It was one of those moments that could only happen in the strange world of Tony Blair.
Blair had a raft of new benefit proposals to announce, basically with the aim of getting people off incapacity benefit, and, more importantly, off that pesky, costly housing benefit. This is all pretty significant, so how did Tony choose to announce his proposals?
Durr! By incorporating it with an on-set photo opportunity with the cast of Coronation Street, of course!
Cue Blair hugging loathsome, desiccated New Labour 'supporter' Liz Dawn, followed by stage-managed photos with 'the public', who handily represented Diversity in Modern Britain. Winston Churchill obviously missed a trick by sticking to rousing speeches and tours of blitzed areas. He should just have had his photo taken with George Formby. Blacked up. In a wheelchair.
After his photo-op, Blair got down to business.
Blair wants to get rid of 'perverse incentives' like paying claimants more the longer they are on incapacity benefit (hereafter referred to as IB because we're lazy). He also wants to stop penalising those who want to return to work but live in fear of falling off the benefit safety net and into total poverty. Perhaps most importantly he promised more support for the most severely sick and disabled, ie. targeted benefits.
So far, so good. However, all of this came with the usual, slightly menacing, Protestant work ethic. Blair also wanted more 'rehabilitation', 'training' and other means of getting people into work.
At this point it's worth taking a slight detour and explaining a trick that barristers and expert witnesses use in court. It's conceding a point, but then immediately over-riding it with another point, eg.
'I concede that the defendant is suffering from advanced senile dementia, but a world in which shoplifters go unpunished is the first step toward anarchy, wholesale rape and murder, and the end of civilisation.'
It's a trick that Blair seems to love. Tony promised that noone would be 'written off', and at the same time everyone was expected to 'fulfil their responsibilities' to work. Sadly, there's a bleakly unimaginative subtext to these comments.
At one level it's A Good Thing that people should be productive, and that people previously considered incapable of working should get the help they need to earn a decent living and reap the other benefits of a job, eg. not having to stay at home all day, getting pissed after work and ill-considered office romances.
It's also pretty hard to justify deliberate, long-term dole scrounging. A few chavs sitting around drinking White Lightning thinking they've beaten the system is one thing, but when there are hundreds of thousands of them, why should everyone else subsidise their limited ambitions?
But on a slightly more philosophical level, Tony's vision of society appears to be exactly what the 'Choose life..' monologue in Trainspotting so brilliantly parodied. We all have to be good little citizens, finding the meaning of life in a Mondeo and a foreign holiday. It's also eerily reminiscent of the worldview of those nasty little working-class-made-good Tory businessmen (invariably running a struggling SME) that you meet all too often, the type who think: 'I've got up at 6am every day for the past 25 years to keep my lousy telesales company afloat. Why shouldn't everybody else suffer too? And don't get me started on the blacks'
What's also rather objectionable about Tony's new-found love of 'helping' people back to work is that the government was prepared to turn a blind eye to rising IB claims, because every IB claimant is one less officially unemployed. At one election you pretend New Labour has engineered an economic miracle that's led to high employment, at another you 'get tough' on your fifth column of shirkers.
But maybe the whole issue isn't really about IB at all. The refreshingly non-dumb Channel 4 News interviewed a number of IB claimants, and kept getting the same response:
'If you're on benefit, you get your rent paid. You don't have much money, but you can get by.'
These people didn't look particularly incapacitated, and what they were basically saying was: 'If I get a job, I can't pay my rent.'
This appears to be the real issue: paying your rent, probably coupled with the uncertain nature of much employment. But Tony refused to talk about the reality of the situation, ie. that people are choosing the security of benefit over the uncertainties of working, and the allied problem of finding affordable housing if you're on a low wage.
Instead Tony yet again came up with some fantasy about social responsibility and how we should all neatly slot into society. It's not so much Brave New World as Drearily Earnest New World. And we're not sure that Tony would be big on Soma and group sex. (Although prove us wrong and you've got our vote.)
It's worth noting that Blair also has a hopelessly deluded view of the modern workplace. No amount of crap Job Centre 'Plus' training is suddenly going to enable people with real physical or psychological problems to suddenly join the workforce. And most employers simply do not accommodate people with different employment needs, eg. flexible working because of a medical condition.
All we can conclude is that Tony Blair seems to have an actual aversion to reality. But maybe we shouldn't be too surprised: this is a man who thinks he's showing the common touch by posing with overpaid soap opera actors in a fictional street in Granada land.