The mutinous anger of Labour voters over welfare

Published in The Mail on Sunday (April 7th, 2013)

Let me introduce you to two women I met on Friday. The first is Kathy Barratt, 33, a jobless hairdresser. She looked tired as she told me of her tough life, perhaps unsurprisingly as she is bringing up alone six children aged three to 17; the fathers are not around.  She ran up £2,000 debts buying the children games consoles and televisions at Christmas and says she struggles to get by on benefits of £300 a week.

‘I would love to work,’ she insisted. But she then revealed she was recently offered a job in a supermarket – and turned it down as she would have been £10 a week worse off. ‘I would have been pleased to take the job but there’s no point working if you lose money.’

So what if it had been £50 more than her benefits, I asked. ‘Maybe if you make it £100,’ she replied with a smile.

Then there was a friendly woman a decade or so older who I will call Mary. I met her just down the road in the market at Wythenshawe, a sprawling suburb of Manchester.

A mother of two, she lives on her own after fleeing an abusive relationship three years ago. Mary also looked tired, again unsurprisingly given she gets up every day before dawn for her part-time post with the city council. For this, she earns £440 a month – of which £50 goes on getting to and from work.

‘It’s all bloody wrong,’ she said. ‘I have to get up at three in the morning to get to work, my bus fare has just gone up, and there are all these scroungers around the place who do nothing and get more than me. The bloke living in the flat above me lies in bed all day, yet his girlfriend can afford a car.’

She has a point. Indeed, in a perverse way both women have a point – for the pair perfectly illustrate the way our benefits system has spun out of control.

This week we learned that Mick Philpott, the depraved man who killed six of his children in a house fire, was receiving so much in benefits for his brood of 17 kids by five women that he would have been in the top two per cent of earners if his cash came from a taxed salary.

This revelation exploded like a bomb on the political frontline, coming in the week the Left was raging over a range of benefit cuts introduced by the Coalition. Chancellor George Osborne said that the case raised issues for society over why taxpayers were subsidising this workshy man’s lifestyle – a fair question that provoked a furious response from Labour, accusing him of cynically exploiting a terrible tragedy.

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls launched a bitter attack on Osborne yesterday on Radio 4’s Today programme, spluttering with rage yet again over Tory welfare reforms and accusing the Chancellor of ‘nasty, divisive, sectional politics’.

Yet the truth is that Labour has been flailing around on this issue. Indeed, it has looked so timid and out of touch that it is possible we may look back at this week as when the party failed to win the Election. For one thing is clear from my trip to Wythenshawe – those angriest with the iniquities of the welfare system are the working people who have traditionally been the bedrock of Labour support.

People such as Brenton Thomas, a greengrocer whose earnings have fallen to £120 a week – yet sees others on the dole drinking all day in the pub. Or Paul Brooks, a firefighter who earns only slightly more than the £26,000-a-year benefit cap despite his risky job and long hours. Or Lianne Burns, a young mum who puts in 15-hour shifts at a care home to provide for her only child – but who sees other women having endless babies at the State’s expense.

Perhaps most dispirited of all was a shaven-headed taxi driver out shopping with his son. ‘My friends ask me who is the fool: them doing nothing and getting all the cash they need or me working 60 hours a week? They might earn a little less, but they have a very good life and ask why they should ever work.’

Wythenshawe was the place where David Cameron urged us to hug hoodies, but it is far from Tory terrain. A garden city filled with two- storey semi-detached houses, it is home to 70,000 people – with more than half on benefits in the most deprived areas – and is rock-solid Labour.

Yet there was no sympathy for the party’s complaint that benefits are rising only one per cent, well below the inflation rate. Indeed, most people thought the Coalition was still too soft, suggesting those who refuse to work should get all benefits stopped – an idea that would make a Guardian leader writer blanche.

Even some of those on benefits took a tough line. Sarah, a jobless veterinary nurse, supported the Government’s stance, saying: ‘It would be so easy to have more babies, but I have two kids and no work so I should not have any more. I don’t go out, have cut out Sky TV and spend everything on the kids.’

One other point was made repeatedly: the failure of politicians to set a decent example. As one tracksuited man put it: ‘If they are stupid enough to let us have all this money, we’d be stupid not to take it – as they did with their duck houses.’

In many ways the rhetoric of some on the Right belittling everyone on benefits is almost as absurd as the Left’s refusal to face the reality of a country with a bloated welfare system that has tripled in cost in 35 years.

The key message from Wythenshawe is the need to put pressure on those who will not work – while protecting people with disabilities and genuine job seekers. This is essential to restore faith in a fair welfare system.

And this is where the Coalition is getting it wrong. Not just by protecting wealthy pensioners from giving up their bus passes and free TV licences – while hitting impoverished people on disabilities keen to work and failing to tackle the feckless. But also with the new bedroom tax that penalises people on benefits with spare bedrooms. In an area such as Wythenshawe, where most homes are much the same, it is difficult to downsize.

Go back to those two women at the start of this story. Which one of the pair has been hit by the Coalition’s benefits clampdown?

It is not the single mother of six who turned down decent work to stay on the dole. Instead it is Mary, the council worker, who is being stripped of £10.50 a week from her housing benefit as officials deemed a room in her flat used for her younger son’s weekend visits a spare room, surplus to her requirement.

As she says, it’s all bloody wrong.

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