Iain Duncan Smith and the politics of rent

Posted by Alexander Hay

Plans to 'reform' housing benefit are rooted in prejudice and an unwillingness to resolve the real issues

A rather apt visial metaphor, all things considered...Often a politician's true message can be found by simply reversing what they said and drawing one's own conclusions. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, perched on the BBC Breakfast sofa yesterday morning, was a case in point.

He claimed that the new housing benefit cap was perfectly fair, it was unjust for people to be subsidised in areas they couldn't afford and it was perfectly reasonable to force them out of areas they could no longer afford.

As befits someone who was once elected Conservative leader because he was the very embodiment of pursed-lipped, hidebound, petty Toryism (and because he wasn't Ken Clarke), IDS was simply recycling that old cliché, of the deserving poor vs. the undeserving poor.

That is not to say that IDS is being cynical - he genuinely believes that those less fortunate than him should know their place and follow the example of their Daily Mail-reading, Home Counties-dwelling betters.

His attempts to relaunch himself as a socially-conscious campaigner for the poor was sincere, but faintly authoritarian and reactionary. For IDS, the spectacle of poor families having to leave more affluent or expensive areas is perfectly inline with what he has espoused; that the poor are there to be pitied but not coddled.

There are many problems with this. To begin with, IDS and the rest of the Tories see benefit claimants not as potential contributors, or those who have previously contributed to the system, but as drains upon it. While it is easy to claim that those on benefits are benefitting from 'our' money, it's worth remembering that it is theirs too, in that they can and often do pay taxes as well.

Getting people off benefits is sometimes akin to charging somebody for a service and then not delivering on your promise. While the Daily Mail likes to highlight extreme cases of 'benefit scroungers', the fact they do suggests that most claimants aren't crooks, given that the day-to-day is seldom reported on. Nonetheless, it is these unusual cases which colour the public debate.

Moreover, there is an unsaid but plain assumption that poor people do not belong in the same areas as the rich, simply by virtue of not being able to afford to. Apart from raising the spectre of 'social cleansing', this suggests at least tacit approval for seperating the classes and keeping them apart.

As this takes place during a time when the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, it is hard not to see the plans as a defence for this, that someone, somewhere is making a moral argument for keeping them apart.

Finally, it ignores the real issue at hand - the absurd nature of the housing market. Obviously, while so many benefit from over-priced housing and high rents, the situation in this country will probably not be seriously dealt with.

Nonetheless, by focusing on those who need help in paying the rent, and insinuating this is an injustice, the argument conceals the equally unjust cost of housing, the inability to build new homes on the level required since the early 1980s, the doubling in size of the Green Belt since the 1950s and the equal injustice of familes being forced to rely on the private sector when there is no public alternative available.

Like most political arguments that dare pronounce on virtue, IDS' argument serves only to make itself appear moral - which is not the same as actually being moral. It is simply a defence of ingrained prejudices in Conservative thinking and a refusal to face the real issues facing the UK.

At the time of writing, it is yet to be seen as to whether the House of Lords will be able to amend the original Bill or force a government u-turn, though they have certainly rejected it so far. What this case does, however, demonstrate is a very real, and very callous war on the inconvenient poor and the troublesome marginalised.

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Alexander Hay

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