A central message that the Prime Minister wished to communicate in his speech to the Conservative party conference was that ‘Britain is on the rise.’ To guarantee this success, David Cameron highlighted the need to create an ‘aspiration nation.’
To achieve that, he declared war on the great evils of ‘unfairness and injustice’ with the aim of addressing poverty and stimulating economic recovery. The ‘aspiration nation’ is to be built upon ‘hard work, strong families and taking responsibility.’
However, thanks to the divisive manner in which current government policy is being designed and implemented, these statements look more like part of the wider dynamic of blaming of poor people for their own poverty.
The recent intake of employees at the Jaguar Land Rover plant in Halewood, Merseyside saw 20,000 people apply for 1100 jobs. Jobs are quite simply not there – especially in the north of England. This does not mean that those who were not offered work at the Jaguar Land Rover plant are ‘scroungers’ and not part of the so-called ‘aspiration nation.’ They clearly aspired to work.
Evidence from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that many people out of work do want jobs but cannot find them and the statistics on underemployment reveal that there are up to six million people who aspire to work more but can’t. Aspiration exists within our communities, but the expectation of a secure job at a fair wage and chances for social mobility within an unequal society is increasingly diminishing, whilst possibilities for people to fulfil their potential become yet more scarce.
It is not aspiration or responsibility that is lacking, but opportunity. The economy is not creating the jobs that are needed nationwide. In spite of this, unemployment has been constructed as the result of poor individual choices. This denies the government’s failure to deliver the economic recovery it promised, and neglects the deep-rooted structural problems within our economy that continue to create inequalities. Responsibility is individualised – in the process absolving government of blame.
As the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen argues, responsibility requires social support, such as education and healthcare, which is designed to create
more opportunity for choice and substantive decisions for individuals who can then act responsibly on that basis.
By contrast, the government’s public services agenda fundamentally transforms the nature of the welfare state, shrinking it in a way that reduces these structures of support, resulting in the Government failing to fulfil its own responsibilities.
David Cameron will fail in his mission to reduce welfare dependency unless his party realises that the alternative to this idea of a more minimal state is not an over-burdensome bureaucracy (another of the evils he identifies). There has to be some form of redistribution through the democratic state to create the conditions from which to promote individual responsibility and substantive choices.
Cameron’s call for taxpayers to say in effect: ‘It is our money, not yours’ to the Government fundamentally undermines this principle. The Prime Minister also said that ‘countries on the rise are spending money on their future.’ But on his watch there has been a reduction in many of the major investments in our communities that are vitally necessary – most viscerally felt by the existence of over a million unemployed young people.
The narrative of the ‘scroungers’ who lurk behind their curtains in the morning when decent, hard-working people are on their way to work is clearly popular amongst certain sections of society. Cameron vilifies those claiming housing benefits as ‘a cause of great injustice’ when in fact, 93 percent of new claimants seeking housing benefit are actually in work.
Manchester City Council yesterday approved a living wage of £7.15 for its lowest-paid employees, a wage identified as necessary to meet the basic cost of living in the city, compared to the national minimum wage of £6.15. This is an encouraging step, and one measure that can help address poverty at a local level. If work is the only route out of poverty, what about those hard-working people who cannot make work pay?
This shows the confused and flawed nature of the Prime Minister’s arguments. As long as the Government continues to blame individuals for poverty and neglects the root causes of inequality, David Cameron’s claim that its role is to ‘spread privilege around’ appears to be quite preposterous.