This post was supposed to be written in response to the announcement of Britain’s Hardest Grafter, which sounds like some kind of W1A satire-but real. The title just sat in my drafts only to come back to me after I endured watching Benefits Britain, a documentary which aims at exploring life for people on welfare-but is obviously filmed in a way to make everyone involved look as bad as possible or, in the words of the tabloid press, like skiving scroungers.
The last election saw politicians fall over themselves to prove that they were part of the group that really represented hard working people or those who are ‘aspirational’. The main way that they did this was to reassure them that those scroungers who spent all day watching daytime TV and who are sleeping in with the blinds down while the ordinary working Briton is commuting would be punished. Clearly, if people are less well-off when they’re working than when they’re on benefits something needs to be done; but perhaps it would make more sense to legislate for a living wage rather than allow working people to continue to struggle to live in our major cities and simply cut welfare payments, claiming to be working towards a fairer society.
This shirkers and scroungers narrative is a problem across the political spectrum; in the current Labour leadership contest there is a lot of talk about wanting to represent ‘aspiration’. The inference being that under Miliband’s leadership they were considered to be too soft on welfare reform, and that obviously no one who is signing on could possibly have any form of ambition. However, the them and us narrative is most loudly preached by the right.
The Coalition government began to reduce welfare spending, largely blaming Labour for creating a budget imbalance, and the new Conservative have already announced that they are going to be making £12bn worth of cuts to the welfare budget. Although they haven’t quite worked out where, or how they’ll be doing this. Whilst introducing a cap on benefits neatly feeds into the ‘punishing the lazy unemployed’ narrative, it’s likely that the main area that will face cuts is tax credits. Far from supporting the work-shy’s big television fund, tax credits support those on low incomes in order for them to make ends meet. Whilst Cameron does appear to pay lip service to the idea of higher wages, it seems unlikely that when he talks about ‘drivers of opportunity’ he’s referring to raising wages for shop workers. It’s more likely that he’s suggesting that lower corporate taxes will enable business to pay their workers more; or in improving Britain’s STEM industry standing-none of which will particularly help Osborne’s striving shift workers.
This lack of understanding, wilful or otherwise, of issues surrounding those who aren’t employed is something that is a defining feature of our current government and its supporters. ‘Human errors’ which end in people with serious illnesses being asked to attend a job centre meeting. There’s been an alarming trend in suicides and deaths among vulnerable people who have their benefits removed. And there’s been a general denial from politicians and right-wing journalists that there is any correlation between people’s benefits being removed or decreased and the use of food banks; or that this is even a bad thing, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.
It would be untrue to say that no one on benefits plays the system, but this represents just 1% of welfare payments. When I think about Benefits Britain, there was only person on the show that I would say seemed a little sketchy. The others were a young couple wanting a ~benefits baby~ but they shopped in charity shops and the man wanted to get a job to support his future child. A foster mum who is framed as hoarding her teenage children’s benefits for rent (how dare she) who ultimately gets a part-time job, and who is an excellent reminder of the anxiety faced by the unemployed when it comes to making the grade and getting fired. There was also a single ex-carer who is facing losing her home that she’s lived in for over a decade thanks to the bedroom tax. I’m pretty sure Channel 5 and the government would want me to be filled with rage that my money is funding these people’s lifestyles; but it kind of just made me feel sad.
This rhetoric of them and us has always been present in politics and is becoming increasingly so over the past few years, whether about immigrants or the poor (the headlines at the beginning of this piece are from 2012). However, its lazy politics and I, for one, am definitely bored of it.
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(I wrote this last week, but George Monbiot wrote an excellent piece on the same topic which is far more eloquent than mine, you can read that here)