The coalition is ending the social contract


By Matt Hawkins

What did Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine, and Tony Benn all have in common? Queue the worst punchline ever: they all believed that government was bound by a ‘social contract’ to act for and in the interests of its citizens (you were warned).

Whilst pre-contract society was lawless and, according to Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, the social contract – signed between the public and the government – was meant to guarantee protection by the state and a decent standard of living for all.

Today Britain can feel more like the lawless society described by these political thinkers than the mature state that was supposed to have evolved in its wake. Life might not yet be ‘short’, but for many it can certainly feel solitary, poor, nasty and brutish.

If the government’s heartless approach to reforming the Disability Living Allowance and toughening welfare conditionality is anything to go by, it seems that you have to be perpetually superhuman – never unwell and never out of work – in order to be entitled to even a basic level of income.

Never-mind the fact that individuals can hardly be blamed when every new job attracts enough applicants to fill a small Hampshire village or working all the hours that Iain Duncan Smith demands still doesn’t bring home enough money to pay the bills.

Indeed, it is those born with the twin attributes of money and political influence who thrive in this Brave New World – just as it was those born with the benefits of brute strength who prospered in Hobbes’ ‘Old World’.

The reason we no longer have a right to a job or decent welfare support when we’re out of work is, quite simply, because making such guarantees would clash with the corporate giants that have come to hold huge political influence.

As Naomi Klein documented in her book No Logo, while a burgeoning number of employees was once seen as the hallmark of a successful business, cutting jobs and slashing wages are the new gold standard that help companies to drive up ‘efficiency’. Jobs that once provided stable incomes in the UK are being packaged off to economic enterprise zones in Asia where it is easier to pay cripplingly low wages and undercut workers’ basic rights.

Whilst UKIP likes to blame migrant workers for UK job losses – goading the un(der)employed by shouting ‘fight, fight, fight’ as if they’re in a school playground – they should really be pointing the finger at the corporate monoliths that have outsourced all their jobs (and then outsourced them some more). Continue reading

It’s Time to Tackle the ‘Hard-Working Families’ Rhetoric

By Green Party activist Matt Hawkins

Describing the Conservative vision for Britain in a keynote speech last January, chancellor George Osborne stated it was all about “securing a better economic future for hard-working families”. It’s a simple but effective message that the Conservative Party have honed over the last four years. It’s a message Osborne is pretty much nailed on to return to on Budget day this Wednesday. Who’s going to disagree with it? Only the Monster Raving Loonies would support a better economic future for “lazy families”.

Given that the Conservatives seem to have staked out such a popular ground, the question is: how should opposition parties respond? Labour’s approach has been to attack the Conservative’s ability to deliver on their promises. They’ve pointed to the numbers of people in in-work poverty, the tax cut Osborne introduced to top-earners, and the Coalition’s failure to clamp-down on rising energy prices as evidence that the Conservatives can talk-the-talk on helping hard-working families but only Labour can walk-the-walk.

The problem with this approach is that it only helps to promote the Conservative’s ideology. The hard-working families rhetoric is political territory the Tories have already monopolised – voters are hardly going to be inspired by a party that copies and pastes that rhetoric, only adding a “…but we can do it better” addendum at the end.

There is, however, a more fundamental problem with this approach. The tactic also fails to interrogate the basic underlying principles of what a Conservative vision of “hard-working families” means for Britain.

From the entirely representative sample of the people I share my train journey to work with every morning, I get the sense that the pressures of British working life are not contributing to a cheery existence. It seems my fellow passengers are not alone. A recent poll by the mental health charity Mind found that two-thirds of British workers experience the “Sunday Blues” anxiety triggered by the thought of going back to work on Monday. Many turn to alcohol or comfort-eating to try and soften the blow. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2013 survey, just 17% of UK workers feel “engaged” by the their job.

It’s hardly surprising when one considers what “hard-working life” in Britain looks like. We work the third longest hours in the whole of the European Union – only behind Greece and Austria. It’s hard to feel engaged by your job when you’re chained to it for 10 hours or more a day. The result is that “family-time” is becoming a thing of the past. One in five parents of children aged 6-10 believe they are so stretched by work that they only give their child full attention “once a week”. For a more balanced life we have to look enviously over at Scandinavian waters: Danes work the shortest hours in Europe and according to the UN’s World Happiness Report they are the happiest nation in the world.

Not only should we question what the Conservative vision of a hard-working society looks like in reality, we should also remember who is evangelising it and why. When it comes to work and family backgrounds the Coalition cabinet could not be more unrepresentative of the run-of-the-mill British family. Whilst five million people in the UK currently earn less than the Living Wage, the combined wealth of the UK’s 29 cabinet members is £70 million. Come on guys, check your privilege. With money in the bank, our political leaders are never going to feel the effects of a benefit cut here or a drop in public investment there. Getting us all on-side with the “hard-working families rhetoric” allows the Conservatives to palm off responsibility from the government to individuals and their families, stripping away the last vestiges of state support in the process. “Sorry, can’t afford your rent since we introduced the Bedroom Tax? You’re just not working hard enough”.

As an alternative to the “hard-working families” narrative we should instead be calling for the “humanisation of work” as described by the economist E.F. Schumacher. What this means in practice is a total change in priorities – away from encouraging work for work’s sake and over to restoring family life, leisure time, and ensuring that the reason we get up every day is not to clock-in at the grindstone for another ten hours but to feel happy, content and gratified in what we do. Shorter working hours, flexible work and a Living Wage are just some of the bolts that could help to transform the economy but what we must do first is challenge the assumptions that underline Tory rhetoric. Leisure-time, family-life and rewarding-work all need to become a part of our political lexicon. Otherwise, the Tory’s divisive and destructive economic outlook risks becoming a societal norm.

Original article by Matt Hawkins in the Huffington Post here

Where is the humanity in our welfare system?

Written by: Matt Hawkins

“Where is the humanity?” asked Bart Simpson, one-time presenter of his own news programme Bart’s People – a show that spoke from the heart about the trials and tribulations experienced by ordinary people in his home town of Springfield. After waiting four years for the Labour opposition and the Liberal Democrats to pose a similar question to our Conservative governors about their oppressive welfare policies, Britain has just found its most unlikely of Bart Simpson impersonators – the Archbishop Vincent Nichols.

Tory austerity and opposition inactivity has meant that the role of official opposition has fallen to those outside of the inner political ring. The former Canon of St. Paul’s Giles Fraser has been a vocal critic of austerity and his voice has now been bolstered by a colleague from across the Christian pond. Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, this week slammed the government’s welfare reforms as “punitive” and “heart-breaking”, stating that “something is going seriously wrong when, in a country as affluent as ours, people are left in [a] destitute situation and depend solely on the hand-outs of the charity of food banks”. Continue reading