Vote For Petulance!
September 13, 2013
by Martin Odoni
I noted a few days ago that this coalition Government, especially the Tory presence in it, is the most petulant in living memory, always quick to throw insults around whenever it is validly criticised, or doesn’t get its own way. I would therefore like to acknowledge, with considerable gratitude, their apparent efforts over the last two days to prove me right.
For any who don’t know the story, two days ago a representative of the United Nations, Raquel Rolnik, official job description of Special Rapporteur On Housing, published a brief summary of her findings after investigating the effects of what has been pejoratively nicknamed ‘The Bedroom Tax’.
And yes, its real name, before I get the usual tidal wave of paranoid objections from Conservative supporters, is Spare Bedroom Under-Occupancy Penalty. Strangely, objections against the nickname are sometimes raised as a defence of the penalty, insisting that as it is not a tax but a benefits deduction, it isn’t as bad as the ‘Bedroom Tax’ label makes it sound. But in fact, the reality of it is rather worse than it would be if it were tax, because at least a tax would be applied more proportionally; –
The charge is levied on all social/council housing occupants who have unused bedrooms in their houses by reducing the amount of benefits that household is entitled to receive. By definition, the well-off are very unlikely to be claiming benefits, so the charge almost certainly won’t affect them (and even if it did, it would do them no recognisable harm, as the amount of benefit they would receive would be trifling compared with what they have in the bank already). But it has caused serious financial complications for the less well-off, many of whom were already on the threshold of hardship at best before its introduction.
So as a benefits cut, it can only affect people who are seriously disadvantaged – a sadly typical pattern with almost all coalition legislation designed to ‘tackle the National Deficit’ (HAH!). This means that a billionaire living alone in a twenty-five-room mansion, say, is not in any way financially hampered by the charge – unless he is disabled in some way and for some bizarre reason has been allowed to claim benefits for it – whereas a single mother living in a two-up-two-down terrace house with one child will have to get a lodger for the spare room, or lose state-support. Unfortunately, many people around the country do not live in an area where there are enough lodgers to go around.
The charge was introduced, officially, to encourage use of unoccupied residential space in response to the growing problem of homelessness. But as it pushes more and more of the poorest home-owners into financial woes, it hugely increases the likelihood of evictions, and so of upping the amount of homelessness.
Why the Government couldn’t have instead put far more investment into house-building – which would also have injected some much-needed stimulus into the construction sector to boost economic growth – or imposed the tax on wealthy people who clearly have far more space than they will ever need in their homes, has to date not been explained. But the most convincing thought-process the Government might have offered as an explanation would have been, “Well naturally we wouldn’t want to coerce our chaps [read: the rich] into having to give up some of their living space to – and worse still to rub shoulders with – squalid, uncouth poor people.”
Now some of these details didn’t actually make it into Rolnik’s initial press release, for the simple reason that calculating motivation was beyond her mandate. But she did speak of the Bedroom Tax in pretty scathing terms.
The response of the Tories, entirely predictably, has been to speak of Rolnik in very scathing terms as well. Some of their responses have been just plain offensive, some transparently dishonest, some downright hypocritical, but all of them reinforce the long-running pattern of a governing coalition made up of Primary School starters.
To start with the offensiveness, the Conservative MP for Peterborough, Stewart Jackson, went on Twitter and labelled Rolnik a ‘loopy Brazilian leftie masquerading as serious UN official’, thus insulting her mental state, her professionalism, her integrity, and possibly even her country, all in one incoherent sentence. It is noticeable that this ‘rebuttal’ was composed of nothing but insults, with no attempt whatever to explain what was wrong with what Rolnik had said. (And by the way, don’t an awful lot people on the right wing love labelling opponents rather than articulating reasons why they are wrong?)
More complicated was the dishonesty. The Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps publicly raged at Rolnik in the media, labelling her press release an ‘absolute disgrace’. His objections were at least a lot more coherent than Jackson’s: “It is completely wrong and an abuse of the process for somebody to come over, to fail to meet with Government Ministers, to fail to meet with the department responsible, to produce a press release two weeks after coming, even though the report is not due out until next spring, and even to fail to refer to policy properly throughout the report.” He also claimed that Rolnik had entered the country and conducted her investigation uninvited by the UK Government.
But coherence, let us not forget, is no measure of accuracy. Despite Shapps’ objections, Rolnik did meet with the department responsible i.e. officials at the Department Of Work & Pensions (including Andrew Parfitt, the head of its housing policy division), and with several Government Ministers such as Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, and Don Foster, Under-Secretary of State. Just not with Iain Duncan-Smith, and apparently that was despite her requesting such a meeting. Furthermore, the correct name of the policy was referred to in Rolnik’s summary, more often indeed than the term ‘Bedroom Tax’. (If the Report isn’t due until the spring, by the way, how exactly does Shapps know what’s in it? If he is referring to the summary Rolnik published, then he got the name wrong. Irony, anyone?) And Shapps, again, never really explained what was wrong with Rolnik’s conclusions, all he listed were procedural improprieties, most of which were untrue anyway.
The hypocrisy arrived in the form of Conservative objections that Rolnik’s conclusions were wrong, and that she did not have possession of sufficient facts to draw them. Given that the Tories themselves, especially IDS, have remained stubbornly set against running an in-depth study into the effects of Austerity measures, including the Bedroom Tax, on below-breadline households, they are fine ones to complain about others not having the facts at their fingertips. More importantly though, Rolnik has at least spoken to people around the UK in the communities hard-hit by the coalition’s extreme measures, so how can the likes of Shapps and IDS even be sure that Rolnik has her facts wrong, when they have very deliberately accrued less information than she has?
Predictably, the jingoistic yobbos in the right-wing press swiftly joined in the xenophobic mud-slinging, trying to discredit Rolnik’s findings almost entirely on the grounds that they were written up by a foreigner. The Daily Express referring to Rolnik as an ‘idiot’ and as a ‘Brazil nut’ was quite bad enough, but the Daily Mail descended almost to a new level of irrational, scare-mongering character-assassination, even by its own abysmal standards of anti-professional journalism, calling Rolnik a dabbler in witchcraft who offers up sacrifices of animals to the ghost of Karl Marx, or some such hysterical codswallop. Arguments against what Rolnik said have been few and far between, and blatantly untrue when they have been offered, with doubtfully-informed insult, innuendo and personal rumour being the standard offering in their stead.
In truth, an awful lot of this grotty right-wing slime-slinging is so crude and obvious that there is no need to get angry about it. It won’t fool anyone who hadn’t already chosen to dislike Rolnik, and it gives a worse impression of the people doing the hatchet job than it does of the person getting hatcheted. The Government has been caught red-handed, and as the right wing have no defence, they have two choices. Hold up their hands, take the criticisms on board, and accept that the Bedroom Tax is deeply unfair, or attack the critics like some teenage brat screaming, “I HATE YOU!” when his parents say, “Do your homework properly this time.” Was it ever in doubt which route the Tories would choose? Even before Rolnik’s press release was in the public domain, we could almost feel the Conservative Party backlash already on its way.
We can take this spiralling cycle of petulance as a sign of desperation on the part of British Conservatism. It is the lash-out of people who don’t want to face up to the terrible job this Government has done during its first three-and-a-half years, and who are now operating on the same undignified level as Fox News Channel in the USA; not concerned with what’s really happening, only with trying to find other things for people to take their frustrations out on, and dubious rumours with which to discredit their critics. This current display isn’t even a clever or sophisticated smear tactic, it is just crude personal abuse, and with its irrelevant obsession with attacking Rolnik for her nationality, it is also akin to racism.
By behaving in such ways, the Tories and their traditional allies in the right-wing media are doing themselves no favours. It shows them to be unworthy of sitting in public office, an office that demands as a bare minimum a modicum of diplomatic skill, and if the Labour Party were really on top of its game, it would take full advantage, holding up every single moment of bullying vitriol and ad hominem viciousness to public scrutiny, saying to the nation, “This is the sort of juvenile name-calling mentality that is at Number 10 at the moment! Surely you don’t want more of that!” Shame on you, Ed Miliband, for missing an open goal.
But just because the Tory behaviour is predictable and much too crude to sway anyone, that doesn’t make it any less telling. This really is all you get from about ninety per cent of the Conservative Party in pretty much any era. What the swooning droolers in the Daily Mail call the ‘patriotism’, or ‘national pride’, or ‘British bulldog spirit’ of the traditional right is, in practise, almost invariably stubbornness, insufferable pettiness, and xenophobia. We got plenty of renditions of precisely this same song while Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, particularly during her embarrassing rivalry with Jacques Delors, William Hague attempted to continue the mantra with his utterly brainless and irresponsible (but also, thankfully, ineffective) Save The Pound scare-mongering around the turn of the millennium, and now the anthem has been resurrected once more by the coalition. “When things are going badly, have a go at the foreigners. And when the foreigners are having a go at us, scare people about the foreigners.”
I recall in school at a very early age, I was regularly sitting at lunch with the same group of friends, when one of them started routinely telling lies about the rest of us to teachers, just so he could draw their attention away from the fact that he was frequently stealing food from other people’s plates. We can easily forgive him for that, because he was only six at the time. It is very difficult to forgive that exact same type of behaviour in men of advancing middle age who have their hands on the most critical mechanisms of the British Government.
Perhaps the guilt in this case is amplified by a further layer of hypocrisy; David Cameron has spent over a year trying to angle for military intervention in the Syrian Civil War, and when he finally tried (unsuccessfully) to get the support of Parliament, he did so on the basis that the Assad regime had supposedly violated International Law. The evidence for that is deeply suspect anyway, but more importantly, it’s a bit rich for the UK to make pompous noises about the importance of protecting vulnerable people and upholding International Law one week, and then two weeks later be found to have broken Human Rights’ Laws. If Syria is a legitimate target for military repercussions from the outside world, surely, with Rolnik’s scathing assessment, the UK now is as well? As things stand, I for one see precious little moral difference between what the British Government is doing to its own people and what the Syrian Government is supposedly doing to theirs. Only the military aggression is different – is killing people with guns and gas really worse than killing them through poverty and desperation? (It is happening, whether you are aware of it or not.)
Whatever their reasons for lashing out at Rolnik, it is pretty clear that it was reflex rather than reason that led the Tories and their supporters to retreat into such gutter-level abusiveness. The sheer speed of their retorts, clearly too fast to think them through, and the dearth of responses to Rolnik’s actual criticisms, tell us that this was not an honest defence, but out-and-out knee-jerk defensiveness. A raw nerve was struck, and Shapps, IDS and Jackson instinctively chose to hurt what was hurting them. And they tried to hurt her in the manner of a gang of playground bullies swarming around the smallest girl in the class on the first day she had to start wearing spectacles. (Not that Rolnik was exactly devastated by their bullying. On the contrary, in her impressively resilient response on Channel 4 News, her counter-punches were clearly far harder than anything thrown at her, not least because she focused on talking about the subject under discussion, rather than hurling more petty verbal abuse back at her attackers).
So, right wingers, that is what you people chose to put into power. These are the tantrum-throwing, bullying yobs that you want to represent you in the forum of the nation, and in the wider world at large. People who turn the most important subjects-of-discussion in national and world affairs into a bar-fight. People who make the United Kingdom look, to the rest of the world, like a stroppy, quarrelsome juvenile.
You can only be sure with the Conservatives, one of their slogans once proclaimed. If by that they meant, “You can be confident that the country will be run like an After-School Sports Team once you’ve put this bunch of hooligans into office,” then it was true. And yes, I know a lot of you people voted for the Tories because they’re very good at finding ‘others’ for you to blame for your problems, and they’re also very good at picking on such people on your frustrated behalf. But when the bullying is done, you will always find that the real troubles in your lives are still there, and wouldn’t you like those problems to go away sooner or later? And do you really think a bunch of schoolkids singing, Come ‘n’ ‘Ave A Go If Ya Think Ya ‘Ard Enuff are going to have the analytical skills, imagination and fortitude to solve such issues?
Because that’s effectively what you are pretending to yourselves every time you vote for the Conservatives. You vote for petulance.