Thinking For The Individual

Formerly known as 'Thinking For The People', this site offers some reflections on the state of British society and her people from the perspective of a libertarian Conservative with a passionate belief in the pillars of freedom and responsibility.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Good Luck, Mr. Blunkett

Last week I found myself discussing with a friend the relative successes and shortcomings of New Labour's economic agenda over recent years. Of course, he had fallen for the same Brownite/Blairite mantras: low mortgage rates, low interest rates and low unemployment in contrast with the days of Tory boom and bust.

But as someone who believes entirely in the virtiues of individual independence and freedom, Labour's most annoying claim to me is that we are living in an era of higher employment levels than ever before. This is a lie, wrapped in a myth, veiled under spin. On the contrary, there are around nine million people out of work in our country who are of working age. Let it be noted that my friend went wild with laughter at this idea.

Of course, that figure is true, but it is not an appropriate measure to use. It takes account of students and those in early retirement, for two examples. But it also takes account of those receiving invalidity benefit. When I cited this particular group of people, my friend asked what I classed as 'disabled' and was particularly amused at the thought of nine million invalids walking through the streets of Britain.

The remarkable rise in the number of people claiming incapacity benefit occured during the era of the last Conservative government. In 1979, 600,000 people claimed the benefit. By 1995, this figure had jumped to 1.5 million. Far and away the most claimants are taking this benefit on the grounds of of 'mental and behavioural disorders' as well as 'diseases of the musculo-skeletal system and connective tissue'. Notwithstanding my complete ineptitude at understanding anything scientific, one can easily class stress and backache as two of the conditions which fall under these two categories. What's more, one can easily claim that it is virtually impossible to prove their existence. Yet these two categories account for well over half the diseases which cause incapacity. The benefit is predominantly claimed in those locales with already high levels of unemployment. As James Bartholomew writes in his excellent book The Welfare State We're In, 'Backache appeared to be something people particularly got if wages were low in relation to invalidity benefit'. Indeed, the top five districts for highest levels of incapacity benefit claimants are Merthyr Tydfil, Easington, Glasgow, Blaenau Gwent and Liverpool. In addition to this, it should be recognised that that incapacity benefit differed from unemployment benefit in that it was paid indefinitely, not for a fixed term. Yet the most serious issue with this rise in disability claimants is that it conincided with the time period after the level of invalidity benefit were increased. Beveridge had intended all people to receive the same, whether they were unemployed or incapacitated. But in the seventies, under both Prime Ministers Heath and Wilson, the benefit rose so that it was worth nearly a quarter more than unemployment benefit. This has gone up slightly more again in the years since then. 7% of Britain's working-age population claims the benefit, as opposed to 2% in France or 3% in Spain. Research by Sheffield Hallam University has estimated that half the number of incapacity benefit recipients should be termed the 'hidden unemployed'. Therefore, 750,000 of the 1.5 million on incapacity benefit in 2003 should be the key targets of any attempts to finally break through the red brick wall standing in the way of any politicians who believe in the economic independence we all aspire to.

Now that David Blunkett has all but confessed to the existence of this underbelly of unemployment, perhaps my friend will start taking this matter more seriously. He is the archetypal New Labour Blairite. He was, naturally, privately educated, and comes from a good, 'hard-working family'. Indeed, he was probably next in line for a photo shoot during the election campaign. He hasn't really got a clue what life is like in the tough inner cities throughout Britain, where the words 'despair' and 'misery' don't come close to explaining their state of life. He doesn't know what it's like in the old industrial areas of south Wales, Yorkshire and the North because 'The Guardian' is yet to do a special report on it. He hears about recession in the Tory days, but he's happy and relaxed by Labour tax and spend and by the fact that public spending in the north is higher than it was in eastern bloc Hungary. He'll listen to soliloquies from Vera Baird, who told MPs yesterday that this is all necessary to ensure 'nobody gets left behind', even though anybody who truly cared for the people in my part of the world would know that it is precisely that high spending that is holding us back, like slaves under the weight of oppression. But, nonetheless, as long as Vera Baird is speaking as if we're all on some collective journey to a new Jerusalem, he'll feel safe and happy that his politics are left intact, despite what all the nay-sayers and doomsters like me are arguing.

He feels fine with the loss of a million manufacturing jobs under Labour. He is contented by Blair's inability to bring light to the darkest corners of Britain, where Thatcher's economic dynamism - as remarkable as it was elsewhere - brought devastation to whole communities. And he is fine with the face that the only jobs on offer in the Britain of 2005 have titles you could only ever find in the public sector, like 'Community Liaison Team Manager' or 'Supervising Deputy Assistant to Manchester City Council on Racial Interface and Diversity Issues'.

Britain is in a rut. Our real state is covered up by layers of statistics strewn with spin. It is kept hidden away by the perilous orthodoxies perpetuated by Blairite mantra chanters just like my friend who thinks we're in a paradise, a utopia, just because his middle class household owns two cars and the kind of security and independence that is the stuff of dreams for too many British people.

A good starting point in tearing down the misery and despair of dependence is by helping people off invalidity benefit. David Blunkett is a capable man with the kind of Yorkshire grit that I always try to muster up in myself.

Mr. Blunkett, your cause is a noble one, but you face some enormous challenges. How can you expect to give people work so long as businesses are heading abroad to break free from the strains of the high tax and high regulation typical of Blair's Britain?

All I can say, Mr. Blunkett, is this: good luck, sir.

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