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Strictly Come Scrounging, anyone?

The X Factor vision of society blames the poor for their predicament.

Even in hard times, nobody likes a scrounger. As the country trembles under the Tories' fiscal hammer, noone seems to want to contest the popular political narrative that welfare recipients have had it far too good, and must be punished. George Osborne has declared that his downsizing of the benefit system, which could force hundreds of thousands into abject poverty, will 'incentivise' jobseekers towards employment - because apparently all it takes to solve the problem of millions out of work is a little get-up-and-go. This is social security as reimagined by Simon Cowell - only life's winners are rewarded, and losers go home empty-handed.

The cynical amongst us might contend that 'making work pay' is rather a tasteless euphemism for 'cutting welfare so savagely that even the minimum wage looks like unattainable luxury' - but we live in a rat race, and the sick, the needy and the unemployed have proven themselves insufficiently murine. They are losers, they lack the X factor, and since there's no glamour in compassion, we've just voted them all off the welfare programme.

Labour MPs, who began the bloodless process of privatising the welfare system in 2007, seem to have accepted that the PR battle over 'benefit scrounging scum' is unwinnable. This is because Britain has slowly but surely become a country that does not tolerate failure. The emotional logic of our society is now one of ceaseless neoliberal striving, a tyranny of aspiration.

Failure is a dirty word in modern Britain. Our sudden distaste for bankers' bonuses is not grounded on antipathy for extreme wealth but on simple annoyance that financiers are being rewarded for getting it wrong. The desperate tyranny of aspiration is also the reason that so many of us spend our Saturday nights glued to the X Factor, or the Apprentice, or Dragon's Den: these reality talent shows are compelling collective expressions of the fantasy that anyone can make it if we try hard enough. Life is a competition, and if we fail to please the bosses, their dull orange faces plasticized at great expense into permanent expressions of self-regard, we only have ourselves to blame.

The X-factor vision of society, placing all the blame for failure on the individual, is a seductive narrative. Most of us would far rather believe that the poor are lazy and stupid than countenance the notion that the rich and powerful are steering us gleefully over an economic precipice. It's far easier to blame the poor for not working than it is to blame the system for not working.

Reality television bleeds into political realism at every fissure, and with Alan Sugar now sitting in the Lords, perhaps it would be more honest if the benefits system were simply rearranged according to the formal rules of a TV talent contest. We could call it Strictly Come Scrounging.

Instead of the current welfare tests, which already force disabled people to touch their toes and walk until they fall over to justify their claims, why not go the whole hog and turn the process into a glitzy musical freakshow? We could choreograph the unemployed into a magical land of jobs with a spring in their step and a song in their hearts. If they're any good, claimants could be required to give open-air performances so that better-off members of the Big Society can finance their penury directly, without tiresome state intervention. We could give it a fancy name, like 'begging'.'

As the foundations of social democracy are dismantled before our eyes, ordinary people dream of the transcendence of celebrity. Researchers found that fame is the number one ambition of today's eleven-year-olds, and no wonder - the lottery of stardom must now look slightly more winnable than the scramble for a decent standard of living if you happen, like many TV talent show contestants, to have been born poor.

Perhaps a different approach is in order. If our political settlement is starting to resemble reality television, then maybe the best response is to make the television look more like the kind of political realism we'd like to see. Why not unionise the X Factor?

Picture the scene: next week, during the finalists' group number, the contestants suddenly stop singing all at once. They turn to the judges and declare that they are now the United Saturday Night Musicians League, and they believe in collective bargaining. A large percentage of the programme's profits are to be immediately redistributed amongst all entrants for their time and labour, or there will be no show. The contestants then proceed to sing the Internationale in memory of their fallen comrades, Diva Fever. Imagine the look on Simon Cowell's pitiless potato face.

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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle