As the Labour leadership candidates seek to appear populist on welfare, coming out in support of the welfare cap and Tory cuts, the human cost of this populism comes to light. In a memo to the DWP, it’s been recognised that some 40,000 children will be plunged into poverty. In an attempt to appeal to those that may vote, we may be choosing to ignore a hopeless (but substantive) minority. This is a choice of conceding, instead of challenging the perceptions that make such policies populist.
Plunging 40,000 children into poverty -part of a trend of growing poverty and inequality over the past five years that the Tories are happy to continue, nay, accelerate- is popular, very popular. Welfare has become dirty. If the British public have shifted right on some issues, this tops the list.
But this popularity is largely a product of misinformation and a gross distortion of the truth to suit the prevailing agenda of the day, by both government and media alike. An IPSOS Mori survey (in, oh would’ya look at that, a newspaper who’s non-dom owner came out in support of the Coalition) found that, quite literally, the British public are wrong on nearly everything:
Respondents believed that 27% of social security was claimed fraudulently, compared to the real figure of 0.7%. They also believed 41% of social security went to the unemployed. The real figure is 3%. They believed 29% more went to JSA than pensions, in reality 15 times more is spent on pensions.
Furthermore, the British Social Attitudes Survey found that
“Overall attitudes towards unemployment benefits have become less sympathetic over time, for example the proportion who say unemployment benefits are too high has increased from a quarter in the mid-1990s to a half now.”
This trend in misperception predates austerity. New Labour, in an attempt to not look, well, Old Labour, the Beveridgian and Keynesian type, opted for the Third Way tradition of ‘No rights without responsibility’ and conditionality. It’s what Peter Dwyer referred to as ‘Creeping Conditionality’. Even the Milibandite (Yeah, THAT Marxist) tradition of ‘contribute before you claim’, especially in reference to young people and immigrants, followed this New Labourite trend.
The narrative of focusing on the unemployed claimant -a tiny spec of the DWP budget- has always been strategic. If not for austerity then for unfettered markets. Before the 2008 crash, Labour in some ways did overspend, but not in the way that is often characterised. It was the ‘welfare party’, if only because it abandoned challenging irresponsibility for fear of looking anti-business. Appeasing irresponsible business turned out to be more damaging in the long run.
Instead of crossing the ‘Miliband line’ of challenging big businesses that employed on zero hours contracts or didn’t pay decent wages, or on landlords, or on energy companies that contribute to a rising cost of living -all of which have made housing benefit and in-work benefits soar-, New Labour decided instead to chuck benefits at the problem. To not focus on the cause of poverty but rather alleviate it. The opposite of predistribution, if you will.
Benefits were always a subsidy for poverty instead of a challenge to it.
And that’s where we can change the narrative. We can cut benefits, we can reduce the welfare bill, but only with a pay rise and by tackling rents and other living costs that continue to climb because our Tory government is weak, scared, and has no interest in challenging the ideologue of their historical heroes. Lobbied to death and funded by the vested interests of Miliband lexicon, we can only rely on the Tories to make the case for eradicating the symptoms; benefits, instead of the cause; failed markets. They, quite simply, stand up to the weak and not the strong.
As an opposition, we need to be the challengers. Approach benefits by pointing out that, yes, the welfare bill is too high. Not because of mass ‘scrounging’, but because of mass exploitation. We cannot chuck money at the problem, but we also cannot cut that money without addressing why we were chucking it in the first place. Cutting welfare and pushing thousands into poverty is cruel and unusual punishment for a crime they did not commit. We have to address the cause, instead of devastatingly ignoring the symptoms and cutting welfare alone. Britain needs a government that makes benefits unnecessary, with a pay rise and caps in the private sector, instead of cutting them when they are necessary. Maybe then the populism can be in favour of long term social justice instead of short term punishment of the poor.