The signalling paradox
You know, I’m not sure the Tories actually want to slash benefit fraud at all. Also this week: Europe is not where you thought; and some dates on which the world did not end.
There’s an old Soviet joke, dating from the time of Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled the USSR from 1964 until 1982: “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” This joke was meant to highlight the cynicism engendered by a communist economy that had ceased to work for anyone, really, so it’s probably not a great comment on the current health of the British economy that more than one person sent it to me in response to last week’s piece about flatlining wages and the productivity crisis. More than a few people seem to be wondering, if employers aren’t going to make the effort any more, then why the hell should we?
Because that quote has been in my brain, though, I’m starting to see its relevance in areas that have nothing to do with work or wages at all. Consider last Monday’s big political scoop in the Telegraph: a report that the Autumn Statement will include measures to subject benefit claimants to monthly checks on their bank accounts, in an attempt to crack down on fraud. This, we are told, is an attempt to reduce the number of people on out-of-work-benefits, “which has ballooned to 5.4 million since the pandemic”. It could save the taxpayer “£500m in the first five years”.
I’m very far from an expert in all this, but nonetheless, there seem to me to be a number of obvious problems with such a measure. First off, it’s pointlessly invasive and mean-spirited, and likely misdiagnoses the problem. (I can think of multiple reasons why claimant numbers might have gone up since the pandemic which have very little to do with a boom in fraud.) It’s also yet more outsourcing of government interference to private organisations, in a way which might make those organisations ask whether it’s worth the hassle of providing services to some of the country’s poorest or most vulnerable people in the first place. (See also: forcing employers and landlords to double as immigration officers.)
I’m also not convinced it’ll save that much money. The Department for Work & Pensions reckons around £900m a year is claimed by those who have more than £16,000 in savings, and thus don’t qualify. On the one hand, clawing back 1/9th of this money doesn’t feel that ambitious. On the other, though, it’s not clear how they arrived at the figure, or how confident we can be in it. (If the data was that good they wouldn’t be giving the money out at all, surely?) It’s not clear how much the policy will cost to implement. Oh – and some recipients of Universal Credit have claimed that they’re actually already subject to these checks. If that’s true, it’d mean the government was announcing plans to do something that already happens and which clearly hasn’t worked.
In some ways, though, all of the last two paragraphs was a colossal waste of your time and mine because it’s never actually going to happen. A few months ago a LibDem councillor told me his city was essentially ignoring all new policy announcements emanating from central government, on the grounds that there was no longer time to actually implement anything before the next election. Perhaps I’m being unduly cynical, and this is new, worthwhile, easy to implement, and banks are even now chomping at the bit to comply. More likely, though, the 11-14 months remaining before this government runs out the clock just isn’t enough time to make this happen before the people behind this policy will be in no position to do any such thing.
All of which raises the question of what, exactly, it is for.
There are all sorts of reasons a government might announce a policy which they are never, realistically, going to actually do. Perhaps they’re in denial about their chances of surviving the next election; perhaps they are not, but think the best strategy is to keep pretending otherwise. Perhaps it’s not so much “policy” at all, but merely a way of signalling values, or motivating Tory voters, or setting a trap for Labour. (Can they possibly be hoping Labour comes out against this? Did they learn nothing from the two-child benefit cap row?)
At any rate, I suspect this is less about tackling benefit fraud than it is about reminding voters that this government wants to tackle benefit fraud. As with the attempts to stop the Channel boats, or the deportations to Rwanda, or the back-of-a-napkin proposals for the non-existent “Network North”, the headlines garnered by the announcement aren’t merely there to herald a new policy: in a very real sense, they are the entire policy.
All this, though, means a sort of paradox. The existence of Roe vs Wade provided the US Republican Party with a campaigning and fundraising tool for literally decades: you can argue that the Supreme Court decision striking it down is one of the worst things that’s ever happened to the party, making it harder to motivate its voters at the exact moment the other side felt energised.1 In the same way, one of the worst things that could ever happen to a Tory government would be to actually stamp out benefit fraud. If it ever managed it, it’d have little choice but to pretend it had achieved no such thing.
All of which has been a very long way around to my rewrite of that old Soviet joke, to make it about the relationship between the Tory party and its client press. “We pretend to govern – and they pretend we might win.”
Some dates on which the world did not end
There are a lot of these to choose from – technically, I could pick literally any date in world history up to November 7th 2023, and still be correct2 – but here are some dates on which someone or other seriously expected the world to end, yet it continued, stubbornly, to exist.
21 December 2012. The day on which the “Great Cycle” of the “Long Count” of the Mayan calendar reached its conclusion, resulting in widespread misinterpretations that the calendar – which may actually have been Olmec in origin – simply ended on this day. Despite predictions of a peak in solar activity, an interaction between the Earth and the supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy, a collision with a mythical planet named Nibiru, or something else of that sort, not a lot actually happened and 22 December 2012 arrived without incident.
July 1999. The date on which Nostradamus supposedly predicted “the Great King of Terror” would come from the sky, with hilarious results. (Also, took place immediately after my A-Levels, which felt terribly unfair.)