The left, such as Labour MP Karen Buck, above, needs to calm its rhetoric over housing benefit reform, says Allie Wickham.
On the 8th January 2011, US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head by a gunman while hosting a meeting with constituents in Tucson, Arizona. The aftermath of the shooting focused on the volatile rhetoric used by politicians and the potential for inflammatory language to incite violence; Sarah Palin was criticised for using provocative imagery such as crosshairs targeting Democrat opponents. In Britain we claimed that this was a uniquely American problem and that, in spite of the adversarial nature of our politics, our politicians tend to show a great deal more responsibility. Yet the government’s housing benefit reforms have led to a series of violent diatribes from the left in recent months. In October last year Chris Bryant, a member of the Shadow Cabinet, told the House of Commons that the proposals amounted to the poor being ‘socially engineered and sociologically cleansed out of London’. That same month, the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee wrote that ‘at last the Tories have a final solution for the poor – send them to distant dumping grounds where there are no jobs’. Finally just last week Karen Buck, the Shadow Work and Pensions minister and Labour frontbencher, outrageously argued that the cuts to housing benefit were designed to force ‘black women, ethnic minority women and Muslim women’ out of central London. These three examples represent a worryingly increasing trend in left-wing circles to use completely inappropriate rhetoric when debating housing benefit reform.
The government’s proposals to limit the amount of money that recipients of housing benefit can claim are controversial and certainly worthy of scrutiny and debate. A cap of £400 a week will be placed on four-bedroom houses, while those on jobseeker’s allowance for more than a year will face a 10% cut in the money they receive. This policy unsurprisingly has its detractors; it has been alleged that up to 82,000 people will lose their homes as a result of having their housing benefit capped. Those living in London will suffer greater due to higher property prices in the capital. Yet the Prime Minister insists this is fair, as no longer will unemployed benefit claimants be able to live in properties that low-paid workers could only dream of. Moreover the housing benefit bill inherited from the previous government had reached an incredible £20 billion a year; while most departments have faced 20% cuts, this reduction equates to a mere 10%. Whether you agree with the government that these reforms are necessary and fair, or with the opposition that they will uproot thousands of disadvantaged people, there is no reason why it should not be possible to have a calm and rational debate on the issue.
And yet both Labour Party politicians and left-wing journalists have resorted to a new low of political mud-slinging. When Nick Clegg rightly admonished Mr. Bryant’s words as deeply offensive to victims of ethnic cleansing across the world, the honourable member for Rhondda shamefully countered from across the dispatch box: ‘that’s what you’re doing’. Ms. Toynbee was forced to apologise for the thoroughly distasteful metaphor she used in her article. When contacted by Political Promise, she dismissed her choice of the phrase ‘final solution’ as a ‘thoughtless slip of the pen’, yet the continuing theme of ‘distant dumping grounds’ and the clear comparison with the Holocaust implies that she knew exactly what she was saying. Meanwhile Baroness Warsi, a Conservative minister without portfolio, was correct to reproach Ms. Buck for her comments and say that using ‘race, religion and class for political point-scoring is deeply offensive and irresponsible’. Ms. Buck’s apology was as contrived and unbelievable as anything you are ever likely to hear. How Mr. Bryant, Ms. Toynbee and Ms. Buck remain in their jobs after their frankly despicable remarks beggars belief. There is a debate to be had on housing benefit reform. The left needs to get its rhetoric in order if that is to happen.