Sunday, 17 February 2013

Dumb and Dumber: Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa May

Pictured: Article's subjects.
In what seems to be an ongoing saga of Conservative politicians saying stupid things, we have a double whammy this week from the Tory front-bench. First, from the-man-who-wouldn't-be-Prime-Minister; Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who thinks that those who expect sufficient payment for work are snobs who think they're too good for manual labour. Secondly, we have what can now be reliably called a characteristically ignorant comment from Home Secretary Theresa May, who thinks can get away with pretending judges are incorrectly implementing Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The reason I've grouped these two outbursts together is because they both rely on a hatred of 'elites' (Iain Duncan Smith actually used the term 'smart people') who arrogantly consider their fancy-pants university degrees to be more important than the national interest. Now, both these points are so obviously political posturing rather than honest objection, but it is a shame that the modern Conservative party is relying on populist attacks on hard-working people or, in the case of Theresa May, an entire branch of the government. Of course, both these shameless panderers are wrong on all their points, so let's examine them in turn.

Iain Duncan Smith: Norman Tebbit Redux

Let's get one thing out of the way first: comparative studies have shown that workfare schemes do not work at reducing unemployment levels. They are a throwback to the Nixon Administration, and then as now were shoved through more for the reason that they were an easy sell to the public, rather than a proven, effective means to alleviate the poverty trap. A far more effective method to reduce dependency and unemployment would be, say, wage-subsidised job schemes, which manage to achieve higher levels of sustained employment without all that, you know, exploitation stuff. Perceptive readers will also notice that both those reports linked to above come from the Department for Work and Pensions, the minister for which is...Iain Duncan Smith, who is apparently failing to listen to the advice of his own department, presumably because Workfare is seen as an easy sell to right-wing voters, as it was with Nixon and his Republican base.

The problem with Workfare schemes is that they provide companies like Poundland with virtually no incentive to keep people on and cause jobseekers to waste time doing work which fails to develop their skills. This isn't about work being 'beneath' people, it's about people's opportunity and potential being realised; there is simply no need for a university graduate to work in Argos as a remedy for welfare dependency. Graduates do not have significant labour market disadvantages and the time and money spent implementing an all-round useless Workfare program could be better spent in subsidising work experience schemes that provide training and assistance with job-searching, and would provide employers with incentives to keep people on. But why invest in people's futures when you can use a court defeat of your policy to have a jab at 'smart people'?

Underlying IDS's comments is an indirect assault on university graduates - the implication being that our economic woes are in part caused by 'these people' who think they're too good to enter the labour market at the bottom rung. I'm guessing that IDS isn't stupid enough to actually believe this, and he surely knows that the problem with workfare schemes isn't just that they place people in jobs ill-suited to their skills, but that they refuse to pay them the minimum wage for doing so. Sure, that might deter some people from claiming benefits in the first place when jobseekers think that a better use of their time might be spent writing cover letters and sending out CVs. This, in turn, will allow the government to boast that it's reduced the number of people on benefits and call workfare a success, without fixing the structural problems that have caused such high unemployment, particularly amongst skilled workers and university graduates, in the first place.

Article 8 of the ECHR: Theresa May is either lying or stupid

As a human rights lawyer, I despair every time I see home secretaries use the human rights act as some kind of scapegoat for their own incompetence, or when it's used as a bogeyman to drum up popular support for some draconian policy. Teresa May has eagerly adopted the Daily Mail/Daily Telegraph tactic of simply making up bullshit about human rights cases in order to push through a legislative agenda that is based, one suspects, more on giving untrammeled power to the executive branch than on a genuine constitutional concern about judicial overreach. May's issue is with a very small amount of immigration cases in which claimants have relied on the right to a private and family life in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights to prevent a deportation. She claims that the fact that a small number of cases have concluded that an individual's right to private and family life outweigh the home secretary's desire for deportation constitutes unwarranted judicial activism. Basically, she's pissed off because she hasn't won every case that's been decided on this matter, and because the courts have rightly concluded that parliamentary guidance papers hold less legal weight than primary legislation and decades of domestic and international case law.

There are no third options: either Theresa May is ignorant of not just the law, but of basic constitutional practise, or she is aware of the means by which the UK legal system operates and is instead lying about it to make a political point. Baroness Kennedy, whose response is simply wonderful, is correct - if Theresa May is asserting that judges actively consider Article 8 an absolute right, she should provide cases where they've done this. The truth of the matter is that cases involving a balancing between Article 8 and deportation are relatively uncommon, and Article 8 is always treated as a qualified right that succeeds in exceptional circumstances. That the examples upon which the Home Secretary bases her attacks on Article 8 have often been shown to be flat-out untrue isn't even demonstrative of scraping the bottom of the barrel - it shows one is scraping the bottom of the barrel for stuff that one can lie about to support one's own legally illiterate political agenda.

Theresa May's logic must therefore be that the simple act of placing down new immigration rules should take precedence over case-law and primary legislation. That's the only way to understand her recent critique of the judiciary, since the judiciary itself recognises the weight to be accorded to the immigration rules, but acknowledges that since they are not primary legislation, they don't occupy the same privileged standpoint as Acts of Parliament. May claims that since the rules were debated by 'Parliament', they demonstrate clear intent, but it was only because it was merely The Commons rather than both Houses of Parliament that had implemented the new immigration rules that they were considered a weak form of parliamentary scrutiny. It's impossible to read May's critique without coming to the conclusion that Theresa May knows astonishingly little about the UK constitutional process and the separation of powers.


  1. Good article Alex. It's also worth pointing out that workfare damages people who are already in work - if you're a shelf-stacker in Tesco or Poundland and your branch takes on a host of workfare recruits, you can expect to see your hours slashed as the free labour picks up the slack.

    It's a grotesque assault on the working class, and it's not just people on workfare who are suffering.

    1. I agree - the policy lacks any merit whatsoever, if it really is designed to fulfill its stated aim of reducing unemployment. The policy only makes sense if it's implemented purely as a preventive/punitive policy aimed at reducing the amount of benefit recipients. My guess is that the government knows full well that this is the aim of the policy - because claiming that you've gotten X,000 people off benefits is an easy, one-sentence policy achievement to sell at a general election. Why else would they ignore the advice of the DWP with regards to intermediate labour markets being a more effective solution to long-term unemployment problems? It's possible that they're giving more weight to twenty-somethings at Policy Exchange (they've written a bunch of op-eds that are favourable)than their own department, which is actually a pretty horrendous scenario.

      So it's not only a grotesque assault on the working class, it's a grotesque assault on the working class for the purposes of a marketing campaign. That, to me, is...what's a word more strong that grotesque? Double-plus-grotesque?