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I fear this will be the year welfare becomes warfare

ANYONE trying to lose weight knows that having the right incentive is crucial.

Some cut out the chips and booze for health reasons, others for the sake of appearance. I'll bet the last of the profiteroles, however, that nothing concentrates the mind faster than the prospect of bitter hardship.

Under a new scheme being proposed by Conservative-led Westminster Council, anyone who is overweight and refuses to go to exercise classes could have their housing and council tax benefits cut. In short, if the porkers don't lose the beef they will lose the pounds in other ways. You've heard of the Atkins diet; this is the Dickens plan.

That is unfair to the great prosecutor of social injustice; he would likely reject the notion of such a scheme as too far-fetched, even by the harsh standards of Victorian days. As one GP said of the Westminster plan: "When I was first told about this I thought it was a joke."

It will continue to be a funny old world, but not for some, next Tuesday when the Commons debates whether to impose a 1%, three-year cap on certain working-age benefits and tax credits. As any passing toddler will note, 1% is below the current inflation rate of 2.7%. As such, the cap is a blatantly provocative move by a Coalition Government setting out to make 2013 the year when welfare becomes the subject of warfare.

Working neighbour, getting up in the cold and dark, will look unto the closed blinds of their benefits-claiming neighbour and ponder the unfairness of life. Benefits officers will look unto claimants and invite them in for friendly chats more regularly. Politician will bellow unto politician about who is really helping the poor. If you want peace and harmony in 2013, join a choir.

The image of the "closed blinds" was used by the Chancellor, George Osborne, in his speech to the Conservative Party conference last year. Earlier in the same speech he reissued the party's "we are all in this together" declaration. We are not going to get through the economic downturn as a country, said Mr Osborne, if we set one group against another, if we divide, denounce and demonise. Yet ever since he left the podium his party has been doing precisely that to benefit claimants.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary and sometime visitor to Easterhouse (think Frankie Vaughan without the moonlight), has had a positively Stakhanovite start to 2013, issuing figure after figure in support of the cap on benefits and tax credits. The latest stats dropped into media in-boxes this week. According to the DWP, unemployment benefits have risen by 20% over the last five years, while private sector wages have gone up by 12%.

Wrong figures, says Labour, which prefers to look at the picture from 2002. In the last 10 years, the party calculates, benefits have gone up by 32% and average earnings 36%.

But that's numbers for you. With a shift of a time frame here and a change in components there, they can be made to say different things. For example, if we chose to compare the 20% rise in benefits with a jump in executive earnings of 27%, then the gap doesn't seem quite so large. Put a year's worth of Jobseeker's Allowance, £3692, beside the average yearly earnings of a top executive, £4 million according to a study by Incomes Data Services, and the picture changes again. If we really want to shake the statistical Etch A Sketch, how about contrasting the £6 billion cost of pegging benefits to inflation since the recession began with the initial £37 billion bailout of UK banks?

It is apples and oranges, winners and losers, wealth creators and wealth demolishers, or to use the lingo of the day, a tale of strivers and shirkers. The Coalition Government is betting that most people are ready to trade a banker for a benefits claimant as public enemy number one. It could be right. To give you a sense of how the winds of ill humour are blowing, one correspondent to a newspaper letters page (not The Herald's pages, which continue to be a Roman senate compared to the stairhead rammies elsewhere) suggested that the names and incomes of benefit claimants should be published on-line.

When even that nice Nick Clegg takes up the cudgels, one has to wonder if the centre of British politics is not shifting inexorably to the right when it comes to welfare. The Liberal Democrat leader wants to take the fight to Labour, asking how they would fund a benefits rise of more than 1%, the same as public sector workers will receive. Would they cut hospital budgets, he asks, or defence, or schools?

Mr Clegg reckons that the biggest divide in politics today is between those who offer leadership (the Coalition, presumably) and those who only offer dissent (Labour and other critics of the cap). It is a strange sort of leadership, however, that fires the starting gun on a race to the bottom, that tries to make people better off by first making them worse off, that tells individuals to pull themselves up by the bootstraps while taking away their means of buying boots.

It is a rum sort of civilised country that stands by while this happens. Labour has pledged to vote against the cap next week. The Conservatives cannot wait until they do, and will remind voters of the fact all the way to the next General Election. In the latest and greatest war between the strivers and shirkers, the Prime Minister would like you to choose a side and remember who was on it.

One wonders if those in favour of a cap, and further crackdowns, have ever lost a job; have ever had a child who has tried hard at school and university only to be unable to find work at a time of high and chronic unemployment; or have ever been a couple of mortgage payments away from losing their home. Such people are not strangers in our midst but relatives and friends, neighbours and acquaintances. Even ourselves.

What they are not is a Cabinet of millionaires so secure in their own standing that they cannot conceive of the financial cliffs over which so many fall. Strivers and shirkers, the deserving and the undeserving. Decide for yourself which is which.

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