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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.

Photo: Getty
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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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