Two houses, divided

David Cameron has launched the Conservative party’s annual conference with a divisive interview on Andrew Marr’s show. Not only is he coming up with policies that will inevitably increase youth homelessness. He has also, unwittingly, laid a trap for himself, that Labour can now spring.

In that interview Cameron uses the issue of housing to draw a distinction between two types of people. He says;

‘We do need to look at choices we make in this country. Take young people, if you leave school, you go to college, you work hard, you get a job, you don’t have any chance of having housing benefit, living at home with mum and dad often into your 30s. If you take a different path, don’t go to college, sign on, get housing benefit, get a flat, then of course if you get a job you’ll probably lose the housing benefit on the flat. So I think we want to look at the signals we send in welfare and I think we should recognise the welfare cap we put in place, showing that no family should be better off on welfare than in work, that was an extremely powerful and sensible and very popular actually thing to do.’

Hardly one nation stuff!

Still, it’s not hard to see where this strategy comes from. There is less and less public support for benefits as a form of redistribution and the Conservatives have mismanaged the economy to such an extent that they believe they now need to find further cuts to hit their deficit reduction strategy

Putting these two things together means it is almost inevitable that they will want to cut benefits while claiming they are on the side of the hard working majority.

However, there is a big political trap here which Labour could spring on the Tories.

The fact is, that the Tories have very little to offer the ‘striving’ young person that Cameron describes. Wages are not going up, unemployment remains high, there aren’t any new houses being built and mortgages are hard to come by.

The default response of many on the left will be to criticize Cameron’s efforts to take away housing benefit from under 25s, since that would, in all likelihood, mean an increase in youth homelessness. This is of course right and proper.

A second response is also needed though. Labour needs to show that the Tories are actually doing nothing to help hard working people (young or old). Labour needs to contrast the current situation with policies that will increase wages as a share of the economy, build more homes and make it easier to get a mortgage.

This would build on policies that have already been floated such as building new homes using the money from the 4G auction, using QE to boast house building, and so-called ‘pre-distribution’ approaches to raising wages.

Cameron and the Tories’ constant invocation of ‘strivers’ ‘doers’ and so on is in fact, a noose around his neck. If they continue on their current course they will have done little for this group and should expect little gratitude in return. The opportunity for Labour to benefit from this is enormous.

P.S. Jules Birch does an excellent job of pointing out some of the problems with Cameron’s position, not least of all the fact that the benefit cap which he refers to has not yet been put in place.

Everyday heros

Many of us are waiting for Superman to save us but he never will unless we learn to save ourselves.

Every time you read an article by someone calling for a politician to be “bold” or “courageous” you are reading the opinion of someone who wants Superman to save them. Every time you hear someone saying they want a leader with some “backbone” or “balls” you are listening to someone who is waiting for Superman to save them.

We can see this playing out on both sides of the Atlantic over the issue of gay marriage. In the United States, Barack Obama has said that he personally supports gay marriage (although he will still leave actual legal decisions up to individual states), whereas in the United Kingdom, David Cameron has signalled that he will not be actively implementing legislation to allow gay marriage.

Each politician has been both criticised and praised by opponents or supporters for either being brave and courageous or pathetic and craven. Both have been celebrated for having stood up for what they believe in and criticised for bowing to pressure from organized groups in society.

But these views fundamentally misunderstand how societies change and what the role of politicians is in this change. It’s not Presidents or Prime Ministers that make countries more tolerant, inclusive places, its average people going about their daily lives that does that. Politicians respond to these changes in society, building alliances and passing laws that reflect the priorities of these alliances, not conjuring up new attitudes out of nowhere.

Let’s look more closely at the issue of gay marriage.

It is certainly striking how much more tolerant the American people have become since around 2004. This graph shows the number of people who favour allowing gay marriage in America. You can see that it is going up.

Why might this be? Let me put forward the theory that it is because more people know people that are openly gay.

Just as people that have regular contact with people of other races are less racist, similarly, people that have regular contact with people who are openly gay are less homophobic.

Here is a graph (taken from polling data here) that shows that the percentage of Americans that say they know someone who is openly gay has dramatically increased over the last 10 years.

A far larger number of Americans say they know someone who is openly gay now than did just a decade ago. At the same time, a far larger number of Americans say that they think gay people should be allowed to marry. My arguement is that these two things are linked.

Different people advocate different tactics for making countries more tolerant. Some try to ridicule people who oppose greater tolerance. Some try to make reasoned arguments for why tolerance is better and hope to convince their opponents. Others try and use money and organization to force and cajole politicians into passing laws that support tolerance.

There is something to be said for all of these tactics, but ultimately, none of them are nearly as effective as the cumulative effect of large numbers of people interacting with friends, relatives and colleagues and slowly coming to the realization that there really isn’t anything to be feared from gay marriage. It is people coming out in their neighbourhoods, to their families and in their workplaces that is making America a more tolerant place. Obama is just reflecting that.

We may hope that a powerful politician will sweep into power and decree that the country will be a more tolerant place with a swipe of their pen, but that’s not how the world works.

Firstly, there is always the danger that a leader supporting a particular cause will not convince opponents that it is right but will, instead, make them even more resolute in their opposition. They are opponents after all and not really inclined to listen to the other side’s arguments. Secondly, there is the fact that, by and large, we only want our politicians to do things that are popular. Indeed, the whole point of democracy is that we do not have politicians that decide what is right or wrong entirely independently of what the public think. In fact, maybe it’s a good thing that politicians try and work out what the public think and try and stick close to it?

As Bruce Springsteen says, you will “waste your summer praying in vain/ for a saviour to rise from these streets.”