Owen Jones, The Indepedent: Against George Osborne’s war on the poor and the vile stupidity of his ‘workers vs shirkers’ narrative
Against George Osborne’s war on the poor and the vile stupidity of his ‘workers vs shirkers’ narrative
The hope is that, by opposing such a cap, Labour can be painted as the unapologetic champion of the widescreen-TV-watching, multiple-child-producing, closed-curtained-home-dwelling “shirkers”.
That a gang of multimillionaire class warriors is intentionally attempting to turn poor people against each other for political advantage is as shameful as the often grubby world of politics gets. When even the mildest suggestion is floated that Britain’s booming wealthy elite should cough up a bit more, the Tories slap it down as “the politics of envy”, and yet they shamelessly attempt to direct the resentment of struggling low-paid workers towards the supposedly luxurious conditions of their unemployed neighbours. Has there even been such a concerted, deliberate attempt by a postwar government to turn large chunks of the electorate against each other? Thatcher would blush.
It surely represents the most aggressive attempt to drive down the living standards of the poor since the second-ever Labour government was destroyed in 1931 after an attempt to slash payments to unemployed people and wages. Disastrously, it will further suck desperately needed demand out the economy. Austerity has proved self-defeating (just as the critics, smeared as “deficit-deniers”, warned) and it is the working poor and unemployed who must pay the price.
Just look at what this ideologically crazed cabal has done to our economy. According to Citibank, further large revenue shortfalls will drive the Government’s debt-to-GDP ratio close to 100 per cent of GDP, up from 43 per cent before the crisis unfolded. The underlying deficit is growing, despite attempts to massage figures with raids on the Bank of England’s quantitative easing coupons and the gifting of assets from the Royal Mail’s pension funds.
Osborne is borrowing £100bn more than expected. We are in the most protracted economic crisis in modern times; the economy is still 3.1 per cent below the pre-Lehman Brothers crash peak, and analysts warn that an unprecedented triple-dip recession is approaching. A “lost decade” is upon us. As the catastrophe unleashed by this Government worsens, so the campaign to redirect anger to our neighbours must intensify.
To be clear, the situation facing the working poor and unemployed people was already bleak. The Resolution Foundation predicts that, in 2016, wages will be no higher than they were at the turn of the century. The poorest 10 per cent face a slide in living standards of 15 per cent by the end of this decade. Unlike the economy, food banks are booming like never before. Osborne claims his measures are to make work pay but, given that the majority of people in poverty are in working households, this is a nonsense.
There is now talk of the Labour leadership taking a stand against Osborne’s cuts. It comes after backbencher John McDonnell sent a desperate plea to his fellow MPs that, “instead of falling for this grubby trap, let’s take them on”. Labour’s response to the onslaught against the welfare state has been weak, partly because its spokesperson on the issue is Liam Byrne, a man who sums up all that is wrong with modern politics – technocratic, obsessed with tactics and stripped of purpose or belief. It has proven totally counter-productive: while the Tories can claim a clear message, Labour’s top team has risked looking hopelessly muddled and cowardly.
If the Labour leadership does show courage, it must defend the interests of the battered working poor without fuelling the sense that unemployed people are “shirkers”. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, there are now 6.5 million unemployed or under-employed people, all looking for work that does not exist. Neither are unemployed people a static group: at least one in six of us has claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance in the past two years, and millions are trapped in a cycle of low-paid work and joblessness. And as a recent report from the foundation showed, the widespread belief in ”three generations who have never worked” is a total myth. “Despite strenuous efforts,” reads the report, “the researchers were unable to locate any such families.”
To be fair to the Labour leadership, the political space for challenging welfare cuts is limited indeed. While a YouGov poll in September revealed that more than half opposed further welfare cuts, there is a Government and media-fuelled pandemic of hate against “scroungers”. There urgently needs to be a campaign led by trade unions and charities to challenge myths and give a voice to those affected – challenging the all-pervasive extreme caricatures of layabouts.
There is an alternative
Such a campaign needs to push alternatives, too. It is often alleged that the original plans of the Beveridge Report have been subverted, but it was published at a time of near-full employment. In the 35 years after its publication, unemployment rarely topped a million. Long-term unemployment alone was higher last year than all forms of unemployment in the early 1960s – the damning legacy of the trashing of British industry from the 1980s onwards. Most do not realise that by far the biggest chunk of welfare spending is on elderly people. And if Beveridge’s original aims have been corrupted, it is because the welfare state has become a subsidy for landlords charging extortionate rents and employers paying poverty wages.
Today, Labour unveils plans that move towards German-style rent controls. If combined with a council house building programme – creating jobs and stimulating the economy – the £21bn wasted on housing benefit (which should be renamed “landlord subsidy”)would be reduced. Similarly, the number of working families receiving working tax credits has risen by half since 2003 – because of a surge in low-paid jobs. A living wage would bring down spending on tax credits, and increasingly in-work benefits like housing benefit and council tax benefit. Improving workers’ rights stuck in the Victorian era would allow working people to demand better wages from their employers, too, at a time when big corporations sit on a £750bn cash mountain.
Osborne has set a trap made out of the livelihoods of the poorest people in British society. Labour must call his bluff, but a campaign challenging the Government’s demonisation campaign must create the space to do so. Let this ruse backfire – and expose the inhumanity of a Conservative Party determined to make the poorest pay for the economic calamity it is responsible for.
Friday 18 May 2012
What does it say about modern Britain when the pre-meditated massacre of six children is described as “an accident waiting to happen” on national television? In the early hours of last Friday, someone poured petrol through the letterbox of the Philpott household, unleashing a blaze that ended in one of the most appalling mass murders in our country’s recent history. Whoever was responsible must have known the almost inevitable consequences of their actions. No rationalisations exist for this sort of atrocity.
But as the surviving Philpotts face an agony most would struggle to imagine, right-wing shock-jock Carole Malone argued that they had effectively brought it on themselves. “This family became a target a couple of years ago,” she argued on ITV’s This Morning; they had “probably upset a lot of people” by being a family of 17 who were receiving state benefits. “I suspect they have many enemies out there because they were seen to be on benefits,” she suggested with a tone that did not betray a hint of compassion. With the country in such a dire financial state, “People have seen families – maybe like this – wanting to take advantage.” Referring to the “culture of the family” and the fact they had brought “attention to themselves”, Malone concluded that “six innocent children have died as a result”.
Malone has form. In 2009, she absurdly claimed that illegal immigrants received “free cars”. The Press Complaints Commission forced the now defunct News of the World to apologise and publish a full retraction. After Karen Matthews shocked the nation by kidnapping her own daughter to extort money from the tabloid press, Malone claimed to have lived “next” to a council estate “full of people like Karen Matthews”. They were part of a “sub (human) class that now exists in the murkiest, darkest corners of this country”, she claimed, as though an abhorrent individual such as Karen Matthews was representative of anybody but herself. But as contemptible as this proven propagator of untruths is, Malone merely reflects prejudice that is increasingly rampant in austerity Britain. On the same day the children were killed, I am told that a producer at a leading radio station suggested using the tragedy as a hook for a feature on large families.
Before the general election, some of the media delighted in using the Philpotts as evidence the welfare system was out of control. They were featured on ITV shows Ann Widdecombe Versus The Benefit Culture and The Jeremy Kyle Show, and in several newspapers. The coverage had a simple aim: to provide proof of the age-old suspicion that the poor are breeding too much – and at taxpayers’ expense, too. It was a sentiment that was rife among the eugenicists who flourished in inter-war Britain; and Thatcher’s mentor, Keith Joseph, ruined his Conservative leadership ambitions in the mid-1970s by claiming that “our human stock is threatened” by single parents “in [social] classes 4 and 5” having too many children.
Echoing this tradition, Jeremy Hunt argued before the general election that long-term claimants had to “take responsibility’ for the number of children they had, adding that the state would no longer fund large workless families. But it is all based on myths. Just 3.4 per cent of families in long-term receipt of benefits have four children or more.
Hatred against those receiving benefits is out of control in Cameron’s Britain. The Tories transformed a crisis of capitalism into a crisis of public spending, and determined that the most vulnerable would make the biggest sacrifices. But taking away support from the disabled, the unemployed and the working poor is not straightforward. It can only be achieved by a campaign of demonisation – to crush any potential sympathy. Benefit recipients must only appear as feckless, workshy scroungers, living in opulent quasi-mansions with wall-to-wall widescreen TVs, rampaging around the Canary Islands courtesy of handouts from the squeezed taxpayer. Benefit fraud does exist – according to Government estimates, it is worth less than 1 per cent of welfare spending – but the most extreme examples are passed off as representative, or as the “tip of the iceberg”. The reality is all but airbrushed out of existence.
Earlier this year, a Sunday Times article featured the headline “End the something for nothing culture”. Below was a picture of the Gallagher family from the comedy-drama Shameless, as though these fictional caricatures were real life. This one-time paper of record quoted a Whitehall official on benefit recipients: “If we want them to tap dance, then they will tap dance.” Rod Liddle – who dresses up the boorish rants of a thick pub bore as journalism – claimed that his new year’s resolution “was to become disabled”, perhaps with a “newly invented” illness like fibromyalgia, so he could claim benefits. As the economic catastrophe that began four years ago led to a national jobs’ crisis – there are now over six million people looking for full-time work – the “scrounger'”caricature perversely has become more and more popular.
It is tempting to ignore the ramblings of glorified internet trolls like Liddle, but their projected ignorance has consequences. Six of the biggest disability charities have warned that the campaign of demonisation – by both journalists and politicians – has led to a surge in abuse towards people with disabilities. According to Scope, two-thirds reported abuse in September last year, up from 41 per cent just four months earlier.
But this campaign helps sustain public acquiescence in a massacre of the welfare state. George Osborne plans £10bn of further benefit cuts; Cameron’s parting spinmeister Steve Hilton has proposed £25bn. Half a million people are to have their disability living allowance taken away, even though the estimated fraud rate is just 0.5 per cent. People with serious illnesses are being stripped of their employment and support allowance, after undergoing the horrendous (and often humiliating) ordeal of a points-based assessment by French corporation Atos. One man with a degenerative lung disease, Larry Newman, was awarded no points – just a few weeks before he died of his illness. Under New Labour (let’s not forget who started this), one woman had her benefits cut after missing an assessment appointment – because she was in hospital having chemotherapy for stomach cancer.
But we rarely see this reality: it is intentionally hidden from us. The Government and much of the media divert anger from those who caused the crisis, to your “scrounging” neighbour down the street. And so we end with Carole Malone arguing that a family whose children died in a fire brought it on themselves. It is beyond shameful. And it must be challenged.