Climate change or welfare cuts. Welfare cuts or climate change. Which one will we hear more terrible news about next? This week it's the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith outlining the introduction of yet more hoops for JSA claimants to jump through. Last week, it was the IPCC's hard-hitting report on climate change. Either way, it seems to make little difference. The government will continue to blandly defend every round of poverty-inducing cut and welfare reform and bury their head in the sand rather than listen to the advice of the global scientific community and take action to tackle climate change.
But then, why should we expect things to be any different? As far as the welfare state is concerned, we were duped into believing that this government's approach was motivated by their economic vision. We might have disagreed that cutting support services to the most vulnerable was the best way to dig ourselves out of recession, but we still believed that the Conservative's ultimate ambition was to cut the deficit. That now seems to have been total folly. When the government has gone so far as to cut council tax support for the poorest people in the country and take away the support services available to victims of domestic violence one is left to question how much all of this can be in the name of the "recovery". What's driving these changes is the Conservative's social philosophy infused with ideals of individual responsibility and ending the 'evils of dependency'. It's social malevolence, not economic pragmatism.
The same can be said of the environment. Environmental campaigners are calling for government action but taking action is anathema to Conservative ideology. We need mass investment in cleaner energies and action to tackle big polluters but you can't have that cake and less state influence over businesses and the energy markets at the same time. To most outsiders the fact that government spending on climate change has halved since 2012 is unfathomable. To a Conservative ideology which values the freedom of industry and allowing the market to decide investment priorities, it makes perfect sense.
What the left needs to do is find, as John Harris has written, a blueprint for change that can challenge the Conservative's vision.
A first step would be to stop framing every argument about the welfare state in terms of the deficit. It only reinforces the idea that it is a luxury we can't afford and it isn't even the main motivating factor behind the Tory's slash and burn approach to benefits. The role that communities have played in clubbing together to set up food banks and community projects to help the most vulnerable demonstrates in the miniature that the compassionate purpose and vision of the welfare state isn't dead. By showing that the money people give to charities and taxes paid to support the poorest are two-sides of the same coin, we can offer a united challenge to the Conservative's individualist and small-state rhetoric.
We also need to demonstrate, as the likes of UK Uncut and Occupy are already doing, that the Conservative approach to welfare and climate change is designed only with a narrow set of interests in mind. It is important to highlight, as George Monbiot has done, that the lines between corporate lobbyists and politicians are becoming increasingly blurred. Cutting taxes for the super-rich and slashing environmental protection might not be in the interests of the greater good but it's pretty darn good for the 1% who have co-opted political influence in Britain. With all this back-scratching going on in Westminster it is important to ask: is your back feeling suitably scratched at the moment? If not, government is letting you down.
Finally, there is a need to answer the question posed by Harris: how do you solve a problem like the role of the state? Harris believes the left's attachment to the big state is what is holding it back - the Conservative's vision of a more individualised, dog-eat-dog world set free from government interference appears, on the surface at least, to offer a realistic reflection of the values of our modern economy.
Yet, the fact is that the Conservative's market-driven approach to welfare and environmental policy is hopelessly out of touch with reality. Freezing the carbon floor price so companies are no longer incentivised to cut carbon emissions will do nothing to ward off the warnings of environmental nihilism spelled out in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) recent report. And, as family structures continue to change, the role of the welfare state becomes ever-more important. With more women (and, in particular, mothers) going out to work and the nuclear family becoming increasingly out of fashion, traditional familial support networks are now less dependable. Far from being out-thought and out-visioned by the Tories, the opportunity is there to project a fresh vision for the role of the state in tackling climate change and guaranteeing that a safety-net is always available for anyone who falls on hard-times during this era of huge social and economic change.