PM's renegotiation demands show the Tories cannot be taken seriously as a party for working people
The attempts of David Cameron and his allies to partially uncouple from the EU include plans that are fundamentally at odds with one of the most recognisable and repeated elements of contemporary Conservative rhetoric.
Cameron travels to next week’s crucial summit with a satchel of proposals, hoping to attain agreement on his tenders from EU leaders, either at the time or during an additional ‘special’ meeting to be held in early March. Thereafter, the plan is to set June as the month for the United Kingdom’s citizens to face an in-out referendum on membership.
Conservative concerns over sovereignty, economic equity and market competitiveness are all to be laid out on the Brussels table but it is Cameron and company’s proposals on in-work benefits that leave a particularly sour taste in the mouth, being essentially contradictory to hitherto Tory doctrine.
Cameron and his associates will take with them a request for the implementation of a so-called ‘emergency brake’ mechanism, to be pulled if immigration is deemed to have placed excessive strain on the state’s socio-economic system.
This projected instrument, watered down from the Tories’ original harder-line pledge following negotiations with European Council president Donald Tusk, has the potential to severely limit immigrant workers’ access to in-employment benefits.
In contrast, we have become very familiar in recent years with the Conservatives’ tactic of projecting their perpetual appreciation and support for the working ‘strivers’ – they’ve even gone so far as to attempt an inheritance of the ‘party of the workers’ mantle.
The specific proposal in question here, following the Tusk consultation, includes the potential for an EU state to block migrants who are ‘newly entering its labour market’ from gaining access to ‘in-work benefits for a total period of up to four years from the commencement of employment’.
So, the Conservative government is making a concerted effort to prevent assistance from being provided to people who have left their respective homelands, set up shop in a foreign country, managed to acquire employment and, ideally without access to social housing from a Tory standpoint, are working legally for low pay whilst shelling out to cover full private-accommodation costs.
Surely such individuals fit the bill of ‘strivers’, in Tory parlance, better than virtually anyone?
Of course, an obvious counter could be, ‘when we made all of those public promises to support the strivers over the shirkers, we specifically meant British people’, yet it would appear entirely acceptable to be a non-British aspirant in general, so as long as you are sufficiently affluent so as not to require any assistance.
Basically, then, we have a situation by which a specific group is being targeted: low-paid, foreign workers, even if their employment is entirely legal and in keeping with the freedom-of-movement philosophy that lies (or once lay) at the very heart of the European Union, a union of which Mr Cameron wants to remain part and continue to avail.
Already, with the presumed aim of reducing immigration levels of less well-off individuals and families to the UK, there are accords in place that prevent an EEA migrant from claiming jobseeker’s allowance until at least three months after arrival, can can force migrants to leave if work has not been found within six months.
Now Cameron wants to make life tougher still on low-income migrants, including those from within the EU striving hard enough to have identified and entered into legal employment.
Whether the chief reason behind Cameron and his colleagues’ plans is to protect British interests, appease those who may otherwise vote to leave the EU, or simply to save on public expenditure, the proposals are at odds with both a fundamental ethos of the union and Conservative cries of support for the working strivers that have rung out so loudly and frequently in recent memory.
The claims of the prime minister and the government that they will back ‘anyone who wants to work hard and get on in life’ fall awfully flat in the light of attempts to deny a helping hand to those who appear to most wholly fit the Tories’ very own ‘striver’ mould.
David Maher is a journalist and member of the Green partyLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.