Nick Clegg completed the Lib Dems' sellout today with a despicable speech promising to back the Conservatives' plans for welfare reform. The narrative was set earlier this month by the Chancellor, who justified the government's proposed real-terms benefits cuts with a carefully-prepared line:
"We have to acknowledge that over the last five years those on out of work benefits have seen their incomes rise twice as fast as those in work. With pay restraint in businesses and government, average earnings have risen by around 10% since 2007. Out of work benefits have gone up by around 20%. That's not fair to working people who pay the taxes that fund them."
Terrible, isn't it? Hard workers paying to lose ground to those layabout skivers who watch Jeremy Kyle all day. But let's leave aside for a moment the issue that with an average of 23 applicants per vacancy (and sometimes far more), the huge majority of unemployed people are in fact desperate to find work, not lazy spongers. Let's instead just take a simple look at what those figures mean in real life.
Osborne specified "out of work benefits", which basically means Jobseekers' Allowance. (The other benefits which are most commonly associated with the unemployed, particularly housing benefit and Council Tax Benefit, are in fact widely claimed by working people – 24% of all Housing Benefit recipients, and a staggeringly vast majority of new claimants, are in work.)
JSA is currently paid at £71 a week, or less for younger people. Were that to rise by 20% over the next five years, the typical adult jobseeker would therefore see an increase in their income of £14.20 a week.
The average UK salary is £26,500. Were that figure to increase by 10% in the same period, it would mean the typical worker having £50.96 a week more in their pay packet (before tax/NI). Osborne's next sentence specifically referred to public-sector workers, for whom the average salary is £28,802. A 10% hike in that figure between now and 2017 would yield an increase of £55.39 a week.
If one person's getting an extra £14 a week and the other is getting an extra £51 or £55, it takes an incredibly perverse definition of "fairness" to make out that the first person is the winner in the deal, when in fact they're falling further and further behind the second person every year. Slashing their figure to £7 simply adds insult to injury.
If you look closely, Osborne and Clegg's argument is in fact even more dishonest than that. But as an illustration of how the word "fair" has been hijacked and twisted by the coalition, it's hard to better.