Sunday, September 03, 2006

People vs money

It is usually a chore reading the comments section of 'Comment is Free'. No matter how stupid, obnoxious or plain wrong the article, those choosing to comment on it always seem to manage to lower the bar even further, to the point where it is both deeply painful and tedious to try to read through more than a dozen or so comments.

It takes a very special sort of journalist to write an article which prompts lucid commentary, engaging critically with the points made and enriching the understanding of the subject. Unfortunately for Will Hutton, it is not to praise his article "Britain would benefit from Clinton's tough love" that people have come to comment, but to bury it.

Hutton writes that "Too many British live on benefit for no better reason than they don't want to work and there is too little insistence that they show determination and resource in finding some." Sad to say, but Norman Tebbit put this argument more eloquently twenty years ago, and it wasn't much cop then. The comments section deals rather well with his supporting evidence - that because hundreds of thousands of (mostly) young men with no dependants have moved to this country to work, benefit claimants in this country must be lazy. I rather like the idea of Will Hutton living six to a room and having to get to work at 7am every day to queue up to work for twelve hours. I certainly like that idea more than the idea that what Labour should be doing is cutting off the benefits of lone parents and people with disabilities or long term illnesses if they don't do this sort of work.

There is a whole genre of this kind of journalism, where the author imagines himself daring and controversial for bravely suggesting a new way of giving people less well off than himself a good kicking. Indeed Will Hutton has form for this, having suggested that social housing shouldn't be allocated according to need, but should instead be a universal right (think about it).

Peter Lindert's research, cited in the article, demonstrates a link between social spending and economic growth. The reason, Hutton says, is that healthy, well-educated workers who are not afraid of either retirement or unemployment work harder and take more risks. I'd agree with that. There are a group of people who have it within their power to improve the health, the skills and the income of low paid workers, to make work a more attractive option for people on benefits and hence to boost economic growth and make everyone better off. They are not migrant workers or people who are unemployed. They are called "employers".

If you do what Hutton obviously didn't and speak to people living on benefit, or in low paid work, then you'll find that employers have taken decisions which mean that there are few opportunities for training to help people get into work and stay in work; that employers are keeping wages low so that parents who work are often worse off than they would be on benefit; and that employers make their employees work long hours so that parents find it hard to spend enough time with their kids.

This is an issue Labour should address. In the long run we all benefit if employers invest in creating decent jobs which pay people enough to live on and to enjoy themselves - not just to exist, to have time to see their kids, and to increase their skills through training. The government already spends more than £13 billion trying to help people to do this through tax credits because too many employers are too mean and too short sighted to see the benefits of looking after their employees properly. There will always be people who suggest the alternative of cutting living standards for the least well off. We've tried their way, and it's failed. Even the people commenting at 'Comment is Free' know that there is a better alternative.

[Will Huttons' article is at:,,1863995,00.html ]


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