Breaking Britain

On 04 April 2013, Mick Philpott was sentenced to life imprisonment for manslaughter. The man caused the death of six of his (many more) children by starting a fire. The Daily Mail’s headline read: ‘Vile Product of Welfare UK’. But it isn’t just the Daily Mail with that view. George Osborne, with the support of the Prime Minister, attributed a role to the welfare state to the rise of Philpott. He said that: ‘I think there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state, and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state […] subsidising lifestyles like that’. Readers of the tabloids, and many politicians besides, strongly believe that the majority of those claiming benefits are either foreigners or fraudsters. This is not surprising, given that citizens are consistently fed myths about those who rely on benefits. The TUC/YouGov Survey from December 2012 is hugely revealing. For instance, respondents believed that 41 percent of the entire welfare budget is spent on unemployment benefits. In a second example, respondents believed that 27 percent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently. It therefore comes as no surprise that 59 percent of all respondents of the poll agreed with the following statement:

Britain’s current welfare system has created a culture of dependency, whereby many people, and often whole families, get used to living off state benefits; the system needs to be radically changed to get such people to take more responsibility for their lives and their families.

The persistent myths spread by the media have therefore had a huge impact to entrench divisions within society about the nature of welfare (despite the fact that the same respondents also believed (by 54 percent) that the media does not give an accurate account of welfare expenditure or the people that claim social assistance). Here is a pie chart on how the welfare budget is actually spent [1]:

Expenditure of Welfare

What it shows is that less than three percent of the welfare budget goes on Jobseeker’s Allowance, and fraud is estimated to cover roughly 0.8 percent (although ‘fraud’ by definition may not be estimated accurately). What is hugely important to note is how widespread the welfare state supports British families: from young families to pensioners, from the sick and disabled to those on low income. Roughly 64 percent of all families receive some kind of social assistance.

The very idea of ‘welfare’ is now under siege. For many people, the term has connotations of big state, dependency and laziness. It is now even used as an insult, when it was once a source of pride. To take the headline from the Guardian, a ‘war on welfare’ has begun. This ‘war’ is fought amidst growing divisions in British society, in which welfare is linked to the rise of ‘shirkers’ (demonising the unemployed) and connected to the rise of immigration (with consequent rises in xenophobia). These are just two examples of a pervasive trend in an attempt to turn the public against social security in order to legitimise the Coalition’s austerity agenda.

As with the ‘debt versus growth’ debate, the Coalition are winning the argument. The terms of debate have shifted significantly: ‘welfare’ is no longer about supporting those in need; it is now about a ‘culture of dependency’. Setting the agenda in such stark terms means that the Conservatives have been able to pose a particular problem of the welfare state that implies a particular solution: cut welfare and you cut dependency. This narrative has proved to be very powerful – regardless of its faulty analysis. The policy consequences are as radical as the narrative has been powerful. However, the austerity agenda pushed by the Coalition has done far more than changed attitudes to welfare. It has had significant material consequences. A recent report by Oxfam showed that more than 500,000 people are reliant food aid. This is a failure of the social safety net to ensure that families have access to sufficient income to feed themselves adequately. This is a worrying trend, but most disturbingly of all it is almost entirely unopposed. The centre-left, on the whole, has relinquished ownership over the debate on welfare, and the vacuum has allowed the Conservative-led Coalition to fill it. Even Polly Toynbee has given up.

This is despite the fact that the austerity agenda will, as many have already pointed out, disproportionally affect the poor. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies backs this up, epitomised by the following graph [2]:

photo

The inevitable rise in inequality is hugely damaging. It was only a few years ago when the idea of ‘equality’ had a resurgence through the popular book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level. Inequality will have a negative impact on public health, crime and violence, happiness levels, mental health, work ethic and education. [3] Their persuasive arguments were at the top of the political agenda, having the support of David Cameron, Michael Gove, Ed Miliband and Jack Straw – to name a few figures that have publicly quoted the book. Of course, since then, the very idea of ‘equality’ has come under attack. In The Spectator, for example, the book was called ‘junk food for the brain’.

The Conservative Party’s agenda has been hugely effective. It has divided the public and portrayed the Labour Party as squandering public resources on ‘wasteful’ benefit claimants. The story has become one characterised by ‘unfairness’ to hardworking families for the benefit of the lazy. However, this strategy also presents an opportunity for Labour. Using Cameron’s own term of ‘Broken Britain’, which he first coined in 2009, Labour has the opportunity to argue that the Conservatives have further intensified social divisions. Ironically, it is the Conservatives that are ‘breaking Britain’, which Labour must articulate in three important ways. First, it must shift the language from ‘welfare’ to ‘fairness’. This must demonstrate the unfairness of the austerity agenda. Second, it must emphasise the squeeze on living standards and that the Labour Party will protect living standards in a period of low economic growth. Third, Labour must articulate a narrative that unites the public. One Nation Labour must be more than a buzzword; it must show substantive commitment to equality and well-being.

Slowly, the Party leadership has begun to take on this challenge. Last week was hugely important for Labour, and Ed Miliband’s speech was one that delivered. Although nuanced, it hit the right chord for many. Labour cannot win by solely presenting ‘the facts’ of welfare. As Miliband’s speech demonstrated, the Party must be committed to welfare reform with a narrative on social justice (epitomised by the return to the contributory principle), living standards (Miliband once again vowed to push forward with the living wage) and a commitment to equality. This is emblematic of what One Nation must stand for, and it is something that Labour has begun to articulate.

mg

Notes

[1] Taken from A. Coote and S. Lyall (2013) Mythbusters: “Strivers v. skivers: the workless are worthless”, London: New Economics Foundation. Available here.

[2] R. Joyce and D. Phillips (2013) Tax and Welfare Reforms Planned for 2013-14, London: Institute for Fiscal Studies. Available here.

[3] R. Wilkinson and K. Pickett (2009) The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone, London: Penguin.

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