George Osborne's phrasing on the welfare cuts is sly

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

The welfare cuts set out in the Spending Review have been greeted with more than a little cynicism. The twisted stats were pointed out today by Daniel Knowles and Zoe Williams, and the ironies by Ellie Mae O'Hagan - but it's also worth looking a bit at the sly phrasing.

Words like "scrounging", "handout", "feckless" have burrowed fairly deep into the way we talk about welfare, so yesterday Osborne was able to get away with these two phrases - "something for nothing culture", and "if you are not prepared to learn English, your benefits will be cut". The tone is moralising. He's not talking about all benefit claimants, mind, just the ones who don't deserve them. Which, incidently, are exactly those the government can't afford to support this time round.

This kind of moral justification is especially underhand because it is effective. We like believing people get what they deserve. The thought that bad things happen to good people is so abhorrent to us that the quickest way out is often to blame the victim for their own misfortune, and we do so wherever we can.

A classic set of experiments by Melvin Lerner demonstrates this. 72 female volunteers were made to watch a woman having a "learning experience", unaware that she was an actress. As they watched, the volunteer made a mistake, and seemed to recieve a painful electric shock. The "learning" continued in this way.

Some volunteers were given the option of stopping the torture, and they did, but others were not given that option. They were instead given a number of different elaborations on the victim's plight. One was that she would be afterwards rewarded in cash for her suffering, another that she was suffering for no reason, another that she was suffering for the good of the rest of them - a matyr.

The group was then asked to judge the victim. The results were shocking. The "martyr" recieved the worst reviews - she was despised by the group. The victim who got no money for her pain did little better. The subject who got cash deserved it - she had learned well. But it was the "saved" learner who did best of all - she was innocent, and unfortunate, and deserved to be saved. It seemed that the audience needed the victim to match her punishment.

We have a touching belief that the world is just and like to look away rather than be shown otherwise. So let's not let go of that cynicism just yet - in fact it's probably time to ramp it up a bit.

George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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