On Tuesday, the British government pushed through a parliamentary
vote to temporarily cap welfare benefits, setting down a dividing
line on an issue that will be pivotal in determining who wins the
UK's next general election.
But it also is the latest round of a struggle being played out
across virtually every European nation facing the questions of what
a welfare state should look like in the 21st century and how it can
be subsidized in an era when the right (and many on the left) claim
that dwindling resources mean traditional models are no longer
The bill, backed by the government's Conservative and Liberal
Democrat parties coalition, caps annual increases in many benefits
to 1 percent effectively a real-term cut as it is below the
expected level of inflation and passed the House of Commons easily
despite opposition from both the opposition Labour Party and even
from some Liberal Democrat members of the governing coalition.
Domestic debate over dependency
The government paints the measure as necessary to fix an increase
in benefits paid to supposedly work-shy shirkers over the past five
years at a time when another group characterized as strivers have
been unfairly shouldering the burden of paying taxes.
"Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift worker, leaving
home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the
closed blinds of their next door neighbor sleeping off a life on
benefits? asked Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne last year
when the measure was announced.
But critics charge that Mr. Osborne's imagery was a classic
example of Conservative Party scapegoating of the poor, meant to
play to a particular strata of voters fiercely fought over by the
Tories and Labour. Labour points to analysis showing seven million
working households will lose out by an average 165 ($265) annually
under the plan. And Sarah Teather, a Liberal Democrat member of
Parliament who lost her job as children and families minister in a
reshuffle in September, also said she would be voting against.
"As a constituency MP representing a very deprived area in
London, I feel deeply anxious about the policy and I will be voting
against the bill... very reluctantly and with a very heavy heart,"
she told the BBC.
By ramping up the rhetoric ahead of today's vote, Britain's
Conservative Party sought to exploit perceived associations between
their Labour opponents and notions of an outdated welfare state.
Drawing on focus group research, one recent Conservative election
attack advert featured an image of a man on sofa watching day-time
television and asked if the government should support hard-working
families or people who dont work.
Polling last week also revealed that more than two out of five
people believe that benefits were too generous, and three out of
five buy into the idea that a culture of dependency had emerged. A
British trade union umbrella body that commissioned the research
said Tuesday that public support for measures such as the one
adopted by Parliament was based on ignorance of who will suffer.
A European problem
But in many ways, the British debate over how to deal with its
welfare state amid an economic crisis is par for the course in
Europe and one that, according to the British government, the UK is
handling better than its peers on the continent.
In Portugal, Ireland, and Greece, the three eurozone countries
that have suffered most from the crisis engulfing the current zone,
draconian cuts in welfare have been part of the bargain for IMF
bailouts. France's newly elected Socialist president, Franois
Hollande has meanwhile been preparing the French for major changes
to one of Europe's most expansive welfare states, pledging to bring
down the budget deficit to 3 percent this year and announcing that
we must be ready to do better by spending less. …