrate, coerced to no alternative by Big Brother and the fascist left.

  • HooksLaw

    if you search Osborne’s statement it makes no mention of shirker scrounger or striver.

    The 2 former phrases seem to be inventions of left wingers. I wonder why?

    • telemachus

      Seems little point in dissecting words
      The truth is that as the dust settles we see the statement on the economy for what it is
      Obfuscation to hide the fact that the economy only appears to be recovering because of 4G
      And the usual and expected attack on the poor whether in work or not
      I am truly appalled at some of the responsible economic commentators who did not immediately see through this PR stunt
      The triple dip is on us
      PS Hook-did you look up the Great Patriotic War?

      • Colonel Mustard

        Tapeworm telemachus hooking on again. Another comment of tenuous relevance to the point being made but just used as an opportunity to tag more scripted slogans from Labour HQ to the top of the thread. Campbell, McBride (off the record) and Watson no doubt working hard to undermine the government by any and all means.

        • telemachus

          Ed is grateful for the opportunity

      • HooksLaw

        The one fought in 14-17 you mean? Or the one where Hitler invaded Russia to be defeated by the great socialist Stalin?

        As for ‘words’ – tell us news – we already know that words mean what you want them to mean.

        • telemachus

          And Ed Balls is on good form today
          Dissecting the wheat from the chaff
          He underlines the insult to the working poor

      • WIlliam Blakes Ghost

        The truth is

        How do you know when someone is bull sh*tting?

        They start their assertion with. “The truth is”

        Its always worthwhile dissecting words……

        • telemachus

          So let’s dissect Osborne’s
          “I would say I have taken substantive steps to make things easier for people”
          I guess he is referring to the folks he gave the 5% pay rise at the budget

  • Russell

    And yet another excellent piece of journalism on behalf of the Labour Party Isabel. A more dedicated anti government journalist I have yet to come across. Even McGuire would be proud of you. I am surprised that you are not a full time Mirror journalist where you could just come flat out with your total support of labour and detestation of Tories, pushing for a split by the LibDems at every opportunity.

    • Martin

      Sorry, Russell, but where does Hardman even come close to being a Labour supporter in this piece? She says Labour aren’t in tune with what voters are saying and says the welfare system is too generous. People should take responsibility for themselves and staying on benefits when you’ve been ofered a job is scrounging.

    • IsabelHardman

      Russell: thanks for your comment, but I doubt that I’d be as content as I am at the Spectator were I a Labour supporter. Labour, if you remember, have very little to be proud of on welfare, and shirked difficult decisions, only releasing a consultation on reforming housing benefit a few months before the general election before loudly criticising policies they themselves had considered. They were as guilty of abusing the word ‘scrounger’ as any other group of politicians.

      But it is our job as journalists at the Spectator to hold any government – whether Conservative or Labour – to account. Though we might sympathise with ministers – and we are certainly extremely keen that Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms are a success – we are here to be their critical friends on welfare just as we are on the economy. In this instance, as the post makes clear, I think the Welfare Uprating Bill is a key example of George Osborne’s ability as a strategist. It will force Labour to be honest about its benefits policy, which polling shows will help the Conservative party.

      I hope that’s helpful.

      • Colonel Mustard

        If that is all true, and I have no reason to doubt it, you might care to review you approach and style (no offence intended), because it is apparent that whilst the transmission might be unambiguous to you the reception is not. In the context of the presence of a handful of permanently entrenched Labour trolls regularly peddling scripted propaganda here (their activity stimulated to frenzy by any coalition government “big news”) and a general consensus that the Spectator has “lurched left” this might be significant in the good fight against the evil left, a complete shower of bounders the lot of ’em.

      • Anita Bellows

        I think you just lost the argument here. You are only playing a political game while these reforms which you are calling for are bringing real misery for the least able to withstand the cuts in benefits. A proper government would have done a risk and an impact assessment of these reforms. When the coalition came to power, some parts of this reform were not being implemented but only piloted. A government fit to govern would have conducted assessments and decided afterwards what to do. The fact the coalition did not do these assessments ,but is also trying to suppress the equality impact assessment ,and to deny legal aid to benefit claimants shows that it knows very well what it is doing, and it is trying its very best to prevent it from coming to light.

        • barbie

          This is the first time I’ve read on a forum and agreed wholeheartly with a poster. This is being done from party dogma more than reasonable assessment. Its almost discrimatory in its content against the unemployed. Of course the Tories have always hated the welfare state and now see their chance to wound it into oblivion if they can. However, we should all look to the advantages it has given this country, yes, it needs reform, but not dismantling as the Tories will do if given the chance. Then we come to the people they discriminate against; the last time the Tories tried that we had riots on the streets, and social stablity nearly broke down, in the 1980s this country was split, and again during the poll tax debate. You can see from history most people accept fair change when we must, but not unfair change just for the sake of it.

  • Archimedes

    “Welfare will be one of the key battlegrounds at the next general election”

    That might be a big mistake if they allow it to turn into a “what welfare would you cut” debate. If it’s “what are you going to do to stop welfare dependency” then fine, if not voters will turn on them quickly, maybe not on welfare but on other policies because it will be all too easy for Labour to shape the Conservative’s image.

    The Conservative’s are the ones who are facing ructions. The social conservatives accepted fiscal prudence in exchange for social policies that were more conservative than Labour’s, but the Conservatives have not been delivering for those people over this parliament, and those people are finding that fiscal prudence is conflicting with their values – they don’t hate welfare recipients, they just want them to work and to deserve support. If the Conservatives push, then they will push them into the hands of what appears to be a more socially conservative Labour party without any clear replacement for their own voter base. Sooner or later, voters will start to ask what a ruthless welfare policy says about other policies.

  • lee taylor


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