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Realpolitik (see also Political realism; from German: real “realistic”, “practical” or “actual”; and Politik “politics”) refers to politics or diplomacy based primarily on practical considerations, rather than ideological notions or moralistic premises. In this respect, it shares aspects of its philosophical approach with those of realism and pragmatism.
"Manchmal werden Leute den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht sehen."

Thursday, 4 April 2013

038 - For richer, for poorer..

In the week that Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne defend the latest round of cuts to benefits and the privatisation of the NHS, Realpolitik questions the widening divide of wealth in the UK, divide and rule, and where our disaffections should really be directed.

April 2013 is an important turning point in British politics. As the vice of austerity tightens its grip, the NHS privatisation leads to one of the institution's biggest transformations of structure since its inception. Still, however, there is no sign of economic recovery, or reduction in government borrowing. Worse, such policies serve only to widen the gap between rich and poor in the UK.

Iain Duncan Smith: Photo from The Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk)

This however, has not prevented Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith from making the appallingly unrealistic claim that he could live off £53 in benefits a week, the amount market trader David Bennett claimed he was left to live on after cuts, and approximately equivalent to the lowest rate of JSA for adults under the age of 25. A claim, that saw an online petition calling for IDS to act on his claim. At the time of publication of this article, the petition - hosted by www.change.org - had gathered 410,258 signatures.

This concerning remark comes just days after IDS claimed that the government had 'given up' on cutting benefits, adding that all on benefits could expect to see increases in their respective increments in the following years of the current Parliament.
"(The) reality is that this country is not cutting welfare... ...all those on benefits will still see cash increases in every year of this Parliament." (Iain Duncan Smith, 29 March 2013)."
An increase, however, of 1%, which when inflation of 2.7% is accounted for, translates to a net loss of 1.7% per annum.

Nonetheless, placing his apparent indecision aside for one moment, his claims around the manageability of £53 per week JSA is dubious, especially when even only brief further research is conducted into Mr Duncan Smith's own personal financial circumstances. For instance, his food allowance alone accounts for £400 per week in taxpayer funding. This does not account for expenses claims such as £110 on a Bose bluetooth headset for his car, £12.42 on a USB cable, £5.30 spent on a trip within his own constituency, and a monthly phone bill in excess of £53 per month. This, not inclusive of a salary of £1,581.02 a week - in context, 97% above IDS' £53 per week threshold - hardly reflect an individual demonstrating a capability to live on a minimum income.

IDS has also claimed, in virtue of the so called 'bedroom tax' - a policy we wrote on recently - that families under-occupying houses they are not themselves paying rent for, should have benefits reduced accordingly. As a result, 660,000 social housing tenants will lose £14 per week in housing benefit. However, can Mr Duncan Smith provide accurate figures on the current number of available 1 bedroom houses under council control? In Hull for instance, 70 such properties exist, yet demand stretches to 5,500 people.

Successive governments have failed to invest in social housing, which has driven many into the hands of the private landlords, and higher rents. In context, private rents increased on average by £300 last year.  To add to the bad taste of this ill-thought out remark, Duncan Smith also presently lives rent-free in a country retreat worth £2m~, a residence which, by his own words, he is presently 'under-occupying.' This distinct lack of ability to relate to the harsh reality he is imposing on so many others is sounding ominous.

However, personal critique and analysis of hypocrisy is but one facet of this appalling manoeuvre. Mr Duncan Smith has justified the restructuring to the current benefits system under the guise that it represents a wider government effort to tackle the working culture in the UK.
"(Restructuring the culture is so) people find work always pays." (Iain Duncan Smith, 2 April 2013)
While there is little ground to argue that making the work system rewarding and a more worthwhile alternative wherever possible to a life on JSA, we can accept that this is hardly Duncan Smith's motive. The government's intense demand to get as many off benefits and into work demonstrates a shocking disregard of their personal circumstances and well being. Consider the man with a terminal brain tumour deemed fit for work, the ex-RAF serviceman Alex Smith kept alive by a heart machine, whose benefits were stopped, the suicidal bipolar patient Alice Traynor harassed by Atos, or Peter Hodgson, who committed suicide amid fears over his disability benefits.

 The sad reality however, is that the current abhorrent situation we find ourselves in, is not just the loathsome work of a self-interested coalition government, but the neglectful conjuring of successive government policies, which have contributed to an apathy towards the electorate, and Britain's gap between rich and poor being the fastest growing divide of any developed country amidst claims of the 'big society', and us all being.. well, you know the rest. The working culture, while not perfect, is hardly as corrupt as that of our political system.

Since the collapse of the UK's industrial heartland, finding the fabled 'job-for-life', or indeed stable employment of any kind, has been tough for communities that previously relied on the might of British production. In 1979, 7m people were employed by the manufacturing sector. This figure is now roughly 2.5m. When Costa Coffee advertised 8 barista posts, 1,701 people applied. Driving people out of benefits and into work, without continued reliance on the system for support, will be impossible so long as new jobs are not created. In fact, unemployment rose in the last month, and currently stands at 2.5m.

The attempted dissolution of the union movement in the late 80s-early 90s also succeeded in leaving many of the working class disenfranchised, without voice. Consider too the government cuts of £350m to LegalAid, and an altogether more worrying picture of the government's apathetic indifference towards the working classes emerges. Meanwhile, the Labour Party has also progressively abandoned its traditionally core values, for instance by refusing to reverse British Rail privatisation, and by themselves privatising elements of the NHS such as minor surgeries. Thus, with little to no means of retaliation or representation, many on the wrong side of the divide are now resigned to accept the savage austerity measures imposed upon them. 97% of those affected by changes to housing benefit have nowhere else to move to.

Osborne at a housing development in Marehay. Cheaper, more affordable social
housing could reduce what is lost to expensive private rents.
Photo Credit: Darren Staples/Reuters

Furthermore, divide and rule tactics utilised by successive parliaments serve to maintain such suppression. The perfect distraction technique, this allows for the perpetuation of rich/poor divides with minimal comeback from those negatively affected, by engaging their distaste elsewhere, and turning it inwards. This government has been resurrecting the Victorian notion of the 'deserving poor' since it came to office in 2010.

One such example of divide and rule is the magnificent PR tool that is the benefit fraud scandal. Claims that measures are necessary to reduce the deficit are laughably ignorant. The deficit inherited by the current Parliament in 2010 (35% of GDP) is no different, in real terms (accounting for inflation), to that inherited by Blair's Labour government when it came to power in 1997 (42% of GDP). Furthermore, were these claims creditable statements, then the benefits system is hardly the most fertile of ground for fiscal policy. Perhaps we should consider the £69.9bn per annum lost to the UK economy through tax evasion, rather than cutting 13,000 jobs from HM Revenue and Customs.

However, it is far easier for senior government figures to wage rhetorical war on some targets rather than others. Take for instance the loathsome 'journalism' adorning the front page of the Daily Mail yesterday (April 3rd, 2013). We are expected to believe from this disgraceful report, that Mick Philpott - found guilty of manslaughter of 6 of his 17 children - is the product of the UK benefits system, thus, tarring all those on benefits with the same sickening brush. George Osborne's subsequent hijacking of the case to validate his demands for cutting benefits, is a demonstration of vile opportunistic single-mindedness.

While Philpott's actions cannot possibly be condoned under any premise, the notion that the blame for his actions is in any way related to the benefits system or his social class supporting him is absurd, for the same reasoning that Dr Harold Shipman's actions were hardly representative of the middle class, or Stephen Seddon's murder of his parents were of inheritance. In fact, just 4% of families with at least one parent on JSA have more than two children. Only 1.5% of those on benefits have never worked.

Presenting these extreme examples however, as the tip of a kind of feral iceberg, becomes the easy option. Debate has, thankfully, been raised on this, but is dismissed by government agenda. After all, why let pesky statistics, such as the £5bn lost through benefit fraud - a crime committed by less than 1% of claimants - versus the £69.9bn tax evasion bill, stand in the way of ideological fantasy? Thus, the general public is distracted by attacking itself, rather than focusing on the real source of the damage to their livelihoods.

However, this generalisation is not limited solely to ignorant media. In 2007, Labour MP Margaret Hodge explained the rise of BNP support in her constituency by blaming the prioritisation of migrants' rights over British nationals. Her party also spent £12m in 2009 on projects for the white working class, to further the notion that issues relate more to ethnicity, than class, and the rich/poor divide. Regardless of ethnicity, the average British family is now £890 a year worse off than in 2010 as a result of government spending reductions.

The current government has also projected that the current deficit of £120bn will remain at its present level for the next 2 years. In that case, to what end are these cutbacks against the vulnerable achieving successful deficit reduction?

Mr Duncan-Smith's claims he could live off £53 per week speak of a man living in another world entirely. Reducing the amount available by 10%, then 'passing the buck' onto local councils, is a cowardly attempt at absolving the government of any blame resulting from the cutbacks. George Osborne has merely deflected criticism of his benefits scheme as "missing what people really want" and "ill informed rubbish."

While the benefit fraud that does exist is - quite rightly - tackled, and the wider benefits system is so viciously and blindly overhauled, it would be worth bearing in mind the state of social housing, the number of jobs available, and other more substantial drains on the economy to deplete our exaggerated deficit. That the UK economy is held to ransom by the 27% of income tax paid by the rich 1%, is deplorable. A better redistribution of wealth must occur to prevent the divide growing wider. Sadly, given the tax break of £100,000 per annum for high earners, a pay rise of £5m for the Queen from the taxpayer to increase her income to £36.1m per annum, and rumbled of a freeze/reduction in minimum wage, the gap will likely only continue to grow.

Britain is indeed broken, but the rot starts at the top.


Realpolitik.

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