Conservative Manifesto: Not the Solution to a ‘Broken Britain’

Let’s “change Britain for the better” and “come together as a country”, said former Prime Minister David Cameron discussing the Conservative Manifesto in the lead up to the 2010 elections. A similar message was repeated by Cameron just five years later before the next elections: the government will offer people “security at every stage” and will turn the “good news in the economy into a good life” for the people. Yet, after all these are just words, and winning the elections using such hopeful promises and powerful messages proved to be much easier than shaping a British reality to fit them. One consistent area of interest for the Conservatives is employment, and specifically, the idea of ‘making work pay’. The plan is to cut back non-NHS welfare programs in order to increase the financial cost of unemployment and ultimately push people back into work. The ‘making work pay’ catch phrase could have been replaced by ‘making welfare benefits not pay’.

After seven years of reforms under a Conservative-led government have these spending cuts and welfare reforms changed Britain for the better, has it helped Britain provide all Brits with a good life?

While the 2010 coalition government and the 2015 Conservative government introduced new policies to re-shape Britain- in not only an economic sense but a social sense too- neither governments can claim that they united British people or secured people at every stage in their life. On the contrary, the Conservative-led governments imposed reforms, specifically surrounding welfare benefits, that left many people financially and socially unstable, only to further divide the country as inequality continues to grow.

The 2010 coalition moved to instill the ‘make work pay’ ideology through a wide range of reforms, all reflective of a general scheme to cut social spending laid out in the Welfare Reform Act 2012. A cap of the total amount of benefits individuals could claim was lowered from £26,000 to £23,000; disability benefits were replaced by Personal Independence Payments and were cut by 20%; employment support was limited to one year; Universal Credit merged six areas of welfare- Jobseekers Allowance (JSA), employment and support allowance, child tax credit, working tax credit, and income support- into one monthly payment; and the amount of sanctions and restrictions on recipients was increased. As Wintour from the Guardian writes, “across Britain between October 2012 and December 2013 just over 1 million people have been subject to an adverse sanction, 633,000 were allowed to keep their benefit after a referral and 580,273 had a referral cancelled.”

According to research conducted by Adam and Browne for the Institute for Fiscal Studies, looking purely at the numbers and the financial incentives-when comparing the income they would receive if working to the income they would receive if not working- the introduction of Universal Credit, the lowering of JSA, and the general caps on welfare do provide greater incentives for people to work because it greatly diminishes the income people would receive out of work.  Ignoring the ethical side of these reforms, can sanctions and the dramatic increase in the costs of unemployment lay down such a simple path to get everyone back into employment? Can Britain be ‘fixed’ so easily?

Well, according to the Conservative Manifesto 2015, and a speech by former PM David Cameron, these welfare reforms in place since 2010 have helped to “put Britain back on her feet”. It is true that unemployment has decreased, but the saga behind unemployment is never so simple. While the number of unemployed – at 5% in December 2016 compared to 8.5% in November 2011- does warrant some celebration, the number in full-time jobs with weekly hour contracts suggests there is actually much room for concern. Consider the statistics released by JRF— the number of people in employed work includes the 1,300,000 people who have to work part time because they cannot find full-time work, the self-employed, and those who remain unwillingly on temporary contracts, many of which are zero-hour, resulting in many people who work also being in poverty.

Although Cameron applauded his party for working to fully “rescue” Britain and for remaining the true ‘party of working people’, a lot of working people were let down and ignored as they could not find full time work and simultaneously received less benefits. According to a JRF report on poverty, the reduction in welfare benefits for those in low income work and part time work and for those are unable to work “is simply not high enough to avoid poverty, when combined with other resources and high costs”. In 2015/2016, 3.2 million working adults were classified by the Department for Work and Pensions, as being in relative low income. And not only have the workers been let down, but so have the younger generations; in 2015/2016 there were roughly 4 million children in relative low poverty in the UK according to Butler from the BBC, and of those, 67% are from working families. The Conservatives, just a couple of weeks ago announced in their 2017 manifesto that they “will continue to run the welfare system in accordance with [their] belief that work is the best route out of poverty”, yet if they were actually intent on reducing poverty levels, and if they actually looked at the numbers, the British welfare state would not continue to be cut.

Another area of the British state that the past governments have adamantly pointed to and attempted to ‘fix’ with these reforms is welfare fraud. In 2015, Cameron reiterated many of the concerns regarding welfare fraud and helped fuel the fire against welfare recipients by pitting those who do not receive benefits- or at least not as many benefits- against those who do: “when people worked hard and paid their taxes – knowing that others were choosing to live on welfare; when they saw their money going on social housing they could never afford to live in…that created a sense of deep unfairness”. Negative rhetoric surrounding welfare recipients runs rampant in the media as well, including stories from The Sun and the Telegraph about scroungers cheating the system and receiving £80,000 of tax payer money. Another well-heard accusation, introduced to the public by Ian Duncan Smith’s think tank, The Centre for Social Justice, in 2009 describes families who, through the generations, have never worked a day in their life. Yet, many researchers and journalists, such as Tracy Shildrick’s team, have devoted time to finding these families and have unequivocally come across none. Meanwhile, welfare fraud and even welfare dependency is minimal in the UK, especially considering the increasing gap between the number of those who are eligible for benefits and the number actually applying for benefits. In 2014, 42% of the people eligible for Job Seekers Allowance did not make a claim, resulting in £2.3 billion going unclaimed, according to a Joseph Round-tree Foundation report.

Britain was facing a hung parliament and the current Brexit situation may benefit from a strong unified parliament, but this past election could prove to be pivotal for the welfare state and for those who rely on it. As the new government is currently being formed, only time will tell if the resurgence of Labour ministers will be able to instill a more egalitarian view on welfare recipients and begin to reverse the major cuts to tackle poverty. Either way, all we can hope for is that the MPs that Britain recently elected actually contemplate the numbers and history and make rational policy decision based off evidence and perhaps even a little bit of compassion.

Keiko Ivinson

Keiko Ivinson

Keiko Ivinson is an undergraduate student at McGill University pursuing an honours degree in Political Science and a minor in European Cultural Studies. She spent most of her life in Boston, but has roots in the UK and Canada. Although interested in many aspects of politics, Keiko is specifically intrigued by international relations, diplomacy, humanitarian interventions, and international organizations. Above all, she is fascinated in how international ties and dealings affect the citizens of the world, and how best to achieve non-violent, ethical outcomes.
Keiko Ivinson