The Tories are losing their vile war on ‘scroungers’ | Polly Toynbee

George Osborne thought he’d hit the button with his tale of workshy sleepers. But too many know people who are struggling

Will bungling or beastly be chiselled first on this government’s gravestone? Today offered two prime examples of how they blend the two.

A message from Grant Shapps drops into my inbox: “Dear Mary [my legal name], As Labour attack our benefits reforms, we want to hear your thoughts.” There follows a disingenuous explanation of benefits policy and a fake poll: this form of electioneering called push-polling, much used by Mitt Romney’s campaign, purports to poll but simply plants propaganda. “Have your say on benefits: Should benefits increase more than wages? Yes/No. Do you think it’s fair that people can claim more in benefits than the average family earns through going to work? Yes/No. How do you think we could make the benefits system fairer? (Fill in box)”.

All his points are tendentious, and one is plain mendacious: “Working people are having their taxes cut. Anyone in work and receiving benefits will gain more from paying less tax than what they lose from benefits not increasing in real terms.” Not so, says James Brown of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Part-timers gain nothing from tax cuts and lose from tax credits falling behind inflation. As ever, the government ignores the epidemic of under-employment, the millions seeking longer hours. Any couple failing to find 24 hours of work a week has already had a £4,000 cut in tax credits: these are the inconvenient hard workers who give the lie to the vile “strivers v skivers” riff.

Bungling was uncovered by sharp-eyed Political Scrapbook: in Shapps’s vicious little campaign his photo of a perfect blond hardworking family is the same picture used in ads for cod-liver oil, a Spanish dentist, a building firm and home schooling for Christian fundamentalists. Stupid, or what? A contrasting picture of a lazy slob lying on a sofa will no doubt turn up elsewhere, too. This is pure Shapps, as slick and tacky as his get-rich-quick ads in which he posed as a “Michael Green” who had made millions. But launching this hasty campaign shows the Conservatives are rattled.

Benefit cuts were the winning ticket to trap Labour on the side of scroungers, but it’s not working. Against the predictions of Tory strategists and the unhelpful battalion of retired New Labourites, Ed Miliband’s team is making headway because the facts are on their side: the majority of those whose benefits are cut are in work. That fact has struck home with voters, as it dawns on the Tories that more than 6,800 voters in each of their 50 most marginal seats draw tax credits, key voters who feel the cut painfully and who take offence at Tory stigmatisation.

Ipsos Mori polling shows attitudes shifting: only 27% think the chancellor is right, or should cut benefits deeper, while 69% think benefits should rise with or above inflation. As many expected, more people now know friends and family struggling through no fault of their own. George Osborne thought he’d hit the button with his workshy sleepers behind blinds.

Meanwhile, Nick Clegg suddenly sees the wind changing and today devised a new stance to distance himself, saying: “There is absolute moral equivalence between working hard in a job and working hard to find a job.” But after voting through cuts for disabled children it’s a bit late to boast he stopped the Tories using a garotte as well as a cheese wire. Labour knows one poll may not yet signal a total shift, but with the worst cuts still to come and queues at food banks even in Tory areas, Osborne’s vicious tone and Shapps’s sleazy crudity may strike a memorably wrong note with all but the deepest blue voters. The rich have not borne enough of the burden, say 70% of voters – and Osborne can never escape that.

Example two: today saw the third reading of yet another bill born of dogma, bound to end in disarray. Osborne’s plan to let companies abolish employment rights in exchange for £2,000 or more of shares dashes through parliament: its brief three-week consultation drew only 11% support and little from business. This is the result of Wonga investor Adrian Beecroft’s report calling for an end to rights such as redundancy and unfair dismissal.

With no evidence, Cameron bought the idea that freedom to fire will set the economy booming. The Employee Ownership Association, with John Lewis and a hundred others, protests this damages the credibility of genuine employee share ownership. The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development says the shares would be of uncertain value and jobseekers forced into no-rights jobs. Business says it’s irrelevant – the CBI calls it “niche”. Accountant UHY Hacker Young reports share option schemes declining by 23% for most staff, but senior managers are seeing a 15% increase, letting them avoid income tax and pay only capital gains.

In an excoriating critique on the bill, IFS director Paul Johnson writes in the FT: “Just as government ministers are falling over themselves to condemn avoidance behaviour, that same government is trumpeting a new tax policy that looks like it will foster a whole new avoidance industry.” The Office for Budget Responsibility says the bill’s new loophole may cost £1bn a year in lost tax. The IFS calls it a “billion-pound lollipop” for avoiders. But imperious and incompetent as ever, the government pushed the bill through today. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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