Cameron’s reforms take us to the edge of the cliff

It's been called ‘slippery slope’ politics, and it's a threat to all the Left hold dear; Natan Doron gives a timely warning over the latest Tory tactics.

Natan Doron is a researcher at the Fabian Society

There exists a certain type of politics: George Lakoff called it ‘slippery slope’ politics; it’s something the right are very good at. You take a concept you despise – if you are George Osborne or David Cameron, a typical such concept would be the idea of universal benefits – you introduce an initial change that can be sold as a sensible idea. Crucially, you frame it in a way that gives it broad appeal.

Running with our example, you suggest that paying rich people child benefit is pointless and also unfair. The change slips by with only muted opposition. What has happened though, is that you’ve successfully undermined the whole notion of universal benefits.

By framing untargeted benefits as something unfair, you’ve taken the first step down the slope and to the edge of the cliff. Fairness for welfare is now targeted welfare.

This now puts the left on the defensive. The one sentence about universal benefits being unfair is then countered with numerous paragraphs, reams of data and quotes. All of this serves the purpose of showing how undermining universal benefits damages future possible expansion in the welfare state.

As Tim Horton pointed out at the time, we’re moving from solidarity to sympathy. The return to discussions of deserving and undeserving poor. All impressive defensive arguments but not enough to resonate with the public. We need to better understand this.

While we must be careful to not be seen defending indefensible and unpopular positions, we must also be careful that in conceding seemingly sensible changes we do not contribute to the broad undermining of principles we hold dear. We must learn to recognise slippery slope tactics when they are being deployed. This calls for identifying the areas where the coming battles of values will be played out.

In recent weeks we’ve seen signs that Tory MPs are testing the waters around the right to strike and the minimum wage. On April 26, Dominic Raab proposed a motion in parliament to change the laws around industrial action for transport and emergency sectors. The motion was that a majority of unionised employees will have to be part of any vote to strike.

Like the child benefit cut, this initial step sounds intuitive, sensible even – but the motion manages to cast doubt over the legitimacy of all strikes. It’s the first step on a slope to making striking harder and harder. What starts as 25% thresholds eventually rises to 50% and then to 75%. Before we know it the power of the unions is ever more eroded.

Even more recently Philip Davies MP suggested disabled people should be allowed to work for less than the minimum wage to allow them to compete for jobs. Davies was rightfully attacked from all sides of the political spectrum. The Tory party distanced themselves. He himself remained unrepentant. He pushed the idea that making exceptions to the minimum wage to allow certain people to compete was a valid and worthy cause.

When the minimum wage was introduced, David Cameron was opposed. As a recent Labour List article noted, Cameron would not now voice such opposition, knowing that an all-out attack would be unpopular. Much better would be to start making small exceptions, frame them as sensible and start to chip away at the credibility of the notion.

You could say something like:

“We don’t want to get rid of the minimum wage – we want to upgrade it.”

While the undermining of the minimum wage is still a Tory work in progress, recent polling (pdf) for YouGov suggests the right to strike is something seriously under threat. Only 24 per cent back the current law allowing a strike ballot to be passed legally, however low the turnout. More broadly, however, people do support the right to strike for a whole range of sectors.

By failing to oppose a change to the threshold law, we are failing to support the right to strike itself, a right being slowly eroded by a government hostile to unions in principle.

Universal benefits, the right to strike and the minimum wage represent years of progress and three of the greatest achievements of a civilised society. What the right are teaching us is that having solid defences of these ideals is not enough to protect them from slippery slope politics. Tory Press HQ would rubbish this and state that the views of maverick backbenchers should not be relied upon as indications of government policy.

But their views are formed by the same underlying values as Cameron and Osborne. We need to start going on the offensive. This means talking about these things in a frame that solidifies why they are so important to our vision of the good society.

The Living Wage is one example of how we can do this. When Christopher Chope MP talks about allowing employees “the right” to opt out of the minimum wage, that gives us the platform to go on the offensive. Only a Tory MP could undermine the minimum wage during a time of falling living standards. We should start to make the same argument we made for the minimum wage and argue even louder to introduce an increase to the Living Wage.

At a time of austerity and increasing pay at the top, the public would understand and support this. Tory opposition to the policy would look like what it was: mean and draconian. We would have successfully framed a debate that spoke to our values. The public would remember why they used to have a Labour government; they’d thankfully remember why the Tories haven’t won a majority at a general election since 1992.

We know what we want to protect. We have to get much better at doing it. The only way to do this involves setting out a moral vision for why those achievements are so crucial for our society; battle lines are being drawn – we have been warned.

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