Work longer for less

The Tory conference gave us a flavour of what a Cameron government will bring, writes Eddie Ford

Unemployed? Public sector worker? On incapacity benefit? A woman and not far off retirement age? Well, start to get seriously worried - as should many, many, others. At Bournemouth this week the Tories were red in tooth and claw, revelling in their role as the tough guys who will make the tough decisions to pull UK PLC back from the brink of calamitous debt and economic ruination. Steely-eyed supermen to the rescue of British capitalism, unafraid to cut, slash and burn. Yes, the ‘nasty party’ is back.

So hypocritically declaring that “we are all in this together”, the Tory shadow chancellor, George Osborne - the brilliant economist who virulently opposed the nationalisation of Northern Rock and attempts to lessen the impact of the financial crisis through ‘quantitative easing’ - proceeded to reveal his plans for a full-scale attack on the public sector and the ‘undeserving’ poor, such as the work-shy unemployed and the lying and lazy on incapacity benefit. Or, as the Tories like to phrase it, of course, cutting back on ‘red tape’, ‘bureaucracy’ and the ‘nanny state’.

Hence Osborne announced that a Conservative government - a very real and dreadful possibility - would impose a one-year pay freeze in 2011 for the four million public sector workers earning more than £18,000. These workers will no doubt be delighted, if not positively grateful, to learn that Osborne is doing this for their own good - as the pay freeze is the “best way to try to protect your job during this period”, he explained,  “equivalent to saving 100,000 public sector jobs”.

As for those one million public sectors workers on less than £18,000 a year, they - rejoice - would still be ‘entitled’ to a pay rise of ... almost certainly bugger all. Of course, Osborne hastily added, our brave boys and girls serving in Afghanistan and elsewhere would be exempt from the pay freeze - indeed, their ‘operational allowance’ would be doubled from £2,400 a year to £4,800. So everyone join the army then?

Osborne went on to state that one of the “hard choices that could not be avoided” was raising the retirement age, arguing that Labour’s current proposals were not “ambitious enough”. Thus the Tories would lift the pension age from 65 to 66 for men, but this would not happen until “at least” 2016 - up to 10 years earlier than under Labour’s plans, which envisages the state pension age for men gradually rising from 65 to 68 between 2024 to 2046. As for women, said Osborne, it would be 2020 “at the earliest” before they see their retirement age raised to 66 as well - though a review has been promised to further examine this knotty issue, with Tory leader David Cameron reassuring us that it would “take account of the interests of women”.

Obviously, bringing the move forward in such a way would mean that many more workers, particularly those aged between 49 and 59, would have to work for an extra year before qualifying for a state pension. Some would call this nothing more than a con-trick - getting already poorly paid workers to work longer for less. But for the Tories this is a price well worth paying, claiming that their scheme to raise the retirement age would save “the country” £13 billion a year.

Playing to the populist gallery, Osborne vowed - with bloodcurdling conviction - that a Conservative government would “target” tax evasion and offshore tax havens, sternly telling the bankers that he believed in the “free market, not a free ride” (audience cheers!) - and that there would be big trouble if he discovered that taxpayers’ money was being “unreasonably diverted” into paying for “bigger pay and bonuses” for the former masters of the universe hoping to recover their position. Doubtless quaking in their boots by now, the bankers were further warned by Osborne that he “reserved the right to take further action” against them, using the tax system if necessary. How he would do this was left unexplained.

Osborne also said he would abolish the national child trust fund, as it only benefited “the rich”, and remove tax credits from families earning more than £50,000. Furthermore, a Tory government would restore the earnings link for the basic state pension in the “next parliament”; slash the cost of Whitehall bureaucracy by a third; cut government ministers’ pay by a savage 5%; reduce the overall number of Westminster MPs by 10%; close off parliament’s “unaffordable” pension scheme to new members, and naturally “protect the most vulnerable” by preserving child benefit, winter fuel payments and free TV licences for pensioners.

Of course, the grisly showpiece of the Tory conference was the grand unveiling of the “ambitious” plans to attack the sick and ill - sorry, I mean to ‘incentivise’ them into finding gainful employment. Perhaps this is what Osborne meant when he pledged a “complete change” from the last 12 years of Labour government. And what Cameron had in mind when he described the ‘anti-sick’ propositions as lying at the centre of the “new” Conservative Party project.

So it was the Tory leader himself who announced that he hopes to impose a £25-a-week benefit cut on up to 500,000 incapacity benefit claimants - talk about throwing out scraps of juicy red meat for the hungry bigots in Daily Mail-land to veraciously consume. This noble end is to be achieved by initiating a more vigorous ‘medical assessment’ process, which with total scientific objectivity will discover that these half a million indolents are indeed quite “capable of working” - what shirkers. If so, the happy souls will be shunted off incapacity benefit, which currently stands at a princely £80.90 a week, and onto jobseekers’ allowance - now worth a not-so princely £63.40 a week. Bingo, or so the Tories say, you save £600 million over the first three years and £1 billion over a five-year parliament. So there is “compassionate conservatism” for you, as we all know that the Eton-educated David Cameron could easily survive on £63.40 a week (indeed, we would fully expect him to make impressive ‘savings’ every week).

This “tough and tender” approach, so boasted the Tory leader, will form the backbone of a “big, bold, radical scheme” to get millions of people back to work. How come? Because the £600 million saved by ‘incentivising’ the sick back to the wonders of work will pay for the Tories to ditch the New Deal and erect a single one-stop shop, ‘back to work’ benefit (or ‘super-benefit’, if you like) which will include the present 2.6 million incapacity benefit claimants and lone parents. The scheme would also incorporate 100,000 additional apprenticeships, 50,000 additional training places at colleges and 50,000 “work-pairing” places for young people.

Naturally, after six months of unemployment on your Tory ‘back to work’ benefit, “work experience” and “training” will become compulsory. That is, you will have to work for your dole, being forced to participate in so-called “community work” for up to one year - at the end of which the unwilling conscripts will have to undergo a fresh reassessment and accordingly start a fresh ‘back-to-work’ cycle. Of course, in reality many if not most of these “training” centres are nothing much more than semi-militarised detention centres seemingly designed by an evil genius for the sole purpose of making  you feel worthless.

The Tories have openly admitted that their near sadistic plans for the unemployed are largely based on Australia’s various ‘work for the dole’ projects - which were first proposed by the Liberal Party in 1987, trialed in that country in 1997, then permanently enshrined in 1998. Therefore anyone unemployed for 12 months or more, and who has been judged by their ‘job network member’ as having a “pattern of work avoidance”, is referred to the ‘full-time work for the dole’ programme. Naturally, this scheme offers no additional benefit payment - forget it - but substantially increases the required total mandatory participation time to 1,100 hours, with a minimum of 50 hours per fortnight. The programme usually takes about 10 months to complete.

Needless to say, the ‘working for your dole’ programme becomes a wonderful source of cheap labour for the government and the bosses - virtual modern-day slave labour even. So during the 2000 Olympic Games all those of an eligible age who had been unemployed for three months or more and lived in Sydney were made to participate in various Olympic-related schemes and projects.

More scandalously still, in December 2002 the ‘drought force initiative’ was enacted. Prior to that, all the ‘work for the dole’ projects were supposedly meant to “directly benefit the public” - whether in the shape of community organisations or civic assets. However, the ‘drought force’ scheme expanded its remit to also include work for privately owned agricultural properties in those areas deemed to be experiencing “exceptional circumstances” (ie, drought-hit areas).

Now, thanks to the Tories, it looks like Australia may well come to the UK - and unfortunately we are not referring to the weather.

And, in true Tory style, this ‘back to work’ programme will be run largely by voluntary groups, especially “faith”-based ones, of course - that is, institutionally corrupt charities and assorted private sector outfits out to make a quick buck. To this end, treasury rules would be altered to allow the government to use “benefit savings” once someone had found work in order to pay the ‘welfare-to-work provider’ - that is, private sector providers would be given 20% initial funding for each jobless person taken, with the remainder paid by the state after the unemployed person has been in work for one year.

In other words, we see an essential return to the callous ethos of the Victorian Poor Laws - try to make life as unbearable as possible for the unemployed in order to ‘motivate’ them to accept just about any old crap job going. Once the welfare/benefits ‘safety net’ has been effectively removed, you are in a prime position to force people into the labour market under virtually the worst possible conditions imaginable - which in turn leads to a general downward pressure on pay and conditions for all workers. Welcome to the Tories’ brave new world.

For sure, unemployment will continue to rise this year and in all probability will keep on climbing in the next year. If the Tories get to implement their spending cuts blitzkrieg - delivering a short, sharp, shock to the UK economy - while at the same time withdrawing the various Keynesian monetary and fiscal stimuli, then unemployment could quite easily reach some four million or so. However, if large numbers of public sector workers are made redundant and there are indeed ‘apocalyptic’ cuts in public spending in 2010 - as many in the Conservative Party want and desire - then five million or more unemployed is not entirely inconceivable. Self-evidently, this would represent a massive attack upon our class.

Of course, in one sense the Tories have embarked on a big gamble - and in doing so have given Labour an open target. By attacking so many sections of the population, they risk aiding a Labour recovery as the election draws nearer. But they know that Labour’s programme is for cuts too, only enacted with a little less enthusiasm perhaps. Besides, the Conservatives have been reassured by recent poll findings that a clear majority of the population favours some ‘belt-tightening’ as a way of resolving the economic crisis. In the absence of a working class alternative the nationalist-inspired “we are all in it together” can have a good deal of resonance, particularly when the Tories are also seen to be making noises against such easy targets as greedy bankers and MPs on the make.

Although the signs do not look good, it is not too late for the left to get its act together in time for the general election. Both the Tories and New Labour are set on attacking our class to make us pay for the crisis of the system they both defend - a system that is clearly seen to have failed. The need for Marxism could not be more evident.