The Big Benefits Row: Was it ever going to change anyone's mind?

Perhaps if Channel 5's dramatic “debate” about benefits had given less time to attention-seekers like Edwina Currie and Katie Hopkins, it would have been a better conversation about an important issue.

Upon first glancing the title of last night's The Big Benefits Row, I had thought television’s depiction of benefits had finally succumbed to where it has inevitably been heading: a malnourished Job Seeker's Allowance claimant pitted against a sobbing disabled single mother in a fight to the death.

Unfortunately/fortunately (delete as humane), this was not it at all. This was the debate sort of row, with words and opinions and Matthew Wright occasionally reading out racist poll results.

It soon became apparent this was going to be a very dramatic debate too, with a zooming compilation of different people saying the word “benefits” over and over again. BENEFITS. They're everywhere! And everyone was talking about it. At least they were about to be because why else would Katie Hopkins and “White Dee” from Benefits Streets be in the same room?

Ken Livingstone kicked things off by introducing the radical idea that people should be able to find jobs and those jobs should pay enough to be able to live on. This was followed by a row of fiction-busting facts, which seemed very inappropriate for a discussion about benefits and I wondered if Channel 5 had become confused.

Peter Stringfellow, doing an impression of a man who didn't know where he was, was soon pointing off-camera to “those people” who actually did deserve benefits. I thought at first he was being clever and pointing to an empty space but then I realised he'd probably spotted some crippled people that had been put in the corner.  

Away from the audience, Channel 5 had decided to do the whole thing without letting a single disabled person on any of the panels. Which was brilliant because it was sort of like an ironic commentary on mainstream society's exclusion and isolation of us. Or was insultingly and tellingly dismissive of swathes of people affected by the issue at hand. As Sue Marsh, a disability campaigner who had originally been asked to be on the show, tweeted last night:

Luckily Edwina Currie was there instead to say things that were in no way true and/or made no sense. “There are loads of jobs”, we don't pay people a living wage “because we can't afford it”, and anyone could wander into food banks and take bags of food, she announced, as if not hiding her belief that the point of being on television was to say anything that may get a person attention.

Not content, Currie took it on herself to challenge austerity food blogger Jack Monroe on whether her grandfather was rich, as if believing if only she could prove someone in a working class woman's family had at one time in history had some money the entire social security system would fall in on itself and poverty itself would be disproven as a left-wing fabrication. “My grandfather's dead,” Monroe said. “I know, I saw the obituary,” retorted Currie, somewhat menacingly.

The microphones muffled out and Matthew Wright turned to camera, with the face of a man grateful he'd soon be back on the civilised sophistication of The Wright Stuff. “Who knows, perhaps some have you have changed your minds after tonight,” he said optimistically. 

Ironically, that would have been more likely to be achieved if the two panelists who needed to change their mind hadn't been there at all. Currie and Hopkins – all fabrications and hysteria – do a good row. But we might get further if producers simultaneously lost attention seekers’ phone numbers and tried for The Big Benefits Conversation instead.

 

Matthew Wright with Katie Hopkins and White Dee on The Big Benefits Row.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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