Welcome, 77 artists, 40 different points of Attica welcomes you by singing Erotokritos an epic romance written at 1713 by Vitsentzos Kornaros

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The week the welfare war broke out

George Osborne drew the election battle lines with his controversial statement on the Philpott case

There is nothing new about politicians using human tragedy to make a political point, though sometimes they come to regret it. In 1993 Labour's ambitious young shadow home secretary, Tony Blair, seized on the killing of two-year-old James Bulger as evidence of the failings of post-Thatcher Britain.

The toddler had been murdered by two 10-year-old boys after being dragged by them along a railway line near Liverpool. The terrible crime traumatised the country. In a speech at the time, Blair deployed stirring rhetoric to attack a Tory government which, he implied, had let society disintegrate to such an extent that it could produce child killers so young.

"The headlines shock, but what shocks us more is our knowledge that in almost any city, town or village more minor versions of the same events are becoming an almost everyday part of our lives," Blair said. "These are ugly manifestations of a society that is becoming unworthy of that name … If we do not learn and then teach the value of what is right and what is wrong, then the result is simply moral chaos which engulfs us all."

When he published his autobiography in 2010 Blair repented, saying he had been wrong to generalise and to frame policy off the back of one terrible case. "I look back and think that though the problem was real, the analysis was faulty and this came to have policy consequences ... I drew the easy but ultimately flawed conclusion that our society had broken down. Of course, it hadn't as a whole, only in part." His point was that the kind of families that produced James Bulger's murderers were anything but typical. "Instead of focusing general social policy on this class of people, they need specific, targeted action," he wrote.

Wind forward 20 years to the deaths of Duwayne, 13, Jade, 10, John, nine, Jack, eight, Jesse, six, and Jayden, five, all killed by their father, Mick Philpott, his wife Mairead and friend Paul Mosley in an attempt to frame Philpott's former lover, and politicians are once more being accused of exploiting tragedy. On Thursday, after the trio had been convicted of starting the blaze in which the children died, the chancellor, George Osborne, visited Derby, where the couple lived, and linked Philpott's life on benefits to his terrible crime. He spoke, as had Blair, of a nation in shock. And in a carefully prepared answer to a question from the BBC, Osborne said it was the responsibility of politicians to consider whether general conclusions, and lessons, could be drawn.

"Philpott is responsible for these absolutely horrendous crimes and these are crimes that have shocked the nation," he said. "The courts are responsible for sentencing, but I think there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state, and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state, subsidising lifestyles like that. I think that debate needs to be had."

It is difficult to imagine Osborne admitting he was wrong to link this one isolated and shocking case to a general malaise in society, even 20 years from now. This weekend, despite an outraged response from Labour and some among the Tories' coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative party leadership is confident the chancellor did the right thing.

On Friday David Cameron, champion of compassionate Conservatism, offered his full backing to Osborne. "He is absolutely right," the prime minister said. "Philpott was the one to blame for his crimes … We want to make clear welfare is not a lifestyle choice." Officials in No 10 feel that for the first time in months the Tories have Labour on the run. "The only clear message from this week that you can draw," said a senior Downing Street source, "is that Labour would increase benefits when the country still has a huge deficit. It is a quite extraordinary position for Ed Miliband to be in. He has nothing to say on the question that we have rightly raised."

So there it is. The political dividing lines are drawn and a key pre-election battlefield identified over welfare more than two years before polling day.

After months of vituperative internal arguments on everything from gay marriage to Europe and overseas aid, the Tory party has a seasonal spring in its step. Backbenchers are rallying. While only a few days ago there was talk of plots to unseat both Cameron and Osborne, morale shows signs of recovering as belief returns.

Charlie Elphicke, Tory MP for Dover, quoted Cicero, saying a good argument was the way to make a strong political point and promote change. "The more George Osborne attacks the establishment and is in favour of social change that people want, the more the row helps him," he said. "We say there is one choice that takes you the way of Greece or Cyprus, or there is our choice – getting on top of the welfare bills and sorting things out."

For Cameron and Osborne, there was a desperate need to turn the argument over welfare on to Labour. The last fortnight had seen the churches and charities – the foundations of Cameron's supposed "big society" – uniting in condemnation of cuts to benefits, many of which were introduced last Monday. Clerics complained they hit the poorest and most vulnerable in society hardest. Most alarmingly for Tories, the anti-cuts movement had been threatening to gain a populist momentum, as witnessed by a petitition, now signed by more than 400,000 people, which asks work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to live on £53 a week for a year, the sum a market trader said he had to survive on despite being in work. The Tories knew more flak would fly this weekend, before the abolition of the 50p tax rate, which Labour protests will benefit millionaires, including several key Conservative donors, at the very time the neediest see their incomes diminish. For Lynton Crosby, the Tories' new election strategist at No 10, the assault on the poor and tax cuts for the rich must have seemed like a perfect storm – and therefore the perfect moment to act. "Yes. I think Lynton will certainly have had a role in the Osborne comments. It may not be pretty, but this is politics," said a Tory minister.

In the heat of the storm, facts have proved of little value to Labour. It can point out until it is blue in the face that only about 3% of the total cost of welfare goes to the unemployed, while more than 40% is spent on the elderly whose pensions Cameron has promised to defend, and that only 0.8% of the welfare budget is lost in fraud. But Crosby, Osborne and Cameron know full well that the impression of one evil man milking the system will always prevail in the public mind.

The rightwing press saw its chance to weigh in behind the Tories. A Daily Mail editorial concluded Osborne had been spot on: "It was a reasonable statement to make about an increasingly bankrupt Britain's unsustainable £180bn-a-year welfare bill which, while providing a humane safety net for the genuinely needy, is indisputably abused on a major scale," the paper said. A Sun editorial said Labour was trying to close down a debate it was afraid to join. "Labour's are kneejerk reactions that owe everything to political point-scoring and add precisely nothing to a vital debate about Britain's future," it said.

Worryingly for Ed Miliband's party, it is not just the right that thinks the tactic could work by shifting floating voters back to the Tories. Pollsters say the younger generation, in particular, could warm to the theme. Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos Mori, says that, whatever the ethics, Osborne's move is probably good politics. "Osborne's intervention is effective politically, because it sends a clear signal to swing voters that he wants to cut down on these outrageous examples of people getting something for nothing."

Not everyone in the Tory party or the coalition is happy. On Saturday Osborne's deputy, the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the treasury, Danny Alexander, reiterated his view that it was an isolated case from which general conclusions could not be drawn, while the former children's minister, Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather, described it as "a staggeringly low blow".

Even some Conservatives are nervous that if they go too far the label of the "nasty party" could be stuck on them once again. Martin Vickers, Conservative MP for Cleethorpes, where 500 people have just been made redundant from a local factory, urged caution. "It is very easy for people to slip into knockabout language and give the impression that everyone on the dole is a shirker," he said. "We have to treat the issues sympathetically."

But a week that began with the government on the rack over welfare cuts has ended with Labour under scrutiny perhaps more than at any time since the last election. Miliband and Ed Balls can attack the Tories for "cynical" politics, but what Osborne's intervention has done, rightly or wrongly, is focus the debate on what they would do to curb the welfare bill.

Today in the Observer, Liam Byrne, the shadow secretary of state for work and pensions, says Osborne is guilty of "vicious strategy and horrible politics". But attacking the cynicism is the easy part. More difficult is to frame a policy which is tough enough to convince the public it will act to get benefits bills down, but sensitive enough to get past his party. Here Labour is hobbled by its understandable reluctance to make spending commitments so far from an election and with the state of the economy so uncertain. But Byrne hints at radical thinking on welfare, including a return to the contributory system of benefits so that a clearer link is created between what an individual puts in and what he or she draws out of the system. Labour, he says, would also ensure that no adult will be able to be live on the dole for more than two years and no young person for over a year.

Despite its high-minded reaction, it too wants to send a message as powerfully as it can, within the bounds of good taste, that Labour will have no truck with the Mick Philpotts of this world if it wins back power in 2015. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds