Think before you retweet: why the "scrounger spike" is illusory

What happened between 2004 and 2010 is more people started writing about welfare.

This chart seems to have quickly acquired mythological status on Twitter:

It appears to show the number of times the word "scrounger" appeared in the UK press from 1994 to the present, with a huge unprecedented rise coinciding with the arrival of the coalition in power.

It’s easy to see why people have seized on it, given the sustained campaign against benefit claimants in parts of the print media and the government's willingness to stoke the flames by selective, and in some cases deceptive use of official data. But the picture it gives of trends over time is almost certainly exaggerated.

The underlying data in the chart comes from a database called LexisNexis. This is an indispensable resource for looking at media coverage over extended periods, but as any researcher who has worked with it will tell you, it needs to be treated with caution, and especially when trying to construct a time series.

The main reason is that titles appear in the database at different times: if you're looking at the mid-1990's, the only titles included are the Mirror, Mail, Times, Guardian and Independent. By the time you reach 2013, the Sun and Express are included, as well as the Telegraph. That is hardly a minor difference when you're doing searches on words like "scrounger".

When Kate Bell, Ben Baumberg, Dan Sage and I looked at media coverage of benefits last year for the charity Turn2Us, we commissioned a purpose-built database to iron out data problems, as well as manually cleaning the articles we'd sourced from LexisNexis to remove irrelevant material. Analysis of media coverage over time is a demanding task. Even with a customised database, producing and coding a series from 1995 to 2011 represented several weeks work.

We didn't just look for the word "scrounger", we constructed a set of word-lists intended to capture broad categories of negative vocabulary such as fraud and dependency. "Scounger(s)" was included in a word-list we called "non-reciprocity", along with terms like "handout(s)", "shirker(s)" and "something for nothing". The chart shows some of the results for a consistent set of titles from 1995 to 2011:

So has there been an unprecedented rise in the use of "scrounger" and related terms? Yes – see the purple curve on the chart – but it's on quite a different scale to that shown in the other chart.

The difference is, I presume, mainly to do with our use of a consistent set of titles. We just don't have data for the Sun and Express for the 1990's, and these are by far the most virulent titles when it comes to coverage of benefits.

What is perhaps of more interest is that overall use of negative vocabularies is very similar in 2010-11 and 1998-9 (the dotted red curve). But there has been a pronounced shift in the language used to convey negative messages away from fraud (although this remains very important) and towards non-reciprocity: from "cheats" to "scroungers".

Using consistent data which has been checked and cleaned makes for a less striking chart, but it allows us to put recent coverage into a longer-term context. On this evidence, negativity in press coverage of benefits has not been at unprecedented levels: the first years of New Labour's period in office were very similar to the coalition's first years in this respect.

The reason is that media coverage is strongly skewed towards negativity in all periods, and in both these periods there was simply a lot of coverage.

But since 2008, negativity has increasingly taken the form of accusations of "scrounging", while in New Labour's first years in office the focus was on fraud, largely because this was a theme the government chose to highlight.

It's widely argued that there has been a shift in public attitudes towards benefit claimants over recent decades, with no signs of an increase in sympathy when unemployment rose in 2008/9, in contrast to earlier periods. And it's tempting to see negative media coverage as the culprit here. Our report did find evidence that attitudes are influenced by which newspaper people read, but when it comes to explaining shifts in attitudes over the longer term, increased negativity in the press seems an unlikely candidate, just because UK media coverage of benefits has been strongly negative for as far back as we can go using this data.

It may be that the press and the political right have become more efficient in tapping into public anxieties and grievances – maybe "scroungers" is a stronger framing than "cheats". It may be that New Labour's borrowing of political vocabulary from the right ("something for nothing", "dependency culture") recast the terms of debate, so that negative attitudes which were always to some extent in play were legitimised and made respectable.

But a simple story of media manipulation, evidenced by counting occurrences of negative language, seems to be ruled out. That doesn't mean there is no manipulation of course. There is a lot, and most of it is clearly politically inspired. But this is only part of a larger story. Those worried about public attitudes to benefits and claimants need to ask why negative coverage finds such a ready audience.

An earlier version of this piece was originally posted on Declan's blog l'Art Social, and is reposted here with his permission.

Declan Gaffney is a policy consultant specialising in social security, labour markets and equality. He blogs at l'Art Social

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Corbyn is personally fireproof, but his manifesto could be torched by the Brexit blaze

There is no evidence that EU migration has depressed wages – but most Labour MPs believe it has.

News, like gas, expands to fill the space available to it. That’s why the summer recess can so often be a time of political discomfort for one party or another. Without the daily grind of life at Westminster, difficult moments can linger. Minor rows become front-page news.

There are many reasons why Theresa May is spending three weeks hiking in northern Italy and Switzerland, and one of them is that it is hard to have a leadership crisis if your leader is elsewhere. That makes the summer particularly dangerous for Labour. The danger is heightened as the majority of the press is unsympathetic to the party and the remainder is simply bored. Even a minor crisis could turn into a catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 23 July, therefore, carried the same risks as juggling lit matches in a dry forest. The Labour leader ruled out continuing participation in the single market after Britain leaves the political structures of the European Union. For good measure, he added that the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had been used to undermine pay and conditions for British workers. Both statements only aggravate the stress fractures in the Labour movement and in its electoral coalition.

The good news for the Labour leader is that he is fireproof. Only God or Corbyn himself can prevent him from leading the party into the next election, whenever it comes, and no one will be foolish enough to try to remove him, even if they had the inclination. Also, while the question of what flavour of Brexit to pursue divides Labour in the country, it doesn’t divide Labour at Westminster. Most Labour MPs nodded along in agreement with Corbyn during the Marr interview. They believe – as the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, outlined a day later – that remaining in the customs union and the single market would be a betrayal of the wishes of Leave voters, who want full control over Britain’s borders and laws.

There is no evidence that migration from the eastern bloc has depressed wages. But most Labour MPs believe that it has. “I am convinced,” one formerly pro-European MP told me, “that no matter what the studies say, immigration has reduced wages.”

Most of the Labour people who are willing to kick up a fuss about “hard” Brexit are outside parliament. These include the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who wants Britain to remain in the single market; the general secretary of the TSSA union, Manuel Cortes, who recently used the New Statesman website to urge the party to keep all of its options open, including a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU; and the rapper Akala, who lambasted Corbyn’s interview on Twitter. While a large minority of Labour MPs back a softer version of Brexit, they are a minority, and not a large enough one to combine with Tory dissidents to make a Commons majority, even when the votes of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green MP Caroline Lucas are taken into account.

This increases the party’s dependence on Jeremy Corbyn. As the leader’s aides observe, even among the quarter of the country that believes the government should simply overturn the referendum result, only a quarter of that quarter do so because they have a particular affection for the institutions of the European Union.

For the majority of hard Remainers, Brexit is a significant battleground in a larger culture war, one in which Corbyn is otherwise in perfect alignment with their values. His electoral appeal to Labour MPs is that he is someone who can say the same things on Brexit and migration as Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock previously did, but without losing votes in England’s great cities.

The electoral threat to Labour from backing a harder form of exit is, in any case, often overstated. The first-past-the-post system makes the Liberal Democrats an inadequate refuge for anguished Remainers in England, while the SNP’s support for Scottish independence makes it an unsuitable home for Labour refugees in Scotland. Team Corbyn feels that Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, will struggle to convince Labour voters that he can be trusted because of the role he played in designing the new system of tuition fees (having previously pledged to vote against them). In any case, the risk of letting in a Conservative prime minister – probably one committed to a version of Brexit even harder than Labour’s – further locks Remainers in Labour’s corner.

That leaves Labour in Westminster free to pursue a version of Brexit that meets the needs of both the leadership, which relishes the freedom to pursue a more radical economic policy unconstrained by the European Union, and Labour MPs, particularly those with seats in Yorkshire and the Midlands, who are concerned about opposition to immigration in their constituencies. This has the happy side effect of forcing the Conservatives to take the blame for delivering any Brexit deal that falls short of the promises made by Vote Leave during the referendum and in the high-blown rhetoric used by Theresa May during the election campaign.

However, all is not rosy. What most Labour MPs seem to have forgotten is that Brexit is not simply a political battleground – something to be leveraged to reduce the number of complaints about migration and to hasten the Tory government into an early grave. There is a political victory to be had by using the Brexit process to clobber the government. But there is also a far bigger defeat in store for the left if leaving the EU makes Britain poorer and more vulnerable to the caprice of international finance. That Jeremy Corbyn is personally fireproof doesn’t mean that his manifesto can’t be torched by the Brexit blaze. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue