Here’s a good article by Owen Jones (author of the book Chavs, which is also great) about a policy which is a nice encapsulation of the Tory approach to austerity. The approach is divide and conquer.
The mean income in the UK is around £26,000 a year, but the distribution is skewed, so that the median is around £21,000. That means that 50% of incomes are less than £21,000 — in an important sense, the median is a better indicator because it tells you the income than which half the country (enough to, if it came to it, win a fight) earns less. The reason the mean (what we usually mean by “average”) doesn’t coincide with the median is because a small number of extremely high incomes (therefore a skewed, not symmetrical income distribution) drag the mean upwards.
Those incomes at the stretched, high side of the distribution belong to e.g. people who benefit from, rather than get outraged by, Vodafone and Starbucks-style tax dodges; people who, no matter how hard the recession hits them in relative terms can still pay accountants and lawyers to work out how best shield them from it. Not people for whom the recession might mean making a short step across the line into eviction, poverty, hunger, and switching the heating off (by the way: imagine the pure existential panic of that situation and then imagine having the time and the wherewithal to conduct a systematic campaign of “scrounging” that is in any sense morally equivalent with high-stakes corporate tax-dodging — the implicit conflation of these two cases is damaging and ridiculous).
£21,000 is not a lot, especially to support any dependents, and remember it’s not 50% of the country carefully but happily making do at £21,000 — that’s the most that anyone in the poorest half of our population earns. The people presently deciding to inflict further damage to the budgets of benefit claimants of all kinds and, now, those in social housing, comprise a cabinet of millionaires who cannot possibly be acquainted first-hand with a world in which £14 a week less (five paninis, or two DVDs, or three hours worth of petrol) is a disaster rather than a triviality.
Divide and conquer
The bedroom tax will work by reducing the benefits received by social housing tenants whose houses contain an unoccupied bedroom. The idea is, very literally, to force people to move out – if the tax was not enough to make that happen, money would still be saved on the benefits bill, but the other main goal — to free up housing for larger families — wouldn’t be fulfilled.
Similarly to the cuts in unemployment benefit, the policy aims to effect a change by the infliction of financial hardship (get people into work by making being on benefits even more fucking horrible than it already is/get housing freed up by making it impossible for people to stay in their homes). How do millionaires get away with doing this to such a large section of the population?
The answer is summed up in one phrase: “scroungers and strivers”. This is rhetoric directed by those at the top of the socio-economic ladder to make those at the bottom think their neighbours are responsible for their problems — not economic mismanagement, financial incompetence, an endemic lack of growth, but a disabled guy next door who, come to think of it, you’re sure could hold down a job if he was more of a “striver”. It’s the same instinct that lies behind the right-wing’s insatiable obsession with immigrants, who are a natural choice for this sort of treatment. The only way for a massively privileged elite to — democratically — inflict such hardship on roughly half of their voters is if those who are hit worst by it feel isolated and those who are hit less think the solution is to drive an undeserving underclass of “scroungers” (with spare bedrooms!) deeper into poverty. This is economic sado-masochism: it requires the destruction of solidarity and the sowing of contempt and mistrust between people who are in the same socio-economic class. The boundaries and divisions therefore have to be made along other available or invented lines of distinction: race, religion, or, as now, some imagined dichotomy between stoic, working class heroism and feckless, cynical worklessness. This is the essence of right-wing politics generally, and it is coldly embodied in the Government’s rhetoric and policies. The bedroom tax is the latest and most brazen example.
On a tangent: The amount of benefit fraudulently claimed is dwarfed by the amount that goes unclaimed because of people’s pride or ignorance of their own eligibility. If you want to fix the economy by getting people to somehow “do benefits properly”, you’d better be careful — if benefit fraud disappeared overnight and everybody claimed only (but fully) what they were entitled to, the bill would skyrocket.