Nick and Margaret with some of the "stars" of their BBC show. Photograph: BBC
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Laurie Penny on welfare: The BBC is colluding in the government’s attack on benefit claimants

The cruellest thing about the benefits cap is not that it could make thousands of people homeless or force more families to depend on food banks (three of these open every week). It’s that it’s not really about people on benefits at all.

The camera may not lie but sometimes it tells truths you weren’t expecting. As the government’s flagship benefits cap is rolled out across the nation, amid protests from homelessness charities, women’s rights groups and food banks already overwhelmed by demand, the BBC is devoting hours of its prime-time schedule to pitting the underpaid against the unemployed. The spectacle of one single mother telling another in the tin-can aisle at the supermarket that she’s greedy because she wants her kids to have a hot meal says a great deal about modern Britain. It tells us whose suffering matters and whose children will never have their dinner dissected for our scorn on national television.

The BBC1 programme Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits (11 and 18 July, 9pm), echoing the rhetoric of the Department for Work and Pensions, pits “taxpayers” against “shirkers” and asks how we can “make work pay”. Of these gristly little semantic nuggets of state propaganda, “making work pay” is the most noxious – a mantra that’s incanted by every jobsworth Tory in every debate, in line with the logic that if one repeats a lie for long enough it will function as truth.

Taking away benefits will not “make work pay”. The reason why work doesn’t pay is not that benefits are too high. It is that wages are too low. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that, with the rising cost of living, there have been 40 consecutive months of contraction in real wages in the UK. In many occupations, the basic pay is too low to cover rent, food and bills, especially in London and the south-east, where housing costs are out of control. This is why a large proportion of housing benefit is paid on behalf of those who are in work, straight into the pockets of private landlords.

Then there’s “the taxpayer”, a phrase that is deliberately misused to imply that only those in waged work pay taxes. Everybody who buys a warm Cornish pasty puts pennies into the Treasury. Drawing an arbitrary distinction between “taxpayers” and “people on benefits” implies that those who rely on state support are taking money directly out of the pockets of workers, when they are being supported by a system to which we all contribute, which is there to help all of us should we find ourselves ill or unemployed.

The anxiety to separate the interests of “taxpayers” from those of the unemployed falsely suggests that unemployment benefits are now the main drain on the state. Despite savage welfare cuts, state spending on unemployment remains high because unemployment remains high, for the simple reason that one cannot “incentivise” people into jobs that aren’t there. A far higher proportion of state spending goes on subsidising tax cuts for multinational corporations and arms dealers, maintaining our nuclear weapons programme and having a military presence abroad. “Taxpayers”, though, are not being invited into the homes of devastated Afghan families, taken on tours of the Trident base or shown around the mansions of offshore millionaires and asked to make judgements about how their taxes are being spent. The idea is preposterous. Poor people are supposed to make moral judgements about other poor people only. We can afford to offer Vodafone billions in tax breaks but God forbid some kids in Ipswich get a second-hand PlayStation.

That’s the judgement call that representatives of the working class are invited to make in We All Pay Your Benefits, deciding whether or not the unemployed are being indulged, as Nick and Margaret, a pair of well-spoken, pension-age presenters, ride around in a taxi prattling on like something out of a David Lynch film. For most of the show, the camera leers at the jobseekers but the truly fascinating characters are those who have been invited on to the show to judge.

Their anger that their hard slog has not raised them above the level of a family on Jobseekers’ Allowance is distressing to watch. Clearly they all work hard – for not enough money and with few prospects of improving their circumstances as rents rise and essential services are dismantled. It is hardly the fault of a disabled single father-ofthree that a care worker who runs her own business is still struggling to cover the bills. But that is the only conclusion that this programme and this government are permitting us to voice.

On any other channel, a programme such as this could be written off as a crass cash-in on public mistrust of the welfare system, treating the unemployed as a telegenic cross between criminals and animals in a zoo. That it was given the green light by the BBC, a publicly funded and supposedly impartial broadcaster, indicates something more. It suggests a culture shift: the wilful misdirection of public anger towards those who least deserve it.

The cruellest thing about the benefits cap is not that it could make thousands of people homeless or force more families to depend on food banks (three of these open every week). It’s that it’s not really about people on benefits at all. They aren’t the voters this government is interested in attracting. It’s about placating public rage and persuading people who would vote for a tin of beans if it had a Tory ribbon on it that this government is tough and in charge.

Like any pack of bullies, the Conservative Party likes to prove its strength by picking on the weakest people within reach. In this case, the targets include single mums and the mentally ill. That tens of thousands of children will spend their school years going to bed hungry because of this policy is incidental. The benefits cap is first and foremost a public relations exercise. With a former PR man for Prime Minister, what else would it be? Behind the relentless campaign of spin, though, is the truth – and the truth is that those on benefits have nothing, absolutely nothing, to be ashamed of.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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The politics of the kiss

From the classical period via the Kremlin to the Clintons: a brief history of political smooching.

Iowa and New Hampshire are behind us. Super Tuesday beckons. For fans of the competitive sport of baby-kissing, this is as good as it gets.

Meanwhile, closer to Britain, kissing’s in our very constitution. Jeremy Corbyn’s future, depending on his success, could involve taking a trip to the Palace to kiss hands as Prime Minister – and as a republican. Being sworn into the Privy Council in November, he even managed a peck on the royal paw, but reportedly stood fast and did not kneel.

Why is there so much snogging in politics? 

Ancient Romans and Persians established – dare we – a pecking order on meeting. This ritual would make it instantly clear if they were equals (full-on, mouthy kiss, the basium), separated by a slight gap (cheeky peck, an osculum), or vast unequals (foot-kissing accompanied by much grovelling). Even heads of state greeted people in this way.

And there was nothing more dramatic – and bizarre – than the socialist fraternal kiss. Kremlinologists would even measure its intensity, to see how close Communist leaders were. The rule was to do three alternate kisses on the cheek, aping the Ancien Régime’s Orthodox Easter greeting. When two leaders were especially chummy – like then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and GDR head Erich Honecker at the 30th anniversary of the GDR in East Berlin in 1979 – the world would witness a big, sloppy lip-plant. Paris Match splashed Régis Bossu’s iconic black-and-white image of the socialist snog across a double-page spread. Le Baiser, they called it.

Nikita Khrushchev, Joseph Stalin’s successor, locked lips with USSR chairman Klim Voroshilov when returning from a US visit in 1959. In July 1937, Stalin planted a decidedly non-frigid one on Ivan Spirin, a polar explorer and state hero.

But Brezhnev was the true practitioner. The joke in Russia went that he described a Warsaw Pact comrade “as a politician, rubbish...but a good kisser!”

Aside from the steamy Kremlin, social kissing on the mouth declined with the Black Death.

The courtly handkuss (kiss on the hand) generally went the same way with the fall of the German and Russian monarchies in 1917-18, though hung on longer in Austria. 

But French president Jacques Chirac made it his trademark, playing to the gallery with French élégance. An Associated Press story from 1967 chronicles the sad plight of European diplomats who had chanced it in Washington. One congressional wife jumped back, claiming she had been bitten; another said a stone was missing from her ring. “Chivalry has its drawbacks,” the story observed.

But back to the babies. We see kissing-as-canvassing in William Hogarth’s 1755 series The Humours of an Election

And in a close-fought 1784 Westminster by-election, we read of 24 women out canvassing with kisses – including the Duchesses of Rutland, Argyll, Ancaster, and (somewhat infamously) Devonshire. 

Kissing voters’ wives – now probably frowned upon by CCHQ – was customary fare for the 18th-century candidate. It’s only in the following century that we see the desexualisation of the electioneering kiss, moving to babies as innocuous. 

In 1836, Charles Dickens has his character Pickwick go to witness a post-Reform Act by-election in Eatanswill. “He has patted the babies on the head,” says the candidate’s election agent, trembling with anxiety. Roar of applause. “He has kissed one of ‘em!” Second roar. “He's kissing ‘em all!” The crowd’s shouts are deafening. And the candidate Slumkey coasts home to Parliament.

US presidents Richard Nixon, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison forswore baby kissing, grasping for a higher-minded political plane. Bernie Sanders, too. 

But how are the rest of today's politicians doing, kiss-wise?

Barack Obama: After two terms, a kisser to be reckoned with. With adults. Apparently he doesn’t relish kissing babies, and has been called fatally ill-at-ease holding one. Full points for his lucky save with a reticent Aung San Suu Kyi in 2014, ending with a perfectly creditable side-hug and ear-kiss.

Pity Michelle, photographed rolling her eyes as Barack went in for the selfie with, say, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt in 2013. (For her part, Michelle fobbed off Silvio Berlusconi with a fully outstretched arm, taking no chances.)

David Cameron: Utterly denied by SamCam after his Tory conference speech in October 2015. Lord Grantham says in Downton he spent most of Eton avoiding the kisses of other boys; clearly, the Prime Minister didn’t get much practice while at school.

Angela Merkel: In her first meeting with Nicolas Sarkozy, out she came with a businesslike German handshake just as he ducked for the Gallic kiss. In a moment of British romantic awkwardness last May, during Cameron’s EU reform tour, we saw the Prime Minister lean in, short of closing the deal, as she pulled back and possibly searched for some new regulations to beat him away with.

Hillary Clinton: Is said to enjoy kissing babies. Is said not to enjoy kissing Bill, as in the 2008 Correspondents’ Dinner when she expertly ducked one from him.  And scored one from Obama instead. But maybe she ought to lay off the baby-kissing: a journal article in Political Psychology suggests voters are 15 per cent less likely to vote for women candidates when their adverts evoke female gender stereotypes.

Donald Trump: In August, his baby-kiss in Alabama went viral – the baby’s mother just a bit too keen, the baby’s confusion mingled with slight fear reflecting the views of many of us. “That baby is us,” wrote blogger Stassa Edwards.

It’s a long road from here to the US election in November. And Cameron can look forward to kissing up to Merkel and a hot summer of Italian, Dutch, and even French kisses too.

So this Valentine’s Day, spare a thought for the babies. And the bureaucrats.