The attack on Tax Credits: Wake up, Green Party!

Jonathon Porritt once upset the Green Party saying it was incapable of walking the dog. It still isn’t. My anger exploded listening to Friday’s ‘Any Questions’ on BBC Radio 4. The Basic, Citizens’ guaranteed Income was completely absent in a half-baked shouting match on the government’s plans to axe Tax credits. The Basic Income is supposed to be Green Party policy. Everyone who is high enough profile to be on such a panel should be aware of it, even if they do not grasp its importance.

OK, the above is unfair. The government has won the ‘anti-scrounger’ argument hands down. Not only has the public not directly hurt by austerity cuts bought the ‘hard working families’ mantra, but so has the entire Labour Party. Rachel Reeves, and Miliband  have indicated they think the workshy are a problem, and the parliamentary party has abstained on government measures restricting claimants’ rights. Why should the Green Party know any better?

Because I have been trying to brief anyone who will listen for years

There are of course other relevant news items. Midweek there was the desperate wheelchair protest in parliament against the abolition of the Independent Living Fund, and there is the ongoing scandal of Iain Duncan Smith lying in parliament saying his department did not collect stats on deaths following individuals being found fit for work. These issues are closely tied to the general benefits question because if unemployment benefits are squeezed, that creates an incentive to be disabled, so the government has to assume that many receiving disability benefits have exaggerated, if not invented their symptoms.

This is an appalling consequence of the compulsion strategy. Prior to 1979 there were adequate Supplementary Benefits. Thatcher destroyed the post war consensus and reduced Income support and JobSeekers Allowance to much lower rates. The number of disablement claims ballooned. There were other factors. Unemployment rates generally rose around that time.

Without something which tackles the key to government policy, protesters might as well beat on tanks with their fists That massive anti-austerity demo last Saturday will be ineffectual for this reason. That key is means testing. The government’s despicable policies can be defended as tough but unavoidable unless you challenge the basic premiss, which is that not only is means testing wrong in principle, but it can only be got rid of by axing benefits. Iain Duncan Smith and I agree on one point:

Means testing is a serious problem

Once upon a time means testing was seen, by those with an appropriate mind set, as creating the Poverty Trap. Instead, austerity has somehow enabled the opposite view, means testing as a ‘Scroungers’ Charter’ to dominate. The Left, which includes the Green Party at present, adrift from its ‘Limits to Growth ‘ roots, can only see jobs at a Living Wage as the solution. I can only assume this is why they miss the significance of means testing. In Friday’s ‘Any Questions’, it was Nigel Farage who made the most perceptive comment: the Living Wage favours large corporations and penalizes small enterprises. I wish the Green Party could see that.

If we want maximum job opportunities without indiscriminate economic growth, then subsidising employment makes sense. Only those still fighting the class war will have difficulty with this novel idea. Doing it through a basic income makes it more feasible to start and run a business, and makes an entrepreneur less likely to think of relocating overseas, but it will take the cost off the employer – if he pays himself more than his employees – as personal taxation when he goes home. Once we have a Basic income persuasion not force is the rule. The employer is no longer in a position to exploit. Boss and worker will both be better off making friends.

In the ‘election briefing’ in my blog I gave a list of ‘triggers’ which should produce a response from the Green Party explaining  the relevance of the Basic income. One was any mention of Tax Credits. The Green Party’s half-hearted attempts to launch the Basic income were quickly derailed by a Guardian Article claiming that it would make some low income families worse off. This was easily answered, but the grain of truth was that Tax Credits do already alleviate the poverty trap to some extent. ‘Dynamic Benefits’ (Centre for Social Justice, Publications, September 2009), the report which recommended the Universal Credit was dishonest in that it completely ignored the existence of Tax Credits. I keep pleading with Green Party spokespersons to read and use ‘Dynamic Benefits’ for its excellent explanation of the effect of means testing.

The government’s planned attack on Tax Credits will restore the full savagery of means testing. The supposed answer is the Universal Credit, which would have been an emaciated version of the Basic Income. But not only has it only reached 60,000 of the more than 2 million who should qualify, it now transpires that there are serious difficulties being experienced by the few who are supposed to be receiving it.

A Green Party with the wit to take a dog successfully round the block should be going in for the coup de grâce against the government’s whole work compulsion strategy, but I don’t think it has a clue as to the Basic Income (persuasion is better than force) connection. I still have hopes that Caroline, Natalie McGarry (Welfare and disability spokesperson for the SNP), and Jeremy Corbyn can all be briefed. Whether in the streets or in Parliament, anti-austerity will not be defeated without something which deals with means testing, and I am still waiting to hear of a better idea than the Basic Income.

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