Friday 26 October 2012

It's Time to Bash Benefit-Bashing

I've had enough. BBC Question Time yesterday evening was the last straw. In a debate about IDS's ludicrous suggestion that poor people should be limited to two children before losing their benefit, sadly, unfortunately, it appeared that for once the Tories were in step with public opinion. As a kite flying exercise, it went down quite well in the studio. Sure, there was shock among the Twitterly  #BBCQT-watching audience, but it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone. I started reading newspapers in the late 80s (The Sun, The Star, and News of the World in case you were wondering). There has scarcely been a day since then when these rags did not print something decrying scroungers of one kind or another. Back in the day, single mums were vilified. Asylum Seekers, the unemployed, the disabled have each had their turns since - sometimes discretely, at others all simultaneously. In all likelihood, if IDS gets his way with child benefit and tax credits, single mums will be in the firing line again.

But it's gone on too long. I am sick and tired of having benefit bashing shoved down my throat whenever I look in a paper, turn on the telly, or venture onto most mainstream political websites. It's time it was taken on. Aggressively.

We know why the right wing press do this. Apart from providing lurid filler and opportunities to lecture the evil poor on morality, it is an integral part of the 30-year campaign to dismantle the welfare state. Systematically the powers-that-be have turned groups of workers and claimants against one another. As one bloke put it who came to see me the other day about his housing and council tax benefit, why should he have to face a 20% payment cut when he'd paid into the system for 25 years? He was, apparently, different to the young lads who hung round Longton shopping precinct sitting on benches with their phones and their fags. Neither had he anything in common with asylum seekers who come here and take benefits off hard working folk. Of course, he was quick to add he wasn't being racist.

Facts are stubborn things. But so is the accumulated weight of evidence-free prejudice. It doesn't matter that, right now, around 300,000 vacancies are being chased by approximately 2.6m people. It's not the labour market that's failing, it's the supposed 'cultures of worklessness' that's to blame. There's the spiralling housing benefit bill - it has nothing to do with the unregulated rents charged by private landlords, but people living above their means. Benefit fraud: the DWP put it at £1.3bn, or 0.7% of the total benefit spend, but papers and politicians alike assure us it's rife. They forget to mention that about £12bn in income-related benefits alone go unclaimed. There is literally a mounting pile of unclaimed cash that could make a real difference to the lives of our poorest people who, for whatever reason, choose not apply for it. If this does not prove how benefit averse we as a society are, I don't know what can.

Sadly, these arguments seldom wash. Not because they're wrong or people are too dumb, it's because the drip-drip fantasy of benefit-funded luxury chimes deeply with the everyday experience and outlook of working people. It's not that everyone has a ready example of a lead-swinging scrounger, it's the very idea that someone, somewhere is living off the backs of your labour without making a useful contribution themselves; that someone is is living a profligate, responsibility-free life while you work to make ends meet and watch every penny you spend. And it's the idea someone is getting away with it while you're being taken for a mug.

If you want to get a little bit Marxist about it, you might say this is a negative manifestation of working class consciousness. Working people are being appealed to on the basis of their common identity as labourers (be it by hand or by brain). As class-based appeals go, the success of benefit bashing has the reach and power Woolfie Smith could only dream of. But this consciousness is being manipulated against the interests of working people. A little bit taken off housing benefit here, an extra criteria for ESA there, all these add up to making life for those whose income is supplemented by benefits more precarious. Those who really get wealthy through the labour of others would much prefer to see benefits cut to the point where people are always better off in work, regardless of how low the pay, than taking the poor out of the poverty trap altogether by paying a decent wage.

That, in schematic form, is the nuts and bolts of it. But how to turn it around? There are two ways benefit bashing can be put on the back foot. The first is trying to change the terms of the popular conversation on benefits. For example, we are seeing the rebounding of public anger against cheats and scroungers back onto the heads of the establishment who encouraged it. Who could have foreseen the Tories desperately trying to appear tough on tax avoidance?

Whataboutery can only go so far. On the discourse of benefits themselves, we can begin to make inroads. Despite Tory and press nonsense on Housing Benefit (of which 90% of claimants are in work), there appears to be a growing realisation that this is a tax payer-funded subsidy for property speculation from which unregulated private landlords profit. Similarly for working and child tax credits, what are these if not subsidies that allow employers to get away with paying meagre wages? Their argument has to be matched by our argument. They demonise, condemn and blame those who claim benefits. We must demonise, condemn, and blame those parties, companies, and institutions that force people into claiming benefits as the only way to survive.

But, unfortunately, rhetoric is never enough. It is no accident the rise of benefit bashing coincided with the declining fortunes of the labour movement. Look back to the press of the post-war period. With arguably more generous and easy-to-access welfare provision, the benefit-funded underclass was not even a twinkle in the headline writer's eye. We can deploy as many incisive arguments as we like, we will ultimately not get anywhere unless the institutions and movements of working people - the labour movement - is rebuilt. The greatest practical step an individual can make in combating the unceasing attacks on the most vulnerable people in our society is signing up to their trade union, joining the cooperative movement, and, yes, filling out a Labour Party membership form.


Yakoub said...

Part of the problem, IMHO, is the enormous hypocracy on the part of the affluent middle classes, among whom tax avoidance is rife. The trick alleged of Ken (form a company to avoid the higher rate of Income Tax) is common practice and everyone knows it. This is where the finger pointing comes in: bashing benefit cheats in order to draw attention away from the 'legal' corruption Daily Mail readers routinely but quietly endorse.

Steve said...

The Labour Party? They've crept to the right for ages now and the day Ed M risks offending the Daily Mail will be a cold day in hell.

I've yet to see them taking a stand on this - they follow the same tack as the tories on this issue with all talk of "hardworking families" and "aspiration". Because it's laziness and lack of training stopping people getting jobs, not the actual lack of jobs.

The day they take a stand and repeat some of the facts consistently (e.g. that most housing benefit goes to people in work since wages are too low) might be a better day to look at that membership form.

Andy said...

I'm afraid it's not true that 90% of HB claimants are in work, see this 'Full Fact' article from June

Other than that, spot on.

Phil said...

Steve, the Labour Party won't take a stand on benefits because it makes no electoral sense to do so. As a vote catching machine, it's not about to hand the Tories a big stick they can beat it with.

But, and it is a big but, it needn't be this way. If we want to tackle the awful culture described here we need a vehicle to do it - and that is the labour movement, of which Labour is the political arm.

As I've argued on here many times, the links that allow working people to exert an influence on Labour are there but are seldom used. Too many times, the relationship between unions and the party is bureaucratic. We can and we must breathe life into them, and the only way to do so is get actively involved.

As a general rule, the Socialist Party's Socialism Today is seldom worth reading, but the latest does carry a very good conversation piece with our Owen. I recommend taking a look.

Phil said...

For a moment Andy, I thought you were our council cabinet member for green energy and enterprise!

Good point. As I said on Twitter, we need to get the figures straight or we run the risk of embarrassing ourselves. Cheers for the corrective.

Cel said...

Just got letters from HMRC going back to 2006. Turns out I've overpaid £5000 in tax over the last few years. Over those years, my top income was £10,000, so I was always below the poverty line.

I know that I paid more tax on that income than someone earning £50k through a company. No wonder I was better off on benefits - when I couldn't heat my room and got really sick after walking to work in the snow all winter (my CAB boss refused to contact the payroll company to sort out my tax), and had to go on ESA, I was the best off I had ever been.

I doubt my case is that exceptional - millions of people are on PAYE.

The system is utterly broken.

Paul said...

From yr comment:

"As I've argued on here many times, the links that allow working people to exert an influence on Labour are there but are seldom used."

Yes, this is the key point. I'm working on the 'manual' at the moment.

Phil said...

I hope you get that cash back, Cel. In my experience a letter from your MP can help speed up the process. Did they explain how such a ridiculous overpayment accrued?

Paul - I look forward to that mate.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link, very interesting.

I agree it makes no electoral sense to take a stand but surely just highlighting the truth consistently, in between all the talk of aspiration, would go someway to counter-balancing the deluge of propaganda? I haven't been seeing that at all.

On a completely unrelated note can I recommend replacing this commenting system with something like Disqus - it's free, you can moderate it and it allows Facebook / Twitter logins. Best of all it sends notifications of replies to everyone involved in conversation - I wouldn't have seen your reply unless I'd popped back but a lot of the time people arrive at page by random surfing and never come back. Anyway just a thought, worth looking into if you have time.


Phil said...

I agree - I am of the view Labour should challenge and lead public opinion and not always kowtow to it. But that's for another post in the very near future.

I will look into Disqus. I am usually petrified with technofear but after playing around with this site for six years, I am slowly getting a handle on it. I shall explore more fully over the course of this month, so cheers for the recommendation.