My mum is pretty apolitical.
But recently she got a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions demanding the repayment of tax credits that had been overpaid to her. “Overpaid? Why now?” she asked me, justifiably pissed off. She had after all suffered 5 years of a pay freeze, and was as a consequence struggling to keep up: a new rank of poorer single mothers who have paid more than anyone else for austerity.
I told her that I was quite surprised, and wasn’t very sure. Quite honestly, I was trying to offer non-partisan consideration but I had to conclude that it was probably to do with the DWP currently looking for savings as part of a drive. That, I presume, this must be a move alongside the £12bn of welfare cuts the Whitehall department has been expected to come up with. The DWP had been pretty ruthless in pursuing these cases, as it so happens. My mum talked to, canvassed even, a number of her friends and colleagues -all of them low-income mums- and they had all gotten the same letter. Turns out I was probably right; there is a mass savings drive by the DWP that’s extending its cuts even beyond its existing…cuts. It’s gotten this extreme. Almost every single mother whose received tax credits in the past is now part of an exhaustive pursuit. And. They. Are. Pissed. Off.
A few days after asking me this, she came back asking for my advice on her own letter she wrote to be sent to both our local MP and the DWP. I was genuinely shocked at how political and furious it was. To paraphrase, she basically accused the government of ‘targeting the poor’. She demanded action, and she refused to put up with what she saw as cruelty and classism. This was completely unsolicited, by the way. It was her own anger after canvassing her friends and colleagues herself that she had come to this conclusion that this was a motivated attack on low-income women. This is a woman that, despite everything, was not political. She didn’t cry like I did when the Tories returned to power, she used to tell me ‘I’d have to get used to it’, that she lived through Thatcher and ‘you should prepare for the worse’. ‘What can I do?’ was basically how she saw the world. But something suddenly prompted her into anger she hadn’t expressed since those days. She’d came to expect this from the Tories, but now they’d pushed her and her friends, en masse, to such an extreme that it seems to have eclipsed her struggles under Thatcher. The DWP, it seems, has reached Peak Asshole, and she isn’t gonna be quiet anymore. She isn’t alone either: she had got the idea to take action from her friends who had been hit and were now also raising the issue with the DWP and appealing against it. It was a mini-revolt of her social circle.
Now, if my apolitical mother can suddenly be awoken and angered after some 30 years, I wonder what will happen once the DWP letters breaking the news that tax credits are being cut hit the doormats of unsuspecting parents in December? It’s hard to understate the impact these cuts will have.
Already, the benefit cap, sanctions and cuts have quite literally decimated the poorest of us. Entire demographic changes have been the result: the mass social cleansing of inner London and other cities that even Tories have cautioned about as their once cosy seats potentially become marginal after being inundated by poor renters. 40,000 more children will be plunged into poverty as a result of the cap dropping even further. A drop based more on politics than any sound economics. It is popular. But even then, the unpopular bedroom tax hasn’t caused the uproar I thought it would at the election. I was seriously of the impression that the public would come out en-masse to denounce this particular policy by wiping the Tories off the electoral map. It turns out I was naive. Utterly so. People do not pay attention to politics until it hits them. Took me a while, and a lot of growing up, to realise this isn’t an evil, it’s just human nature. So that nature dictates that popular or unpopular, these policies don’t change minds because so far they only hurt a minority of people, who have very little sway over the ballot box.
But tax credits are very different. Tax credits hit the ‘strivers’. I’m obviously not the first to come up with this conclusion. A lot of commentators have talked about the potential for backlash among ‘strivers’ now austerity has already picked the low hanging fruit that are the ‘scroungers’. It makes me uneasy, this, even now I have had to realise my naivety. We only focus on cruelty when it hits the deserving. And my mum isn’t a person that attacks benefit claimants, at least not in front of me. But it is very true: my mum’s sense of injustice was that she works hard. Really hard. For very little. And she felt the government was now punishing her. I feel like the theory others -journalists and even wary Tory MPs who Osborne had to prevent rebelling- have put forward, their speculation that this might be politically erosive for the Tories, has already been tested on someone I know. It’s correct. The anger of the masses, of those 7 million about to receive those letters, many of whom Tory-voting and aspirational, has yet to be seen.
But the minority who have been asked to pay back their tax credits before these cuts hit, I can confirm, are mightily pissed off. I wonder if the mini-revolt among my mum’s circle will translate into a much bigger one among the 7 million.
The Tories, if my mum’s canvassing session is anything to go by, are in for a bumpier ride than they may expect.