A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

What became of the Likely Lads?

In Home Affairs, The Media on July 12, 2011 at 1:51 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

In politics, three is indeed the magic number: major parties, modern ideologies, even decades of economic consensus. The growing debate about the welfare state and the poor is no exception to this rule – three examples depict the different dimensions of the debate. Firstly, the tabloid stories which surface with alarming yet predictable regularity, hacks having searched for the most egregious examples of benefit fraud and mapping them onto the entire welfare state, as if every recipient were a calculating schemer intent on wringing the taxpayer of all their hard-earned funds. Secondly, the Tory-led government’s welfare reforms spearheaded by Iain Duncan Smith, which look to simplify welfare provision into a single universal credit whilst cutting the amount available to claim. Thirdly, and perhaps least surprisingly, Ed Miliband’s salutary broadside into the debate in the form of his 13th June speech on responsibility, professing the intent to make jobseekers work for their benefits. As a play to the ‘squeezed middle’ it is likely to push the right (and Right) buttons, but it understandably attracted criticism from Left-leaning commentators such as Medhi Hasan, who questioned the morality and mathematics of equating the damage done by welfare recipients with that of City bankers.

However, this issue is not as one-sided as it might first appear if you were getting your news from any source to the Right of The Guardian. Three examples illustrate a countervailing force to the debate: the 2009 publication of James Gregory and Tim Horton’s The Solidarity Society on the centenary of the Webb’s report on the Poor Law, Archbishop Rowan Williams’ recent editorial in the New Statesman, and the release this week of Owen Jones’ debut book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. Though news of this might not reach the likes of The Times or The Daily Mail, these three represent an intellectual resistance to the current driving the poor into greater and greater hardship.

What we are seeing, as Rowan Williams argued in his editorial, is the return of the Victorian distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor – but this, as all three writers recognise, is not a divide which began with this government. Over the last three decades we have seen a transformation in the way the poor are viewed as represented. Gone are the respected (and even feared) images of hardy miners and factory workers; instead, we have a lazy, alcoholic, heroin-addicted single mum and her throng of illegitimate children living in a council flat, perfectly able to but too feckless to work. Jones is probably accurate in using Right-wing commentator Simon Heffer to epitomise the view towards today’s working class – that, since the Thatcher revolution, those worthy have moved up to the middle class, and what remains at the bottom is an entirely functionless social residuum. In fact, it is mark of this transition in opinion is shown by the way that the concept of class has almost entirely dropped out the debate – replaced by race, gender and sexuality in the public, political and media imagination.

The latest addition to this movement is Iain Duncan Smith’s planned welfare reform. The alleged focus of this is to “make work pay” and reign back the unemployment which has become entrenched in certain communities.  Whilst the simplification of welfare provision is be welcomed, the good done is somewhat curbed by plans to leave the current welfare budget it tatters by the time the bill becomes law.  Duncan Smith’s bill will also entrench even further the targeting culture in Whitehall which Gordon Brown so enthusiastically pursued, dividing society into those who provide and those who are provided for – a downward spiral which inevitably leads to reduced public sympathy for welfare claimants. The problem with the Welfare Reform Bill is the two fundamental ideological assertions behind it: that unemployment is the fault of the unemployed rather than three decades of neo-liberal economic policy, and that the poor are inherently immoral and need to be hounded and sanctioned into providing any kind of benefit to society.

Through this slow process of degradation, not everyone has come to accept the reassertion of the demonisation of the poor. One of the fundamental distinctions between Left and Right is seeing people’s circumstances at least partially as a product of their socio-economic conditions rather than solely of personal agency, and so it seems perverse that, in the three decades which have seen the rise of the mightiest form of capitalism in history, the Left should be expected to jettison its views on this matter. Of course, the debate is not as two-sided as this. The working class is not a single entity; many employed working class people vote Tory because they have more a grievance than their middle class counterparts with real cases of benefit fraud – naturally, if you have one of the lowest paid jobs in the country, you won’t be too happy with people getting paid almost as much as you whilst not working. But the point is that this degrading attitude to the poor is one cultivated by the media and politicians of the middle class, and one that needs to be exorcised.

Fittingly, there are also three major myths about the poor which needed to be blown apart. I’ll begin with an issue which particularly inflames public opinion in times of economic hardship: ‘scroungers’ on society, the main culprits supposedly being the super-rich and the very poor. In fact, tax evasion is far, far more harmful to the economy than benefit fraud: the latter estimated to be £1 billion per year, with the former pegged at £70 billion – and that’s excluding legal tax avoidance schemes which, UK Uncut estimates, cost an additional £25 billion. When Cameron last year called for a crackdown on £5.2 billion of benefit fraud, he had rather cynically included the £4.2 billion lost through administrative errors.

Secondly, rates of benefit fraud are dwarfed by those of benefit evasion. Of the roughly 10 million welfare claimants of various types in this country, in 2006-7 there were only 6,756 people prosecuted for benefit fraud. By contrast, according to the Citizens Advice Bureau, there are £10.5 billion of means-tested benefits left unclaimed every year – over ten times the amount fraudulently claimed. There are far more people too ashamed to claim welfare support than those trying to cheat the system, and yet no tabloid to my knowledge has launched a venomous attack on a system which disincentivises claiming welfare provision.

Thirdly, where benefit fraud does exist, it is typically recipients working to top-up their income rather than people finding an excuse not to work. The poverty line is defined as housholds living off less that 60% of the median income after housing costs are deducted – in real terms, that means less than £115 a week for a single person, with Jobseeker’s Allowance set at £65.45 in 2010. As Caroline Lucas has commented, we should be far more concerned about the amount of our national wealth which is being siphoned off into super-rich bank accounts than the impact of a single mum on the breadline doing everything she can to keep afloat. I’d challenge any of the middle class parents who criticise this behaviour and yet, for example, elbow in to monopolise the best comprehensive schools for their own children, to do anything else in the same position. Despite all this, as Horton and Gregory discovered, public belief that those on welfare support live pampered lifestyles at the taxpayer’s expense has risen over the last few decades, just as the real value of welfare provision has been falling.

The ‘Middle Britain’ concept promoted by the mainstream media and politicians is a fallacy; the median salary is currently £21,000, with 90% of people earning less than £44,000. ‘Middle Britain’ actually refers to ‘upper-middle class Britain’, the group from which the media and political elite which rail against benefit cheats are drawn. Reading The Daily Mail or even The Independent, you’d think that most of us were living off £80,000 to £120,ooo per year and our nation’s most common household worry was whether or not to buy a third car. This helps to explode another myth: the working class have not just disappeared, they have stopped voting. In last year’s general election, only 58% of potential C2DE voters turned out, compared to 76% of ABC1 voters. And those working class people who did vote have, since 1997, become more dispersed across sympathetic parties, most prominently the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the BNP. As Ed Miliband recognised in his leadership campaign, if Labour had enjoyed the same result just amongst DEs in 2010 as in the ‘middle class victory’ of 1997 it would have won at least 40 more seats – and we would probably be living under a Lib-Lab coalition.

So, then, what has happened to the working class? If it is not true that the majority of the working class has moved up the scale to join the middle class, leaving only a minority “chav rump” behind, then what? Jones points to deindustrialisation as the root cause of the social problems plaguing this group – not only material poverty, but all the side-effects of that condition, including mental health issues, drug addiction, family breakdown and crime. Thatcherite policies (whether deliberately geared for this reason or not, the jury is still out) followed by those of New Labour saw the collapse of Britain’s manufacturing sector and the loss of lifelong jobs, stable pay and communal identity. The jobs that have replaced these (where they have replaced them – part of this shift to neoliberalism has been the abandonment of full employment as a legitimate government goal) are typically low-paid and unstable service sector ones, particularly in call-centres and supermarkets, which do not foster the same sense of duty and fulfilment as the old industrial ones. This has been accompanied by the crippling of the trade union movement (harder to preserve with a workforce of commuting temps) which once provided the infrastructure for a fulfilling social as well as work life. Simultaneously, working class values which prized collective action and solidarity have been stripped away and made subservient to middle class individualism and self-help – in the wake of the globalised economy, poorer workers are faced with direct competition from migrant labourers and so are caricatured as bigoted for turning to anti-immigration parties. Jones describes the subsequent demonisation of the working class as a “feral underclass” as “the ridiculing of the conquered by the conqueror”. In short, the middle class who control politics and the media possess comfortably stable jobs and lifestyles, whilst decrying the fecklessness of the working class who struggle with poverty and widespread social problems – all at a time when class, supposedly, is now an irrelevant concept.

So what can we do? I have three policy proposals, none of them original, but which I think would help matters. Firstly, we should re-peg welfare provision to earnings rather than inflation, leaving the average claimants of Jobseekers Allowance roughly £50 better-off per week (this, we might say, is also more democratic, as it ties the fate of the poor to the majority of working people rather than big-business chiefs who drive inflation). Secondly, we should upgrade the minimum wage to a living wage calculated on the basis of what a family needs to live on each week, thereby reducing dependence on tax credits and making business, rather than the taxpayer, shoulder the burden of fair pay. Thirdly, we should invest in green energy in the ex-industrial areas where unemployment is rife, providing stable and high-quality jobs for the families of those abandoned by the loss of manufacturing, and paving the way for widespread re-unionisation of working people in the private sector. Not only would these policies give a better deal to the poor financially, but they would also relieve the burden on the taxpayer by making business responsible.

But policy is not the main issue here: this is a huge topic, of which I have only sketched an outline of here. As we have seen, there has been a major culture-shift over the last three decades whereby the working class, stripped of its institutions and values, has been ‘airbrushed’ out of the tableau of Britain. The challenge of restoring working class confidence and identity is one which we must now tackle. The image of modern trade unions is crucial to this, as is working class representation within the self-styled ‘People’s Party’: in line with this, Labour should introduce the same positive discrimination measures for those from poorer backgrounds as currently apply to women and ethnic minorities. As Jones writes in his concluding chapter , “One of the priorities of this country must surely be to mobilize those working-class people who, because of the increasing irrelevance of politics to their lives, have become effectively disenfranchised . . . [otherwise] politics will revert to what it was in the nineteenth century: essentially, a family argument between competing wealthy factions.”

  1. I might write a response to this. I think you have a big point about the failure of modern politics in fighting poverty, and representing the poor — many of the cuts fought hardest, for example, are not lower but middle income benefits (on average), the Forestry Commission and Low University Fees being an example.

    However, I think that though your diagnosis of the illness is generally strong, your remedies are often weak, and I disagree fundamentally with some of your conclusions. One of the most fundamental relates to when this illness starts: you point to neo-liberalism, but that in itself was merely change of policy in reaction to a failing system. It isn’t sufficient to merely point out the failings of neo-liberalism, but to also be able to explain why your prescribed remedies will be more sustainable than the original policies that politicians since Thatcher have been abandoning.

    A suggestion I might have for the reason of the failure of the post war consensus is that of a gradual shift in perception. If, at first, the PWC was forged in the aftermath of WWII, when it’s fair to say that the effect of war on the community was to make it far more responsible for itself than it is today. Therefore, the instinct wouldn’t have been to regard problems as something to be solved by government by preference — and the left-wing shift was, at least at first, of a practical and economic nature, one of support for Britain’s communities not overriding them. When the PWC broke down, society was far more divided — at least, that’s the impression that my limited grasp of history gives me. I wonder if the problem was partly caused by people gradually coming to see problems as the territory of government first and themselves second? To me, it should always be the other way around. That’s not an “individualist” ideology, but a person-based one — the ideal, I think, that is behind Cameron’s rather vague Big Society initiative, that people can help themselves in ways beyond self-help.

    • Thanks for the comment, David – it would be great if you would write a full-length article in response. Your assertion about middle income rather than low income cuts is absolutely right. Horton and Gregory argue that the most durable parts of the welfare state are the ones which attract the ‘sharp-elbowed’ middle class, i.e. the universal rather than targeted ones. This is probably why Thatcher didn’t dare touch the NHS, and why the public is so virulently against what is seen as healthcare privatisation by this government.

      You argue that the fragmentation of society preceded the neo-liberal era, and that a breakdown in society at least partially caused the breakdown in the welfare state. You may well be right here, but there is no question that neo-liberalism has exacerbation the problem incredibly. I’m also no historian, but I would argue that the kickback against the post-war consensus was a social, not economic one – society, conservative as it was in the 1960s, wasn’t compatible with the emancipation of women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals, so it had to at least partly be dismantled. The 1970s did see problems for Keynesianism, but, as I understand it, the electorate of 1979 didn’t vote for a holistic economic overhaul, just a for a competent (Tory) government to sort out the problems and return the economy to pre-OPEC crisis standards. After all, would the majority really vote to scrap a settlement which had delivered from 1945 to 1973 possibly the most prosperous and stable era in modern British history?

      I’d absolutely agree with you that, if possible, issues should be sorted by people rather than the state. However, in the era of the unrestrained market, the state is often the only entity powerful enough to solve problems, and, even then, globalisation has limited a single state’s capacity to function. The problem with Cameron’s big society is that it has no critique of the market, only of the state – but the state isn’t really the problem. If, as you do, agree with me that crime, mental illness, family breakdown, drug abuse, alcoholism etc are the result of poverty and inequality, then we have to ask where poverty and inequality come from, and how they can be alleviated. Is the state really responsible for locking people into poverty and enshrining inequality, or is it the market which throws away jobs on a whim and finds it congenial to pay employees as little as possible? What we need is a state which is more generous, local and democratic and works with society rather than against it – what we don’t need is a government coming along and “rolling back the frontiers”, particularly in the wake of the most serious market failure in 80 years. Labour’s ‘good society’ idea looks like it might work, but the party mustn’t fall into the trap of Maurice Glasman and end up jettisoning its post-1945 statist successes.

  2. “You may well be right here, but there is no question that neo-liberalism has exacerbation the problem incredibly.”

    I think it’s in some ways led to a different kind of breakdown. The PWC breakdown was mirrored by the kind of industrial division which led to the problem with some unions in the 70s and the inability of the government to direct an economy characterised by conflict between these unions and business management, and not subject to sufficient market correction.

    As you say, neither of us are historians:

    “I’m also no historian, but I would argue that the kickback against the post-war consensus was a social, not economic one – society, conservative as it was in the 1960s, wasn’t compatible with the emancipation of women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals, so it had to at least partly be dismantled.”

    …but I’m not sure that a backlash against the PWC was a natural outlet of conservative suspicion of the emancipation of women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals. I think that I need persuading on that point.

    “The 1970s did see problems for Keynesianism, but, as I understand it, the electorate of 1979 didn’t vote for a holistic economic overhaul, just a for a competent (Tory) government to sort out the problems and return the economy to pre-OPEC crisis standards. After all, would the majority really vote to scrap a settlement which had delivered from 1945 to 1973 possibly the most prosperous and stable era in modern British history?”

    This is true, but I think, to try and adopt politician’s perspective for a moment, that I would have been deeply unwilling to challenge the Electorate’s support for the settlement unless there was something seriously wrong and unsustainable about it. Although you can of course argue that powerful and less than democratic interests would have been influencing the Tories (not that they wouldn’t Labour, even back then), I’m not sure this suffices as an explanation, particularly as Calaghan and Healey were arguing that the PWC had become unsustainable before the ’79 election, but searching for different responses to this unsustainability (Healey wasn’t at all sold on the argument for lowering personal taxation).

    I really don’t see that the problems of the 70s can really be blamed entirely on the OPEC crisis, particularly given that one of the marks of a successful and sustainable society is that it can adjust to these sort of unpredictable problems. I don’t see how anyone can study the period and not conclude that there was a failure of cooperation between union, business and governmental interests. I also don’t see how that level of government involvement in directing the economy was sustainable in the long-term. You can argue, I think, that government needs to play a role in recognising and supporting emerging social necessities which the market doesn’t yet support — green technology being a modern example. Indeed, this is the argument Noam Chomsky makes about the development of technology through the 20th century. However, I’m really not sure that you can argue that government is the best director once there is a solid market base for an industry, except in special cases where the role of the market is limited in any case (for example, big infrastructure projects and the running of railways, where there’s a big natural limitation on the role of competition).

    “Labour’s ‘good society’ idea looks like it might work, but the party mustn’t fall into the trap of Maurice Glasman and end up jettisoning its post-1945 statist successes.”

    To me, this idea at the moment seems as nebulous as Cameron’s Big Society.

    I’m not sure I agree that Cameron’s Big Society has no critique of the market, I see it more as a critique of the role of the state in alleviating the problems of the market. And although Cameron has made arguments that are thoroughly disingenuous, if not false (such as blaming the financial crisis on government debt in one speech), I think he does see the political, if not the social problems with trying to solve things via rolling back the state. That’s why you have things like the ring-fencing of NHS funding, and a ban on for-profit school provision within the state sector (not that I agree with the latter).

    • I don’t buy the argument that our economy was about to go into terminal decline unless there was a complete overhaul in the early 1980s – rightly or wrongly, the turbulence of the 1970s was exploited by a powerful elite to revive the pre-1929 form of capitalism, inspired by the classicalist school of economics. Large shifts such as this come at points of vulnerability, not strength, and often are long-lasting: e.g. the way in which the post-war consensus was forged in the uncertainty at the end of WW2 and moved the Western political ground decisively to the Left for three decades. Miliband’s advisers say he is attempting something of Thatcherite proportions, though whether or not it will work remains to be seen.

      I agree that the problems of the 1970s can’t be put down solely to the OPEC crisis, but it provided the trigger. My interpretation is that business had grudgingly accepted the corporatist government-business-union triangle, and in the OPEC crisis saw a chance to break free and reassert control. The unions were, understandably, not happy to take a reduced deal at a time when (like today) the rich remained fine whilst the poor and middle suffered. Both then and today, the question is around whether they commanded enough public support to justify obstructing government. Today, the prospect of a return to something like a mixed economy, even after a massive crash of unfettered markets, looks slim – however, this doesn’t mean that markets cannot or should not be made to serve people rather than a tiny elite of shareholders and executives.

      Labour’s good society idea is vacuous at the moment. But the difference is Labour is barely halfway through a policy review and possibly its biggest ideological rethink ever – Cameron, however, is a year into government and on his fourth relaunch of the concept, and still doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about. I think possibly Cameron’s biggest fear is that this will be seen as a failed ‘cuts’ parliament, a blue shred between two potentially long periods of red – the big society is a way of shifting public attention to something more positive. The problem is, it dovetails a little too nicely with the market fundamentalism that got us into this mess, and the tough deficit reduction plan which has ostensibly been forced upon the government against its will.

  3. I think you’re being rather unfair to IDS in saying that he believes all the poor to be ‘immoral’. The line the government, and all the research that the Institute of Social Justice pursue is that dependency on benefits leads to entrapment in a life on benefits, as the rolemodels of a successful working life are lost, and skills, contacts and work ethics among family and friends no longer exist. This has led to third-generation benefit dependency among those who could work in some inner city areas. Research (again ISJ) shows that, if people have a job, they are less likely to commit crime, become addicts, have family breakdown etc. So what IDS plans to do is incentivise work for those that can work in order to break a cycle of benefit dependency – benefits for those who cannot work are remaining stable all will have increased in real terms after reforms (eg Personal Independence Payments will be at least as generous as DLA).

    As for your policies, they do nothing to solve the problem. Raising the minimum wage will make it harder for employees to employ. Increasing jobseekers allowance will mean that more jobs will be less financially rewarding than staying on benefits. And trades unions exist to protect the employed, not the unemployed.

    • I don’t think anyone would disagree that getting those who are able to into work is a priority, but the problem is, simply, that there are no jobs. Even before the crisis, job openings were much scarcer in the typically working class areas with high levels of benefit claimants – jobs were, shockingly, much more prevalent in the thriving areas from which these sweeping judgements about a feckless underclass are made. The most recent statistic I’ve seen is a national average of six people chasing every one vacancy, obviously with more applicants per place in poorer areas. With so few jobs to go around, what will be the effect of cutting benefits other than to make the poorest poorer?

      These policy suggestions aren’t at all holistic, but they’d certainly help. If we want to lift people out of poverty, then the lowest threshold of both pay and benefits have to be raised. Even IDS would agree that fair-paid work is better than reliance on tax credits, so there seems no reason not to increase the minimum wage and redirect the savings on tax credits into investment to ensure that enough jobs are created (the loss of full employment as a government obligation has been one of the greatest casualities from the post-war era). And I think you’ll find that trade unions are very concerned with the wellbeing of the unemployed poor as well as their own members, perhaps more so than any other political group.

      The fundamental question, then, is do people react better to kindness or aggression? The last three decades have shown than continually slamming the poor is unlikely to solve any problems, other than maybe to temporarily sate the tabloid bloodlust which all parties seem happy to collude with. I return to my underlying assertion, not unsupported by the evidence I’ve shown, that people generally do much better when approached with kindness. The aggressive approach has clearly failed, and only looks to fail further under IDS’s reforms. But our approach can’t change until we change the terms of the debate – to stop treating the poor like a subhuman species which need constant paternalistic cajoling, and start treating them like human beings who deserve dignity.

      • A problem with that last sentence is that some of the unemployed will only be helped by the very paternalistic policy of paying companies to take them on, train them and help them stay in work, because the longer someone has been out of work, the harder it is going to be for them to find work in any market economy, because a business won’t want to take a needless risk.

        I don’t have any problem with the concept of raising the lowest wages, but if you directly raise the cost to a business of employing people, it is bound to have a negative effect on the number of low-paid jobs. What would you say to the concept of the government making a contribution to a higher minimum wage?

  4. I don’t necessarily disagree with the concept of a government-subsidised wage top-up, but we already have it de facto with tax credits. In the end what matters is the pay the worker receives, but we have a choice where that comes from: either from the taxpayer via the welfare state, or from the employer. You can imagine the Right-wing tabloids howling about the cost to the taxpayer, but that is clearly the only way if business is allowed to shirk all responsibility except that to its shareholders. Now a potential middle path is for the state to subsidise a higher minimum wage by taxing business, but then this would tend to penalise businesses which paid a proper wage to begin with…

    • The thing is, either option is going to cost business. However, funding an increased minimum wage through taxation helps to spread the cost over all businesses and taxpayers, rather than disproportionately hitting businesses that can’t afford to pay a high wage. What you might also find is that allowing the cost of a higher minimum wage to fall on businesses would disproportionately hit SMEs.

      At the end of the day, any increased taxation is going to penalise some businesses, whether it’s an increase in business taxes or in personal taxes. And you’re right about tax credits, and my only real objection to that system is that it’s a bit over-complex and doesn’t really help a lot of the people it’s supposed to, because many who are eligible don’t apply. It would be better to have a more direct form of state subsidy, although that would force governments to confront the fact that supporting low-paid workers is actually more expensive than the illusion given by tax credits suggests.

  5. […] must admit that I originally intended this to be a full response to James Bartholomeusz’s recent article on working class politics and welfare reform. However, while reflecting on his various arguments, my response to his comment underneath the […]

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