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Laurie Penny on the human cost of welfare reform

The scandal is that no one is prepared to make a moral case for welfare provision.

The scandal is that no one is prepared to make a moral case for welfare provision.

Who will stand up for the welfare state? Not the Conservative Party, whose mantra - "Making work pay" - has turned out to be a cruel euphemism for slashing already meagre welfare payments and steering the long-term sick into the magical land of jobs. Not Labour, which declined a second reading of the Welfare Reform Bill; after all, its attacks on disability and sickness benefits when in power laid the groundwork for the coalition's planned destruction of the Attlee settlement. And it won't be the press.

With most official statistics indicating that gutting welfare on the brink of a second recession will leave millions in penury, the government has resorted to stoking tabloid hysteria, feeding the weekend papers a ready-boxed scare story tied with a thick ribbon of prejudice. Details of the most ersatz claims used by fraudulent welfare claimants have been distributed to build the growing consensus that the poor are simply not worth looking after. This is a consensus that nobody in opposition seems to have the guts to challenge.

In reality, benefit fraud rates remain stubbornly low, at 1 per cent. For every person who claims that a fear of ladders prevents them from cleaning windows, there are 99 others for whom incapacity or unemployment benefits are a vital lifeline. So vital that staff at jobcentres have been issued a six-point plan for how to deal with rejected claimants at risk of suicide. The government appears relaxed about the human cost of welfare reform.

The headline figure is that benefit fraud costs taxpayers £1.6bn each year. That figure is a fabrication. According to statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions, this includes over £600m in "official" and customer errors. Factoring out pension scams, the figure is just £250m. To put that number in its proper context, the most conservative estimates hold that corporate tax avoidance costs the Treasury £25bn per year: 100 times the cost of benefit fraud.

Moral case

Threatening the workless with destitution may make good headlines but it is no way to increase employment when there are no jobs to go to. Unemployment in Britain stands at 2.5 million, including almost a million under-25s. The employment minister, Chris Grayling, wants us to believe that the private sector will provide jobs for these people, as well as another million public-sector workers and welfare recipients who will soon be joining the dole queue. Unfortunately, private-sector employment has flatlined, there are six dole claimants for every vacancy and Father Christmas is just your dad faffing about in a nylon suit.

There used to be a liberal consensus that it was the government's responsibility to provide employment and ensure that those unable to work were entitled to a minimum standard of living. As the Welfare Reform Bill oozes unchallenged through the Commons, the real scandal is not that the government is lying through its teeth in order to justify its evisceration of the welfare state. The scandal is that no one in Westminster is prepared to make a moral case for welfare provision as the honest heart of social democracy.

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 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?

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Absolutely Fashion showed what fashion week is really like: nasty, brutish and short

With fake meetings about fake covers, the documentary gave a glimpse into the abyss at the heart of the fashion world.

London Fashion Week is the sad little sister of the one in Paris, where I once attended a Valentino couture show dressed by Gap, watched what looked like live-action anorexia nervosa at Armani and got into a fight at Chanel. Did a man wearing a lion’s head on his real head look stupid? Yes, said I. No, said the fashion ­journalist, with fury.

Fashion Week had a small elegy this year – a BBC2 documentary called Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue, which was fantastically misnamed. There is nothing inside Vogue, except a vague groping for novelty, which is technically an abyss. But that did not stop the programme’s director, Richard Macer, from sitting in Vogue House for nine months, watching women smell each other’s mascara. In the way of a certain type of media, he seems to have emerged more ignorant than when he began. This is the central principle of fashion: stupefy the buyer and she will pay to be reborn as something uglier.

“He doesn’t understand fashion,” said one critic, which I think meant: “He should have licked Karl Lagerfeld’s shoes while crying about belts.” To this critic, that is understanding fashion. It is a religious hierarchy. (That no one has asked Lagerfeld what he has done to his face, and why, proves this. When I met Lagerfeld in Paris, he was behind a velvet rope. I wondered if he sleeps with it.) Macer is a sexist, suggested another critic, who seemed to think that any industry that employs women in large numbers – human surrogacy farms, for instance, or Bangladeshi textile factories, or German super-brothels – is feminist. This is the stupidest definition of feminism I have yet heard and I have fashion to thank for it.

Macer was too frightened to ask questions about exploitation, pollution or the haunting spectacle of malnourished adolescents inciting self-hatred in older females in pursuit of profit, and he is not alone. I read no insights about London Fashion Week, but I do not care about clothes. He was so cowed by his access as to be undeserving of it, and Absolutely Fashion was as much about the laziness and commercial imperatives of modern journalism as it was about fashion, from which we should expect nothing.

Macer had a tiny scoop: British Vogue learned that American Vogue was running a cover of the singer Rihanna in the same calendar month. It decided to run early and people stayed up all night anxiously repaginating. He had the opportunity to ask Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of the US magazine, about it, but a staffer begged him not to. So he didn’t. He segued from journalist to PR. He drank the opiate – and I understand this, because if you don’t, you won’t survive. “Come again,” Jean Paul Gaultier once told me in Paris. His meaning was: “. . . but only if you love my clothes”.

In one scene, the actor Hugh Jackman was photographed in a bathtub at Claridge’s Hotel in London. He was fully clothed and looked marginally more stupid than he does dressed as the genetically mutated wolf man Wolverine, but that is not the point. “Come and see how handsome you are, Hugh,” cooed a Vogue woman. I wouldn’t have minded Jackman preening over an image of himself in private, but this exposed a truth: some journalism is celebrity PR.

Elsewhere, Kate Moss did a shoot wearing clothes that belonged to the Rolling Stones. It was based, she said, on a well-known shoot that they once did “in exile”. She meant tax exile, which was funny.

That Vogue, which is still, at least nominally, a magazine, should devote itself to this junk is not excused by an intellectual curiosity so dulled that one executive said that New York Fashion Week had “a sort of Lego element to it”.

British Vogue is edited by Alexandra Shulman, and in the manner of print media with long-standing editors – she has been there for 24 years – it is, in essence, a cult. In this case, a passive-aggressive-ocracy. (People are always surprised to learn that magazines are tyrannies, but there it is.)

I do not know whether Shulman wanted Macer there or not, or whether she didn’t have the clout to stop it, but once he was in, she treated him with the bored derision of a woman contemplating a ball gown chewed by moths. Shulman has the face of a woman who should get out while she can. In her only revealing scene, she had to choose between two front covers. One was “artistic” because it showed Kate Moss’s knickers; the other was unthreatening because it showed only Kate Moss’s face. “My heart is never allowed to rule,” she said, and she laughed. But I think she meant it.

She lied to Macer, too, holding fake meetings about fake covers so the world would not learn that Vogue had, by its cracked standards, a huge scoop: the Duchess of Cambridge would appear on the cover of the 100th-anniversary issue in a hat.

Absolutely Fashion also taught us, had we not known, that fashion is peopled by privileged creatures who are impervious to the extent of their privilege and who are, therefore, bad journalists, because they cannot even effectively interview themselves. For instance, the photographer Mary McCartney, one of Paul’s daughters, told Macer that she had never got work because her father was a member of the Beatles.

To be oblivious to reality is essential in fashion. Everyone is equal under the skirt. Yet McCartney flourishes because of the doctrine of the age: the already prosperous are more worthy of prosperity.

Not everyone seemed so disingenuous. One woman described the search for the non-existent novelty as “exhausting”. She no longer believed in the cult.

Absolutely Fashion, if you watch it critically, is more interesting than Macer perhaps allowed himself to dream. In its way, it embodied any fashion week anywhere: nasty, brutish and short. 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times