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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33 Responses to “Cameron’s reforms take us to the edge of the cliff”

  1. :::

    RT @leftfootfwd: Cameron's reforms take us to the edge of the cliff

  2. Pucci Dellanno

    Cameron's reforms take us to the edge of the cliff: writes @TheFabians' @NatanDoron

  3. Julian

    You seem to be doing exactly what you are accusing the Tories of, but in reverse. You have cleverly combined all suggested changes to any benefits or welfare and implied that nothing can be changed without stepping onto the “slippery slope”. i.e. Everything the Tories propose must be resisted even if it seems (and is) sensible because it’s a step on the slippery slope. The only policies you can support are perpetual increases in benefits.

    It isn’t illegitimate to suggest that some benefits introduced with the best of intentions and which may have been right in their time, are no longer the best way to share a limited pot of money.

    You may like to caricature everything the Tories do as being from the lowest of motives and a desire to destroy the welfare state, but that doesn’t make it true. The lowest of all motives they could have is a sole desire to stay in power, and destroying the welfare state is hardly likely to achieve that for them.

  4. Brian Barder

    A first-rate article: thank you. A civilised society respects the principle of universal benefits, by which the whole community pools the risks so that the weakest and most vulnerable are partially protected against the effects of ill health, unemployment, disability, etc., and the cost of the insurance premiums is spread out by way of National Insurance and progressive taxation. Once this reactionary coalition government has undermined that fundamental principle, it’s unlikely to be possible ever to restore it without a storm of protest about unaffordability, wasting benefits on those who don’t need them, and the rest.

  5. Extradition Game

    RT @leftfootfwd: Cameron's reforms take us to the edge of the cliff: writes @TheFabians' @NatanDoron #NewsClub

  6. Paul Hood

    RT @leftfootfwd: Cameron's reforms take us to the edge of the cliff: writes @TheFabians' @NatanDoron #NewsClub

  7. Dave Citizen

    I tend to agree with Julian – Labour needs to move well beyond a defensive adversarial approach to what the Tories are doing. You talk of going on the offensive and call for a moral vision, but one that’s about how things are or rather were.

    I suggest rather than getting bogged down in difficult stuff like calling for a raise in the minimum wage during an economic down turn, Labour needs to make its own arguements about how to make Britain better – e.g:

    If inequality was brought down dramatically questions over welfare for the poor and a living wage would become much less of an issue. And in a more equal society, the artificial inflation of housing rents and purchase prices caused by the relatively extremely wealthy owning vast swathes of land and property to rent to much poorer workers would go, housing would get cheaper, making our economy more competitive. That’s going on the offensive.

  8. Ed's Talking Balls

    Opposition for opposition’s sake, or attempting to maintain the status quo at all costs because some change might lead to more in the future is craziness and electoral suicide. I hope it’s a strategy Labour adopts.

    If Miliband and his merry band find themselves writing articles and appearing on television defending child benefits for the rich and opposing a benefits cap of £26k p.a. they will pretty soon be on a sticky wicket. They will come across as even more silly if they use the old “slippery slope” chestnut.

  9. 13eastie

    “Universal benefits, the right to strike and the minimum wage represent years of progress and three of the greatest achievements of a civilised society”.

    You have no basis for making this claim, which is in fact nothing more than a nostalgic view of a previously imagined Fabian utopia.

    The reality, as demonstrated empirically under the last Labour govt, is:


    People on very low incomes are taxed:

    a) to pay child benefit to millionaire’s wives
    b) to pay winter fuel allowances to pensioners who spend their winters in Puerto Banus
    c) so Rupert Murdoch can have a free TV licence


    Union leaders’ very existence depends on a stream of invented disputes which they must be seen publicly to “solve” from time to time by taking militant action against a straw-man enemy. Most commonly, bloated companies who are already losing their competetive edge in the market (BA, Royal Mail) or public services (jobs are safe, users have no choice) are targetted; the people who lose out ultimately (besides the misled employees themselves) are hapless paying customers/tax-payers – generally people who trying to get on with their own work.


    There are millions unemployed, following the deepest recession in living memory under Labour. People willing to work for £5.92 /hr or less are forbidden from so doing and forced instead to do nothing and accept £1.65 / hr on JSA.





  10. DrKMJ

    RT @leftfootfwd: Cameron's reforms take us to the edge of the cliff: writes @TheFabians' @NatanDoron #NewsClub

  11. George McLean

    @4. 13eqastie

    Try turning your Caps Lock off and your brain on. This isn’t an argument about the last Labour Government, it’s an argument about what we need to do now to make income distribution more equal (per Dave Citizen, infra). Trade union leaders are more often forced into action by their members who see negotiations fail. And as for the jobs of public sector workers being “safe” … don’t you read the papers? And if you reduce or abolish the NMW will create jobs, then you really are asking a lot of the capitalists to distribute their increased profits equitably to stimulate the economy.

  12. George McLean


    13eastie not 13eqastie and “if you think reducing and abolishing” etc. Curse these cucumber fingers!:-)

  13. 13eastie

    @5 George,

    The argument most definitely IS about the last Govt since:

    a) Labour precipitated the financial catastrophe that has befallen the UK
    b) salvage of the economy demands that ongoing faults in its administration are identified
    c) remedied
    …and, finally…
    d) Labour and the Fabian society continue be in denial about b) and hence incapable of offering any resolution to c) or militating against recurrence of a)

    I did not say public sector jobs are safe – I said those of people who provide public services are.

    This is a huge distinction to which those on the left who claim to have “created” non-jobs (each of which has destroyed more than one private sector job through taxation) out of thin air (they are based on the supply of public wages and have nothing to do at all with the demand for such “work” or the prospect of adding value) are unable to reconcile themselves. See a) above.

    P.S. You’re unable to insult me here; there’s little point distracting readers from the point you’re trying to make in the attempt.

  14. Leon Wolfson

    (a) The financial markets, where the Tories pressed for even less regulation, caused the crisis. While there was certainly a failure, the Tories would have made it worse.

    (b) Yes, but this IS being done, and pouring cash into costly, ideological endeavours as this government is doing is precisely the wrong approach.

    (c) At the same time they’re destroying the job market.

    I have little use for the Fabians myself, but you’re offering FUD. Most of the “non-jobs” you decry are revenue-generating or socially important, and Tory councils in many cases have just as many of these positions. Abolishing them pushes higher costs onto other departments – the typical kind of single-line thinking which has dominated this government.

    When they’re not slashing their mate’s corperation tax. Oh, and I love your attempt to call for an effective minimum wage of £1.65/hr there!

  15. George McLean

    @7 13eastie

    The OP (that is, the basis of this thread) is not about the last Labour Government; it is about how stooges in the Conservative Party are used to undermine existing policies that the government is chary of attacking openly. That is what the “slippery slope” means. You troll into Labour’s alleged responsibility for the (global) economic shambles (your point (a)). That shambles naturally affected the UK as a leading capitalist economy, but you point (b) implies that “ongoing administrative faults” (that you identify as universal benefits, the right to strike and the NMW) were causative of the shambles (“salvage” of the UK economy demands that these faults are addressed, you say). You will have to produce evidence that these faults were causative. Until you do, there is no need (point (c)) for anyone to address these issues, although they can all be defended in their own right as redistributive of wealth. Those of us on the Left think that redistribution will lead to a better society. But that brings us back from your troll to the OP. The “slippery slope” is rightly identified as one tactic of the capitalists to reverse the drive to greater equality of wealth.

    Thanks for turning off your Caps Lock, by the way.

  16. 13eastie

    @8 Leon

    Labour ran a structural deficit from 2002, attempting to bribe the electorate with its own kids’ money for the next eight years. Debt incurred recapitalising retail banks will probably and ironically turn out to be highly profitable for the treasury.

    Revenue-generating? Socially important? Where is the evidence for this? On one side we have a hugely-inflated public sector wage bill since 2000. If this was the right way to go, where is society’s return?

  17. Ash

    I think Labour needs to reframe the debate about ‘fairness’ by talking a little less about need and a little more about desert. Do rich people *need* Child Benefit? Of course not. They don’t *need* state pensions or access to state schools and NHS treatment, either. But they *deserve* to receive all those universal services and benefits, because they pay a lot of money into the system that provides them. It’s only fair that they, like everyone else, should be entitled to state assistance (financial or otherwise) when they’re old, when they’re ill, when they have children to support, when they’re out of work, etc. etc.

    No Tory is going to stand up and seriously oppose that principle. (‘The rich should pay for other people’s benefits and services but get nothing back themselves!’) On the contrary, the problem we’d face would be turkeys voting for Christmas – low-to-mid earning people with left-wing instincts who somehow think they’d be better off living in a right-wing paradise where taxes were low, state benefits and services were ‘targeted’ solely at those who need them, and the rich were ‘forced’ to rely wholly on private pensions, healthcare, schools etc.

    Another line on CB is this: it’s universally seen as ‘fair’ that the amount of tax you pay should reflect your ability to pay. Someone with three kids to support (say) has less money to spare than someone who’s on the same income but who has two kids, one kid or no kids. That’s true whether the income in question is £20,000, £40,000 or £80,000. So it’s perfectly fair that people with kids should get some sort of tax allowance or rebate reflecting that fact – and Child Benefit is the neatest, most efficient way of giving a small proportion of their taxes back to them.

    There are signs Miliband is moving in the right direction here with some of the recent talk about ‘contributory principles’ etc.

  18. 13eastie

    @9 George

    The slippery slope argument is paradoxical. It is being used by the OP to say that, no matter how many examples anyone can produce of injustice and insanity in our swollen and unsound benefits system, we must not concede and deviation from the Fabian plan because it would put us on a “slippery slope”, it would be the “thin end of the wedge”.

    Taken to its conclusion it follows from this argument that spending on universal benefits must only be allowed to increase, no matter how ludicrous the starting point.

    The government has been borrowing money for the last decade, in my daughter’s name, to provide a free TV licence for Rupert Murdoch and to keep Bob Crow in a council house for life.

    The argument that says this must continue is simply selfish, and that it is put forward in the name of “fairness” or “progress” is straightforward hypocrisy.

  19. Ed's Talking Balls


    That’s effectively what I was saying at comment 3. The slippery slope argument is the last refuge of a debater who suddenly runs out of ideas mid-speech. One should never be so dependent on a hypothetical, i.e. things “could” change drastically if we change them a bit. That’s an argument in favour of perpetual status quo. Madness.


    You’re right that Labour doesn’t have a hope in hell of putting forward a counterargument on the basis of need. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of wealthy pensioners seeing the winter fuel allowance as a welcome windfall and buying a decent scotch. But I’m not convinced by universality and do think there has to be emphasis on need. For a start, if benefits are to be truly universal, then why can’t I have housing benefit at the same levels as those who are subsidised to live in London? As a net contributor to the system, I have put in and should be as entitled to take out as anyone else (in fact, going by the principle of contribution, I would be more entitled than those who haven’t put anything in).

  20. Ash

    Mr Talking Balls

    “why can’t I have housing benefit at the same levels as those who are subsidised to live in London? As a net contributor to the system, I have put in and should be as entitled to take out as anyone else”

    Because that would be silly. Everyone has a childhood; everyone gets ill; everyone is entitled to an education; most people are lucky enough to grow old. Hence it makes sense to make things like child benefit, medical treatment, education and the state pensions universally available. Other benefits and services just aren’t relevant to most people, so it would a waste of time and money to provide them universally.

  21. Ed's Talking Balls

    Everyone needs accommodation too.

  22. Ash

    Chuntering Testicles –

    Sure, but most people (especially outside London) are in a position to cover the costs of their accommodation privately; whereas most people are *not* in a position to cover the cost of their healthcare, education and pensions privately. (Child Benefit I’d put in a somewhat different category – it serves the same purpose as the Family (tax) Allowance it replaced, i.e. ensuring that people with dependent children make a smaller net contribution to the tax system than people without dependent children.) So it makes perfect sense for the state to provide healthcare, education and pensions universally, but only to get involved in subsidising the cost of accommodation in specific circumstances.

  23. Ed's Talking Balls

    No, you’re picking and choosing in an attempt to suit your argument. It hasn’t worked.

    And as for ‘Chuntering Testicles’, aside from having coined yet another possible nickname for Labour’s discredited Shadow Chancellor, you’ve not enhanced your point in any way. About as witty and helpful as me inserting a ‘g’ before your username.

  24. Leon Wolfson

    13eastie – Before the banker-caused crisis, the economy was in a better state than Major left it. Do read up before you talk about the failure of your favoured party.

    Society’s return can be seen clearly in things like the rapid, virtually unpredicented, fall in child poverty. Which is turning rapidly back the other way now, under your Tories.

    Ash – Reinstate proper rent boards, and most people will be able to afford accomodation. Combine that with a hefty tax on unoccupied properties…

  25. Leon Wolfson

    And “universality” has different meanings. Everyone, for example, is entitled to minimum wage in this country. Everyone should also be entitled to affordable utility bills, accomodation and so on – some of these things are means-tested, others are not.

    The problem is that means-testing itself is often done in uneven, damaging ways – child benefit being changed to penalise single-earner families is one example – and things like the minimum wage, which SHOULD be an absolute, is attacked under the cover of it.

    Unless I can be assured that these things WON’T be attacked, I’ll oppose errosion of universal benefits purely to defend those. No, it’s not optimal, but the Tories have shown these chances can’t be given to them.

  26. mr. Sensible

    13eastie that is quite ridiculous.

    You cannot stigmatize the poorest in society by capping benefits such as child benefit exclusively for them. What’s more that isn’t saving any money; when this came out, it was revealed that it will help pay for Cameron’s marriage tax bribe.

    On NMW, the very real risk is that unscrupulous employers could exploit this louphole to bring down costs and bring up profits.

    Same old tories…

  27. George McLean

    Many of those antagonistic to the OP are trying to say that the “slippery slope” argument is designed to stifle any consideration of alternative policies. It isn’t. It is, as I have said, a recognition that attempts such as the Philip Davies’s call for disabled people “to be allowed to work for less than the NMW” are stalking horses, placed in the media by capitalist stooges, to undermine progressive policies rooted in equality and fair distribution of wealth.

  28. Ash

    Ed’s Talking Balls

    “No, you’re picking and choosing in an attempt to suit your argument. It hasn’t worked.”

    Huh? The examples I picked were the most significant services and benefits that are, as a matter of fact, universal (or were until recently). So I’m hardly cherry-picking! I’m just trying to explain what I think is the rationale between giving everyone a pension when they get old, but not giving everyone an allowance to live in a rented house in London whether they live in London or not.

    “And as for ‘Chuntering Testicles’, aside from having coined yet another possible nickname for Labour’s discredited Shadow Chancellor, you’ve not enhanced your point in any way. About as witty and helpful as me inserting a ‘g’ before your username.”

    That was intended to be an amusing variant on your username (which is after all a joke to begin with) – not an insult. It could have become a hilarious running joke – “Nattering Nutsack”, “Garrulous Gonads” etc etc. No offence meant.

  29. Natan Doron

    For those who missed it on the weekend, my @leftfootfwd piece has attracted some healthy discussion amongst the trolling

  30. Sunder Katwala

    For those who missed it on the weekend, my @leftfootfwd piece has attracted some healthy discussion amongst the trolling

  31. Ed's Talking Balls

    Fair enough, I misread that one: I think I was perhaps in shock at having run into a sense of humour on a left wing blog!

    What I meant by picking and choosing was that I don’t find the distinction between the benefits you listed and housing benefit as convincing.

  32. Daniel Pitt

    Cameron's reforms take us to the edge of the cliff: #ConDemNation

  33. Tax credit changes will discourage work and have other disastrous effects | Left Foot Forward

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