(Photo: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development via)
If you heard a politician declare theirs the "party for working people – today, tomorrow, always", which party would you think they're talking about? Perhaps Labour? Maybe some fringe socialist party? Surely not the Conservative Party, led by a descendant of William IV and stuffed with people who believe they were elected by God to rule?
Yep. David Cameron made this claim in his conference speech in 2015, and it's part of a well-honed Tory practice of capturing the language of social justice. But when Cameron talks about "working people" it's a far cry from the term's historical use. In the past it has been used by movements which considered unemployed workers as much a part of their constituency as those in work, and which wanted to change the whole way work and society was organised.
Instead, Cameron uses it to suggest those without work, or those on benefits, are parasites.
He's not the only one. George Osborne greeted this week's unemployment figures as a step on the path to "full employment" – a phrase generally associated with old-school Liberal politicians, like William Beveridge, one of the architects of the welfare system Osborne has taken the knife to. This isn't the first time the chancellor – who likes to think he'll be remembered as a great reformer – has co-opted progressive language to cloak a regressive policy. In last year's budget, he announced the creation of a new "national living wage" as a measure to tackle working poverty – except the figure was below the current living wage for London and will be hopelessly outpaced by rises in cost of living by the time it's introduced.
Is this just sleight-of-hand? A distraction while more serious economic changes go on in the background? Not quite: the right's use of this language is supposed to capture and neutralise any possibility it gives for criticism, and Osborne knows that the rickety nature of the UK's recovery is a real weak point for him. Much of it is built on new workers on zero-hours contracts, and a huge growth in workers registering as self-employed, lacking basic stability or rights like sick pay, holiday and protection against dismissal.
The TUC points out that underemployment – i.e. those needing more hours to get by – has risen from 2.3 million before the 2008 crisis to 3.2 million today. Anyone paying rent in a major city knows how much pay is eaten up by rent, and that the latter rises while the former remains stagnant. In such conditions, demands for a real living wage could be a powerful political demand, and extremely dangerous to the government. How better to defang such an attack than to simply claim you've enacted its demands, and maybe even borrow some of that righteousness?
Dragging up as a champion of the poor while cutting protections against poverty is pretty brazen. But it's part of a larger political strategy needed to cling on to power: the UK's Gini coefficient – the statistical method used to measure wealth and wage inequality – is the highest in Europe, higher even than that of the US, and only looks set to grow. The Conservative Party's donors (like Lord Farmer, donor of over £6 million) are right at the top of that wealth gap, and they intend to keep things that way. The party's leadership know that key to keeping power is locking away the racists, fruitcakes and those who charge duck houses and moat-digging to the public purse, and "detoxifying" the image of the party – and that means feigning concern about poverty to dispel the widespread belief that the Conservatives are the party of the rich.
There's some evidence this works, at least temporarily: Michelle Dorrell, the Tory voter who made headlines when she cried on the BBC's Question Time, feeling she'd been lied to over tax credits, is typical. It's not just that she was won over by repeated attacks on scroungers, but by Conservative claims to care about "genuine" hardship and their inflated reputation for economic competence. Those two go together, because when conservatives plant their flag on social justice, they do it by disconnecting traditionally left-wing issues from left-wing solutions like redistribution and social provision, instead claiming social problems can be solved by relying on the market to trickle down to those below.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith excels at this kind of redefinition, setting up a think-tank, the "Centre for Social Justice", to lend intellectual heft to his politics. The CSJ is a remarkable exercise in finding evidence to fit conclusions, with its "Breakdown Britain" report recommending marriage as a solution to all social ills, and sending its researchers to the US to formulate the basis for Conservative "workfare" policy. Both Duncan Smith, in his endless references to drug addicts and the permanently jobless, and his pet think-tank, promote the idea of a parasitical "underclass" that need shaking out of dependency, and use that analysis to gut social provision across the board. It didn't matter that the analysis was discredited by countless social scientists and historians: it gave IDS the chance to redefine "social justice" as a matter of personal moral probity, so cuts were a painful but necessary medicine, rather than a matter of entrenched wealth gaps, inequality of opportunity or exploitative employment – matters unexamined by the "independent" CSJ.
The commitment of the Tory party to sounding "socially just" waxes and wanes with the political weather: Cameron's 2010 "progressive conservatism" and his fondness for a limited raft of liberal reforms like gay marriage give way to concessions to the party's right on migration and social problems as needed. But their appropriation of social justice soundbites is only one aspect of a more general transformation in political language.
The Marxist critic Raymond Williams noted in the middle of the last century that transformations in language had political effects: for instance, the change from "user" to "consumer" affects the way we think of services, and how we think about them could be changed politically. That revolution in language got into full gear under Thatcher and Blair (we are all "customers" and "clients" now, even in healthcare), and this move – linking "social justice" with market solutions – is just its latest perversion. Language matters: to say justice and equality are the same thing as gouging rents and a dwindling social safety net is to admit, in Thatcher's words, that there is no alternative. We shouldn't let them use it without a fight.
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