Chris Tarquini discusses why IDS’ comments on benefit reform show exactly why our system is broken
Writing an article about benefit ‘reform’ on an evening where Manchester United have experienced anything but Turkish delight from a questionable refereeing decision in the biggest game on earth is tough. Benefits cuts chat when the Socialist Tyrant/People’s Hero (who am I to judge: rest in peace) Hugo Chavez has had his last moments on earth doesn’t seem that important. It’s the writing equivalent of inviting people to watch my boxed set of the ‘World at War’ documentary when a wagon of Pussycat Dolls and One Direction members are tossing free money and booze into the streets. Lets be honest, politics is rarely sexy.
But it does impact our everyday life more than a controversial high tackle or a deceased revolutionary leader. The standard ‘I don’t like politics…phwoar that pint is pricey’ lack of connection between our political world and our reality is commonplace and none more so than when it comes to ‘cuts’. We need to scale back government, stop wasteful spending and benefit scroungers…..but keep your hands off my free stuff. Why can we not have a real discussion about serious cuts or really hold our leaders to account? The answer is simple, our leaders are politicians first and problem solvers second.
That is why this particular piece grabbed my attention, alongside a similar bit of audio posted in the Guido Fawkes blog which described the journalist James O’Brien as the BBCs ‘resident lefty’. He certainly sounded like his views were not exactly centrist but he did something a lot of people are not willing to do. Call out politicians when they talk absolute rubbish.
The politician at hand was Work and Pensions Minister Iain ‘IDS’ Duncan Smith who (full disclosure) I have questioned at a press conference as a young intern in my early 20s. Despite me being petrified asking a tough question in front of a gaggle of seasoned journalists he was polite and did not proceed to give me a verbal smackdown nor tell me that I should come back when my class in primary school had finished. However his attempted pivot in his BBC interview was exactly what is wrong with politics. IDS claimed that since jobseekers allowance was voluntary, being made to stack shelves in Poundland to earn it was therefore voluntary and ‘work experience’, never mind the girl in question was working voluntarily already in the hopes of landing a job in her desired career.
Voluntary? Well it was not in this instance. Not if you wanted to keep your benefits. Rather than explain that he believed people should work to earn their benefits (which is arguably a perfectly reasonable point of view) IDS insisted on using his pre-rehearsed buzzwords of ‘reform’ (yes there it is again), ‘voluntary’ and ‘work experience’. Even when O’Brien flagged up this would not help the young lady involved get a career in the profession she had a degree in (and was volunteering at already) the talking points continued.
Much like other Tory colleagues IDS was trying to pivot away from benefits as a right and instead position it as a choice. Well for many it is not, despite many on the rights mystical horror like figures of the benefit scrounging chav, immigrant or worse….both, never mind the policy itself gives free labour to hugely profitable companies like Poundland who do not require it. He took it a step further with his comments that ‘many people think they’re too good for this kind of stuff’, quoting the admittedly impressive but also somewhat unique Cinderella story of Tesco Boss Terry Leahy’s journey from the shopfloor to the boardroom. Clearly his party have got the memo with many arguing (much like savagely right-wing US politician Paul Ryan) that they were proud of their first job working in a supermarket or restaurant flipping burgers and they never complained. How many of them did this as a part time job as a student as opposed to day in, day out work? I wonder……
Hold on there benefit scrounging brigade! There are clearly scroungers out there and they need to be stopped. It is not the products but the packaging of IDS’ reforms that best encapsulates what is wrong with our politics. ‘Voluntary’ work experience where failure to comply means your benefits are cut, free labour for huge companies who ironically may have actually employed someone in their place and fake romantic tales of politicians who started on the shopfloor for a few hours before they went back to their studies are not reality. IDS needs to be honest, this would not create jobs but rather flood the market with free labour and kill jobs. Nor am I knocking working on the shop floor, I’ve worked there and it’s not easy every single day. It’s tough and it pays little, however if it is not a profession you wish to go into or even related to it how is this truly ‘work experience’?
So now you’re thinking that you’ve been sucked into a piece about welfare reform rather than the problem with politics, but that is the point. If IDS said that he wanted to show tough love, it was not voluntary to work for benefits but exactly what we should do to encourage his flagship ‘welfare into work’ project one could respect that. But he sold it wrong and refused to speak like a normal human being when challenged by a boisterous reporter.
Is it a coincidence even UKIP are gaining more votes? As our political parties become a bizarre word-cloud of focus group insights, devoid of arguing for tough choices and sometimes controversial policies in a language that people understand, nothing will change. In reality what politics has become is sport for old people. Rather than a Real Madrid or Manchester United player taking a dive or a sneaky shirt tug we have politicians who have spent their whole careers at Westminster and with a wink and a nudge use their political buzzwords, without having the courage to say what they really think. Everyone knows it, much like we know Didier Drogba has not been shot by a harpoon gun when he’s tackled despite his admittedly creative rolling and flipping.
So what is the solution? Get informed and vote for politicians who answer your questions, talk to your MP and question them harder. Only when there are no ‘safe’ constituencies left or no career politicians with powerful friends at Westminster can we truly change our democracy. Ironically despite my using him as one of the most modern examples of ‘politics gone wild’ (like its ‘girls’ namesake but slightly older and more upper middle class) IDS is probably one of the better and more courageous of our elected officials. That is what saddens me the most.