Dangerous striving

December 6, 2012 by
Filed under: Politics 

Today’s blog probably makes me sound like Dave Spart, so apologies in advance to those of a tender or neo-liberal persuasion….

Ed Balls and George Osborne are having a row over whether the Autumn Statement measures hit ‘strivers’.  According to the commentariat this is because the Chancellor sought in his statement to trap Labour into having to choose between backing welfare cuts (which would appal its activists) or opposing them (which would appal an electorate polls show to be ever more hostile to those on benefits). But Labour now thinks it can turn Osborne’s punt into an own goal by pointing out that most of the welfare cuts will actually impact on the working poor, a group which gets a lot more sympathetic attention.

Many people will find the whole deserving versus undeserving poor thing unpleasant, but there are three other reasons why the distinction is highly problematic:

1. Notwithstanding the point about in-work benefits, many people are continuously moving between being ‘strivers’ and benefit dependents. People on the lowest wages and who have experienced recent unemployment are precisely those most at threat of future joblessness. Not only do they face penury and many other social economic and social risks if they lose their job, but they will suddenly move from the sunshine of Mr Balls’ and Mr Osborne’s admiration to the darkness of their admonishment.

2. It is a lot easier to be a ‘striver’ in some places than in others. Given that the unemployment rate in Darlington is three and half times that of Reigate, does this mean the people of the commuter belt are inherently more striving than those in the North East? In fairness, perhaps we should have a regionally adjusted striving index which reflects local labour markets. So anyone who has had a job in the last three years in Darlington can get a ‘striver’ badge but anyone in Surrey with a job on less than, say, £20k should be labelled a feckless loser.

3. Is striving restricted to paid employment? How about those on benefits who provide 24 hour care to loved ones, or who volunteer in the local community or who are coping with severe physical and mental illness. As, apparently, none of this counts as striving perhaps they should just leave their relative in a wheelchair outside the town hall, stop helping out around the neighbourhood and perhaps do the decent thing and stop being a burden to us all.

I am no political innocent. I worked for a politician who was fond of the morally freighted phrase ‘ a hand up, not a hand out’. But whilst this kind of stuff is tolerable at the margins and when things are going well and there is a reasonable supply of jobs that pay a living wage, right now it feels like the worst kind of reactionary, intelligence-sapping populism.

Or perhaps I just don’t get it. I must strive harder.



  • Adrian Perry

    Well said. I feel as if I’m in an occupied country; the rhetoric is so depressing and alien. And I just don’t get Ed Balls, who lacks the analysis and any serious recovery plan. Our opposition is now Poly Toynbee and you. And the sainted Krugman.

  • http://ziobastone.wordpress.com/ Zio Bastone

    I’m not sure about populism but phrases such as ‘hardworking British people’ are regularly used by the main political parties to avoid debate and to stir up and build upon prejudice. You can find that specific phrase in the mouth of William Hague, for example, back in 2007, when US house prices were already in sharp decline and the subprime crisis absolutely known and underway. However it has its origins amongst fascist and neo-Nazi groups, (as a few moments’ googling will confirm) and was rubbished (in the context of Euroscepticism) by Radek Sikorski, who is hardly a leftwinger, a bare few weeks ago.

    A polity in which we are encouraged to hate foreigners and to despise the disabled as potential scroungers, in which unemployment is framed as dependency (like drug dependency? So who then are the pushers? Ah yes, ‘the State’) and in which the only economic ‘debate’ on offer is neoliberalism strong or neoliberalism light (but what about the Ostroms; MMT and the Minskians; Krugman, Stiglitz et al? And that’s excluding the Continentals) isn’t dead. But it is certainly off the rails.

    In that context Ed Balls’ defensive reference to his own ‘disability’ is pretty obscene. Although no very great surprise.

  • Robert Burns

    Matthew and others,

    I think the general opinion is that in your closing remarks show that you ‘get it’.

    This ‘striving’ rhetoric is just a trojan horse for blaming the low paid and unemployed for their condition and a handy cop out by Osbourne and Balls (what an appropriate name!) and their ilk.

    Further, the definition of who is a ‘benefit recipient’ is too narrow to capture a solution to the problem of persistent unemployment.

    The time has come for local and central government to get tough on businesses who persistently exclude the registered unemployed from employment opportunity.

    A start could be made by doing the following:

    (a) It should be a fundamental condition that all businesses who contract with local and central government must allocate 20 to 50% of all recruitments to the registered unemployed

    (b) Employment agencies and their clients must be legally obliged to accept and place all registered unemployed people in their immediate area.

    Practices like the ‘minimum two years experience essential/preferable’ must be outlawed – this is used the way race, gender, age and disability was used in the past to exclude certain groups from employment.

    The use of ‘social networking’ (corrupt old boy/girl networks) in recruitment must also be stamped out.

    The sanctions for failure to comply must fall directly on senior management and those sanctions must be severe.

    Sanctions should include taking the business into administration and suspension of senior managers (without pay) and the freezing of all personal assets of the suspended managers.

    Even if it was only possible to move the majority of the unemployed into permanent part-time employment (even with some limited benefit support) it would probably save the Treasury a lot more than the £5.5 Billion wasted on the likes of ‘New Deal’ and the ‘Work Programme’ and drastically cut the total welfare payments bill.

    It is time politicians stopped talking up symptoms and started acting on causes.

  • Tony Holmes

    I suspect Ed Balls is struggling because he doesn’t truly support the policy he is articulating. If you look at his Bloomberg speech from August 2010 ( at http://edballs.3cdn.net/4666f3d18ae6fdd279_x0m6bn4d2.pdf), he seems to oppose any spending cuts at all until steady growth has returned. This is not what Alistair Darling proposed, nor is it Labour policy now.

    I think the Labour Party must have concluded that the constant rhetoric about “balancing the books” and “living beyond our means” has been so successful that their preferred economic policy is not a feasible political option.at the moment.

  • Chris Wilson

    This is very welcome, and I think it goes to the heart of quite a lot of the current political debate. However, I would be grateful if someone could direct me to some evidence which would illuminate the debate. How many people can actually be classified as long term unemployed, not ready to work, not looking to work. My intuition says, actually not that many but this important and intuition isn’t good enough.

  • Adrian Perry

    In a seventies study I can no longer lay my hands on (grinds teeth) job centre staff in Glasgow were asked to identify claimants who were not really looking for work. Follow-up study revealed this group to be more successful in finding employment than those identified as keen.

  • Robert Burns

    Hello Chris,

    a good starting point might be:


    The question of what constitutes ‘long term unemployment’ is as much a philosophical question as it is a numerical question.

    For example, does the person who stops working to be a full time parent or a carer or have had to leave work because of a health issue and then tries to return to work count as ‘long term unemployed’ or does it simply mean people who have been in receipt of JSA for six months or more?

    Or does it mean people who have not been continuously employed and have a patchwork history of short term working punctuated by periods of claiming benefits.

    Or does it mean being employed at something other than the job in question for a chosen length of time?

    Similar qualifications surround your “not ready to work” and “not looking for work”.

    You won’t find definitive answers to your questions because the answer depends on how the individual subjectively frames their view of unemployment and its cause(s).

    If you go off in pursuit of definitive answers to the questions in your penultimate sentence you will be disappointed.

    Complex analysis is the trap that has made this issue so intractable because it imposes progressive tunnel vision.

    Better questions for you to answer are these:

    (a) Every month an average of 1.6 million people in this country claim JSA, yet businesses everywhere claim that they “cannot get the people they need”.


    (b) Every year colleges and universities in this country turn out thousands of students higher Certificates, Diplomas and Bachelor Degrees in subjects that businesses say they need people to have. But still businesses claim that they “cannot get the people they need”.


    The time has come (indeed, it’s been long since passed) to ask what is it that employers are doing that has made spending so much effort and money come to nothing?

    Maybe it’s because they all work like Virgin Broadband – take your money, but don’t deliver their end.

  • http://www.howtoadvisethepresident.wordpress.com Graham Rawlinson

    Yes, the whole show was a bit of a farce, and you are right to point out that it is not possible to categorise people as being on one side of the line or the other, well, most people can’t be placed such. But surely the problem underneath all of this is a Debtocracy based system of employment. Rather than try and return to some golden age of full employment (which never really existed) we should recognise that the planet cannot sustain ever increasing pressure to ‘grow the economy’ so people can earn money to spend (and pay off debt). We need to be in Transition to a sustainable system of living, with people making contributions because they can and want to. The contributions they make will vary according to age, skills, interests and appropriateness of the local environment (sailors not needed in Sheffield).
    There are people advocating a different no growth economic system which does have the potential to bring almost everyone into some kind of meaningful work, and pay is relevant for some of this work but not for it all or even for most of it.
    For example, in the BBC programme A Farm for the Future, farming becomes gardening, you can grow more per acre and do it with less work and hardly any fossil fuel, but of course this would require a different kind of economics, back to the Commune, for some at least.

  • http://www.tessybritton.com/ Tessy Britton

    Your point about the person who looks after family or volunteers is very important Matthew. Why is this activity invisible or recognised, not just by ‘the benefit system’ but by wider society? It’s one of the things we are mapping at The Work Shop in West Norwood at the moment, trying to surface what people are doing already to support some of the primary shared goals, such as safe and secure community or health and wellbeing for all.

    So agree with your description ‘reactionary, intelligence-sapping populism’ …. especially when it doesn’t reflect or incorporate any concrete sense of striving collectively rather than individually.

    The Work Shop

  • Jonathan Andrews

    This is a very sensible comment and I cannot really argue with it’s idea except to ask, doesn’t the state also have a responsibility to limit the amount it removes from one group and gives to another irrespective of the merits of the claims of the recipient group? Are you ignoring the fact that the richest 10% pay a terrific proportion of tax and while it might not be enough to be consider fair, doesn’t there come a point when it becomes unfair (never mind unproductive)?

  • Bernard Mason


    Well said!

  • Pingback: Well…show willing. | The Yorkshire Ranter()

  • Benjamin

    ‘Strivers’ has neo-Darwinian connotations to me, about natural selection – that those who can should/must.

    Interestingly, people like Dawkins are actually left of centre, which is ironic that neo-Darwinism is used by neo-liberal economists to justify spending cuts….

    I’m minded of my grandfather, who is now almost 90, a working class man who was a farm labourer all his life, and left school with little education at 14. He always says to me there are 500,000 who ‘won’t’ work. But the key is, he says it with a shrug of the shoulders, and is tolerant of it. Where has this tolerance gone for people who don’t fit our model citizen?

  • http://adrianperry.blog.com/ Adrian Perry

    One last thought. Given current rates of social mobility, perhaps all a working class person can do is strive.

  • Sam Earle