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Home > Politics

New Labour - opportunity bites

15 October 2004

If Tony Blair gave you a Christmas present, it would come in a huge box with shiny, expensive wrapping paper all tied up with pretty bows and one of those little gift tags with a handwritten message saying 'All the best!!! Love, Tony XXX'. And you know what you'd find inside the parcel? A dead rat sucking a turd.

What prompts this latest outbreak of cynicism about God's chosen one? Well, it's yet another example of New Labour's preference for snazzy presentation over actual content. Tone's latest wheeze is the 'Opportunity Society', which will involve:

- More choice in health and education.

- More social mobility and 'the chance to succeed'.

- An overhaul of the welfare state, which has got into a nasty rut of 'simply paying out benefits' and 'trapping people into long-term or lifelong dependency'.

Let's take these one at a time.

In practice, more choice in health and education means diddly squat. All sane people want the best healthcare and education they can have. Failing that, they want services that meet certain, reasonably high, standards. Who on earth would knowingly choose healthcare and education that was the least good on offer? It's like not returning Keira Knightley's calls because you're on a promise with Jeanette Krankie.

The impracticalities of public service 'choice' are well documented, so let's move swiftly on to the more intriguing idea of social mobility and 'the chance to succeed'.

'Social mobility' is usually taken to mean the ability to rise up the ranks of socio-economic status. Of course, it could equally apply to downward social mobility, eg. upper-class twits who squander their inheritance on crack cocaine and end up on the streets, boring the other winos to death with tedious tales of how they 'like totally totalled' their Jaguar XJS on a 'major bender', but we don't think this is what Blair has in mind.

What he does have in mind, though, is far from clear. It's often said that politicians don't know what they're talking about. But in the case of Tony Blair, it seems to be literally true. What is it to be socially mobile? We don't live in a rigid class system. The class system still exists in some form, but it's not oppressive in the sense of keeping the lower orders in their place, or having a jolly good laugh at the pleb who used the soup knife when everyone simply knew they should have used the foie gras spork.

In fact, the more you think about it, the more social mobility seems to be a non-issue. Access to education has never been better, whether it's going to university, retaking your failed GCSEs at nightclasses or returning to education later in life via flexible or part-time courses. There isn't any obvious class-based income inequality, either. When was the last time you saw a wealthy English teacher sneering at an impoverished builder?

The idea of 'the chance to succeed' is equally vague. What's success? Is it becoming a millionaire? Is it getting a job after 12 years of unemployment? Doing a part-time law degree? Getting a lucrative part-time job so you can spend three days a week sitting in a darkened room indulging your love of pornography and wanking like a caged monkey?

This is all very confusing, and after a while you begin to wonder why Tony Blair has bothered to spout on about this non-concept, the 'Opportunity Society'.

Until you consider his third point, ie. the fact that the welfare state is 'simply paying out benefits' and thus creating a dependency culture.

It's here that you being to realise that Tony speaks in ciphers. And not very cryptic ones, either. For Tony Blair 'The Opportunity Society' is 'Not being on benefits'. It's that simple. Or to put it another way: if you're a long-term dole/incapacity benefit shirker reading this at home before you settle down with a cup of tea, a spliff and a rerun of Murder She Wrote, now is the time to shit yourself.

Politicians have long believed that the welfare state - or, more correctly, the benefits system - is costing the country way too much money, even though UK benefits are not particularly generous. Add a pinch of Blairite Christian zeal and it's Goodbye easy street, Hello protestant work ethic.

But the unemployment situation is a problem that's a bit more complicated than Tony seems to think. Apart from the retired, the incarcerated, children and marketing people, there are basically four main groups of people who don't work:

- Those who can't work for physical or mental reasons;

- Those who aren't working but would like to;

- Those who can't find the kind of job they want;

- Those who don't want to work.

If Tony Blair can help people who want to get a job get a job, great - everyone's a winner. But the big problem is the last group: people who don't want to work.

In theory, this should be a fantastic chance for the government to scapegoat long-term dolies: once we used to hate the idle rich, now we hate the idle poor. And they do exist. Leaving benefit-bound single mums out of the equation (they're poor but they can hardly be described as idle; maybe the 'busy, harassed' poor?) there are lots of people who could work who are sitting on

Part of this, frankly, is a lifestyle choice. If you've ever signed on for any length of time, you'll realise you can enter an exciting new world of freedom where you don't have to put up with packed trains, shitty bosses and having to miss the end of a late night film because you need to get up at some unearthly hour to get on a packed train to go and meet your shitty boss. However, the dole lifestyle can become wearing, unless you really like watery baked beans washed down with White Lightning (still 2.57 for three litres at Asda. Fact.)

But signing on is less about skiving and increasingly a totally rational economic choice: what makes more sense, working 40 hours a week to earn 180 (135 after tax), or remaining unemployed and getting 56 Jobseekers Allowance (or the increasingly popular Incapacity Benefit) plus most of your rent paid by Housing Benefit? If you live in London your rent could well be 100+ a week, in which case working would effectively make you a charitable benefactor of your employer.

What Tony Blair appears to be quietly suggesting is reducing benefits and making it harder to claim. Why can't he be more honest and accept that the bigger picture is more fucked up?

Economists know there will always be 'free riders' in any society. But the big problem - the gap between living costs and wages - that deters many people from working isn't going to be solved by a benefits clampdown, because at the moment benefits clampdowns don't tackle the problem of malingerers, they just force unskilled or poorly skilled people into crummy jobs.

And although we're the first to admit we don't have the answers, what is the welfare state meant to do? Leave the unemployable, the unlucky, the lazy and the feckless to simply starve to death?

(Don't answer that if you're a Daily Mail reader.)

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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