Branding is a tricky thing in politics, as the Thatcher-led Conservative government found when it introduced the community charge.
The charge was trialled in Scotland in 1989 before being introduced across the UK in 1990. You may not have heard of it, and that’s probably because everyone, beyond the government of the day, called it the poll tax.
This precedent isn’t a happy one for the current coalition; within months of the tax being rolled out across the UK, riots against its intrinsic unfairness had led to the downfall of the Prime Minister and a huge downturn in her government’s ratings which only the ‘regular guy’ act of John Major, the next party leader, could rescue in time for the next election.
People were not only up in arms about the fact that, for the first time, local taxes were to be collected from every individual rather than every property, costing the rich man in his castle the same as the poor man at the gate.
They objected to a piece of gerrymandering, which was the decision to use the electoral register as the tax register, encouraging the poor and transient to move off it. No prizes for guessing which party the majority of these people usually voted for, and why the term ‘poll tax’ became so hated.
When the current coalition introduced its ‘spare room subsidy’ it claimed to want to encourage better use of social housing by reducing benefits for those who had a spare room by an average £14 per week, in the apparent belief that under-occupiers would simply move to smaller homes.
But the reality was quite different. Stories began to emerge that tenants were falling into debt within three months of the change being implemented. A Merseyside study showed that 26,500 households had been affected by the tax, but the shortage of smaller affordable properties in the area meant only 155 were able to downsize and avoid paying it.
The area's social landlords reported that 6,000 of the 14,000 tenants in rent arrears had never been in this situation before, suggesting that the most responsible householders are being forced into debt because they cannot afford the new charge.
Governments should beware of pulling new groups into the political sphere, riled by a sense of victimisation; as the poll tax showed, hell hath no fury like those fired up by a sense of righteous anger.
The coalition is clearly rattled. Last week Tory MP Nigel Adams wrote a letter to the BBC complaining about its use of a private company to find people affected by the change.
This could be seen as a pre-emptive strike; the party may believe that any investigation is likely to find unfairness and poverty, hence Adams’s attempted misdirection in stating that “many people will conclude that Newsnight has a preconceived agenda in covering this story”.
In the face of sustained criticism, the government has stuck to its ‘spare bedroom subsidy’ line. But has it worked?
A quick Google search would suggest not. Enter the search term “spare bedroom subsidy” and it returns 211,000 results. Reasonably impressive, you might think.
But search for "bedroom tax" and you will find 1,120,000 results, more than five times as many.
As with the poll tax, the public has decided which version they believe sums up the idea, and no amount of expensive branding or government repetition has changed its mind.
Terminology is becoming increasingly important to this government as it tries to find ways to frame its cuts agenda in the language of a moral crusade. As an example, the Department for Work and Pensions has a ‘Social Justice Team’ – in an agency overseeing the hated work capability assessment and benefit cuts to lone parents and disabled people – that, according to its internet page, is dedicated to “Helping to reduce poverty and improve social justice”, including through helping people into work.
Its use of supportive language perhaps explains why the Team doesn’t lay claim to the government’s flagship employment scheme, the Work Programme; perhaps it is an unjust scheme too far, or perhaps its many failures mean few want to be associated with it. Talking of ‘help’ and ‘support’ in relation to a mandatory programme may be an abuse of the word even harsher than the misnamed Social Justice Team can bear.
You only need to imagine applying the oxymoronic principle of compulsory support to any other area of life to see how misplaced it is:
“Would you like some help carrying your shopping?”
“No thank you, I can manage.”
“I’m carrying your shopping whether you like it or not.”
This coalition, perhaps even more than the Alistair Campbell-influenced Blair government famous for its spin, is in thrall to the power of words. The morality is misplaced so the language has to work even harder to try to control the thought processes of those hearing it.
It must be disappointed that not all of its crusading words have hit home.