The most heartening piece I’ve read in the weekend press is James Kirkup’s interview with Esther McVey. The Minister of State for Employment manages, without sounding wishy-washy, to express her understanding of the sense of precariousness which is felt by many millions of people in this country. Kirkup is incredulous when McVey points out that any of us could fall on hard times, and might then find ourselves dependent on the benefits system to help us get back into work. He cannot imagine that she too might think she falls into this category. But this is how McVey justifies what she has said:
‘I come from a background where people have had their own business, where it has been incredibly tough for a long period of time, and you are only as good as the last contract you have got, as the last job you have done, where the notion of a precarious existence does exist, as it does for a lot of people. I have watched it, I have been there, to me it is reality. I have always said, there but for the grace of God go I, and that’s what we do with benefits, we provide a service and support.’
She points out that in order to find work, most people need encouragement. This too is in accordance with general experience. If we are fortunate, we find ourselves encouraged and helped by our family and friends, and by those who have taught and trained us. But not everyone is fortunate, and even those who are can find themselves buffeted by unexpected blows: ill-health, redundancy, the drying up of what was once a profitable trade, the destruction of what looked like a secure livelihood.
This is how McVey describes the help which the state should seek in such circumstances to provide:
At least as important, she says, is a ‘fundamental cultural change’ in the welfare system, which now sees its job not as managing claims but ending them, by encouraging and supporting claimants back into work. Welfare claimants themselves are being pushed to take a different approach, through ‘claimant commitments’ to increase their skills and make more applications. Benefits officials are also offering support the minister likens to the life-coaching common at senior levels in industry.
‘It’s you working on you, to say, where do you want to go, what skills do you have, what skills do you need. A few years ago, it was only executives in companies who had that sort of coach, that sort of mentor. We have brought that to the benefits system as well.’
The idea of ‘coaching’ may seem vague, or even a bit New Age and trendy. Miss McVey, a Liverpudlian, insists it is just common sense. ‘If you went to the gym, you’d have your running buddy, someone to push you that little bit further. You know where you want to go but if you have got someone there to count your bench presses, you are more likely to get there. It’s like that with getting a job.’
For many welfare claimants, she says, the key to employment is confidence. ‘It is about nurturing and support. It is about building confidence and self-esteem, saying, ‘”You know what, I think you can do this, you can get there.”‘
The Conservatives have too often sounded like a party which seeks to appeal only to rugged individualists. This is one reason why it is still regarded, by great swathes of the electorate, as a party of the rich. For it is easier to believe in rugged individualism if one is sufficiently well-off to survive financial setbacks without having to worry that one could lose everything.
Almost two years ago, Lord Ashcroft published some polling which showed that people who are striving to get on in life do not “simply want the government to get out of their way to let them flourish”, but in fact need “reassurance that doing the right thing will be worth their while”, and that when they need help, deserving cases will get priority.
Conservatives do not want to reduce people to a state of abject and debilitating dependence. In that respect, the “on your bike” mentality is a valuable and necessary corrective to the worst aspects of the welfare state as it developed after 1945. But many of us do need a bit of help and encouragement in order to learn how to use the bike, or the computer, or whatever the instrument may be which is going to enable us to find work.
To be a Conservative is not to be some kind of naive liberal, who imagines that only the individual matters, and fails to recognise that the individual needs a society in which to flourish, and has a duty to help sustain such a society.
But Conservatives have sometimes given the unfortunate impression that they regard complete self-sufficiency as an attainable goal. This is one reason why the Conservative Party has difficulty attracting support from voters who feel themselves to be vulnerable, and are worried, often with good reason, that they are on the brink of financial disaster. The “Big Society” never succeeded in persuading people that the Conservatives are also a party of the poor. Perhaps ministers like McVey will have more success in explaining this.