Nick and Margaret with some of the "stars" of their BBC show. Photograph: BBC
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.