The latest furore to strike the increasingly right wing-seeming coalition is over their proposed cap on housing benefit, restricting it to a maximum of £400 a week for a four bedroomed home. That’s over £1600 a month. Which might seem like a lot – unless you live in London. Or Brighton. Or Oxford. Or Cambridge. And so on.
But the anger today is directed not at the policy but at the political manoeuvring and charged language of its critics. Earlier this week, Labour’s Chris Bryant described the policy – which could shift some 80,000 people out of London – as “social engineering and sociological cleansing”.
Regardless of the fact that to assume that’s a deliberate objective would be to give the coalition far too much credit, Bryant’s use of the loaded word “cleansing” presumably intentionally raised spectres of ethnic cleansing camps in the 90s Balkan wars. That might be taking things rather too far, as the coalition are more inept than actually evil – more Dark Helmet than Darth Vader, if you will. Still, an incensed Nick Clegg took to the despatch box at Deputy Prime Minister’s Question Time to righteously protest that Bryant’s widely reported remark would be “deeply offensive to those who have witnessed ethnic cleansing”, trying vainly to give the impression that Clegg had personally liberated Auschwitz.
So far, so just another coalition storm in a teacup, you might think. Until the Mayor of London waded in with his customary tact and forethought. Boris Johnson, a man who seemingly can’t open his mouth without putting his foot in it, took arms against his glorious leader in a radio interview, describing the housing benefit cap as “Kosovo-style social cleansing”. Oh Boris, Boris, Boris. Remember when you had to go and apologise to the entire city of Liverpool for describing them as crybabies? It’s time to book a ticket to Eastern Europe and apologise to an entire continental region.
The rather sad thing is that in dissecting the rhetoric, the pros and cons (well, mostly cons) of the policy are somewhat ignored. David Cameron’s got a point when he says it’s not fair for a family on government handouts (I think that’s how he described it) to be able to afford to live somewhere that those with a job cannot. But shifting the benefit recipients out by financial ostracisation is attacking the problem from completely the wrong end. Surely a far more effective way to deal with the problem for both groups of people would be to cap the spiralling, exorbitant rents charged by unscrupulous landlords in cities like London? A cap like we used to have until, oh, was it the Conservatives, took it away under the benign aegis of Margaret Thatcher.
The insane rents in prestigious urban areas must surely have a massive impact on house prices too, which in turn has a negative effect on the rest of the economy. Allowing landlords to charge anything they want means that, currently, the government has to meet the cost for the unemployed and quite a few employed families simply can’t. Changing this so that only the insanely rich can afford to live there is surely not the ideal solution.
Still, while we’re all distracted by our righteous anger at the use of the word “cleansing”, maybe nobody will bother to have the real debate – does Daz “cleanse” more efficiently than Hitler?