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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.