Our welfare system is broken, but Labour and the Tories just trade myths

Rather than arguing about policy and practice, both parties encourage a futile debate about motivation and motive.

The first half of this parliamentary term was dominated by an economic argument that, in political terms, Labour lost. That doesn’t mean the Ed Balls's position on the deficit and debt has necessarily been the wrong one. Learned economists share the shadow chancellor’s analysis that premature austerity risks suffocating growth. Balls warned there would be a double-dip recession and there was.

But there has not been much reward for that foresight. Opinion polls show voters still inclined to accept the coalition’s explanations for missed fiscal targets and unscheduled stagnation – a derelict Labour legacy and turbulence washing in from the rest of Europe. The Tories act as if economic misfortune is a force of nature visited upon them rather than the product of their own policy misjudgement. Labour, meanwhile, are marooned between the forward-facing argument about who is best equipped to navigate through the storm and the backward-facing one about whether the storm might have been avoided.

Much of the economic argument in Westminster over the past two years has been predicated on mutually sustaining myths, one Labour and one Conservative. I mean "myth" not as in a malicious falsehood but in the sense of a moral parable that might be rooted in real world observation but whose real purpose is to galvanise tribal faith.

The Tory one is that the only feasible fiscal path immediately after the last election was the one laid out in George Osborne’s "emergency Budget" of June 2010. Any alternative, goes the story, would have led to "Greek-style" catastrophe, a flight of international investors from UK bonds, meltdown, apocalypse.

This was never true. Markets wanted certainty that there would be some determination to address the UK’s fiscal problems. But demonstration of will was what mattered, not acceleration of the austerity timetable. Osborne could have entered the Treasury and promised with the requisite level of portentous ceremony to implement Alastair Darling’s pre-election budget plans. The sky would not have fallen in.

The new Chancellor took a more aggressive path for two political reasons. First, he hoped to cast Labour as the party of reckless profligacy. Second, he wanted to get budget consolidation out of the way faster so as to fight a cash giveaway election in 2015. The first part of the plan worked; the second didn’t.

The Labour myth is that Osborne’s political gamble entirely explains why recovery turned to recession and why there is misery in Britain today. The implication in Balls’s "too far too fast" line is that somewhere in the gap between Darling’s proposed deficit reduction timetable and the one Osborne tried (and failed) to implement, was enough cash stimulus to pump vigour into the economy. There wasn’t. Darling envisaged austerity-lite; it still would have looked and tasted like austerity. It still would have hurt. It is entirely possible that the gentler gradient on Darling’s graph would have made all the difference to growth prospects but, come 2015, that will be an academic hypothesis to exercise economics students. It is not the kind of argument that persuades swing voters.

Now that the Osborne timetable is in tatters, Labour and the Tories are not as far apart on the economy as they seem. Balls has explicitly acknowledged the need for fiscal constraint and Osborne has accepted that austerity alone cannot restore growth to the economy and that investment must be brought forward. Labour are reluctant deficit hawks; the Tories are timid dabblers in Keynesian stimulus. It would be silly to suggest that there is some secret consensus emerging but it has also suited the Chancellor and his shadow to depict each other at polar extremes of an ideological spectrum when in fact they don’t. It has suited public enlightenment and intelligent debate less.

And now, with the forthcoming battle over welfare cuts, a similar pattern is emerging. The second half of the parliament will be dominated by more mythological warfare, this time over the benefits bill.

The Tory myth is that Labour is only interested in handing out money for people to sit around doing nothing; that there is no willingness to reform the welfare system. This is a subset of the fiction that Balls doesn’t intend to reduce the deficit. As senior Labour figures point out whenever they are given the opportunity, the party wants to reduce spending on out-of-work benefits and is unafraid to impose sanctions on those who refuse to take jobs when offered. That was Labour policy by the end of the last government and it is Labour policy now. (How popular it is with the party grass roots is another matter entirely.)

The Labour myth is that Conservatives are motivated entirely by the cynical urge to confiscate money from the poor and that, in cahoots with tabloid newspapers, they wilfully vilify those in receipt on benefits. That ignores the possibility that some Tories might sincerely believe that the welfare system they inherited was riddled with hypocrisies and injustices. They might believe it because it is true. It was ridiculous to funnel taxpayers' money into the pockets of rogue landlords through an unchecked housing benefit budget and it was dishonest, unfair and financially reckless to use incapacity benefit as a cash anaesthetic for people who might have been able to work if given the right training and incentives – positive and negative. (Those observations do not cease to be true just because there are greater injustices in the world and worse policy errors that should command more media/political attention.)

The welfare system is broken, not irredeemably but quite substantially. Labour knew it in office. The Tories know it now. The interesting question is what interventions are most effective in doing something about it. What works in terms of affordability and delivery of a just outcome? How should incentives be calibrated for different labour market conditions? That is not the debate we are likely to have over the next two years.

Instead we will have ever more desperate attempts by each side to force their opponents into the mythological template. Some on the Labour side will unintentionally help the Tories by denying that there is such a thing as cultural dependency on welfare and pretending that the only problem with the system is its lack of largesse. Some on the Tory side will help Labour by spraying indiscriminate spite at anyone who happens to be in receipt of state help and by appearing unmoved by the plight of Britain’s poor.

Everyone will be in favour of reform. But Labour will struggle to persuade the public that they have the courage to see it through and the Tories will struggle to convince anyone that they are compassionate enough to do it right. The argument will be about motivation and motive instead of policy and practice.

An important difference between this argument and the economic one that dominated the first half of the parliament is that the coalition parties have already spent much of their political capital. Osborne stole a march on Labour in June 2010. The Chancellor had the benefit of the doubt on his side - and the then still trusted Lib Dems cheerleading for him. The opposition was  reeling from defeat and only embarking on the process of electing a new leader. Now Ed Miliband leads a united party and has more political combat experience under his belt. 

It is, of course, quite possible for both sides to lose this argument. Labour could fail to shake off a reputation for throwing public money at people who are judged not to deserve it; the Tories could thoroughly restore their status as the party that sneers in the face of social destitution. How do we implement a social security system that provides for those in need, supports people out of work in their hunt for a job, doesn’t create perverse incentives to depend on the state for life, rewards enterprise, doesn’t stigmatise disadvantage, is fair and compassionate while also financially sustainable? To find the answer, look away from British politics now.

Goal posts stand in a children's park in the Gorton area of Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

Anorexia, breast binding and the legitimisation of body hatred

Forcing people to live in a body where they do not feel at home causes intense, often unbearable suffering.

In 1987 I underwent the first of three hospitalisations for anorexia. I was force-fed via a nasogastric tube. This led me to gain a significant amount of weight, which I hated. Furthermore, it made my overall psychological state not better, but worse.

Upon discharge I lost the weight again and in the years that followed I tried to play a game of keeping myself just thin enough to manage my anxiety, not so thin as to be coerced into further treatment. I was not always successful. I used to fantasise about the peace I would experience if only people were to leave me alone. The expectations they had for my life, my body, were not my own.

Decades later I have not come round to other people’s point of view. I still think force-feeding was violent, traumatising, if not downright abusive. I still reject the idea that one might somehow, by sheer force of will, learn to accept a body in which one does not feel at home. The portrayal of anorexia as some invading enemy, or a sly, toxic friend, is one I find wholly ridiculous. There was no battle between the “real” me and a manipulative, alien “Ana”. Every thought I thought, every feeling I felt, was mine.

Should this sound like the start of The Pro-Ana Manifesto, I would like to stress that anorexia robbed me of a great deal. It almost killed me. Perhaps, if I had been “left in peace”, I would not be around to write this today. Yet there was no simple cure, no demon to kill. There was, in the end, no Ana, no skinny mean-girl shadow stalking me, whispering in my ear. There was only me. There was only ever me and a world for which I desperately wanted – and still want – to be the right shape.

In Hunger Strike, Susie Orbach describes how recovery from anorexia is seen by many as having been achieved “when the normal weight is reached and appropriate sex role functioning is achieved”. It is not just a matter of “being healthy” or “looking normal”; gaining body fat means, for a woman, gaining hips and breasts and having to contend with the gendered expectations that accompany this. A female with hips and breasts has a job to do, a role to perform, both sexually and reproductively. I did not want this role. It was easier to change my body than to ask the world to accommodate my humanity.

There is a way in which I understand force-feeding and coercive eating disorder management as a form of conversion therapy, an attempt to impose gender conformity on an unwilling subject. The problem is not the anorexia sufferer’s refusal to eat; she is absolutely correct in assuming that by gaining weight, she will be expected to give up something very personal and meaningful to her. “I have gained weight, but lost myself,” writes Nancy Tucker of her own recovery. “How can I explain that inside I remain an anorexic, but trapped in a fat suit?” How can one be seen as human being while looking like a woman? The anorexic must struggle with this conundrum, at least if she wants to live, but it cannot be hers alone to solve.

I first became ill in 1987, aged 11. I’d been an early developer, already wearing a bra at primary school. I did not want to be that person, the fat girl, the slag, the one who got her breasts groped, her bra snapped, pushed into corners, the one who ended up playing that role anyhow, because it’s less shameful to be a slut in a slut’s body than it is to be a blushing eleven-year-old prude with tits. I tried it for a while, a good eight months, then I gave up and stopped eating. Such a pattern is not uncommon. Eating disorders are more prevalent in those of us who experience an early onset of puberty. I knew, absolutely and without question, that the body I had acquired was not the one I was supposed to have. I wanted to be one of the skinny, straight girls, the ones whose bodies were indistinguishable from those of the boys. Better still, I wanted to be a boy, to never have to gain hips and breasts, or to bleed, again.

Had I been born thirty years later, starvation may not have felt like my only option. By which I do not mean that the situation for pubescent girls has improved. My groping male classmates interpreted female bodies through the lens of Playboy and page three; the harder, faster, crueller world of online porn was yet to come. I mean I could have said I was not a girl. I did not feel like a girl. I was not a girl, not that girl, not that bleeding, stinking body I had become. It would not have been a lie. If I were going through what I went through thirty years ago today, perhaps I would not have needed to flee puberty all alone. I could have asked for help. Instead of having to face down my force-feeding adversaries, I could have found adults willing to support me in my efforts to sculpt a body more in keeping with my sense of self.

For instance, recent advice given to UK schools on how to accommodate the needs of transgender children includes information on chest-binding. According to Cornwall Council, binding can be “hot, uncomfortable and restrictive – but very important to [pupils’] psychological wellbeing”. Teachers are nonetheless told to remain aware of the risk of “breathing difficulties, skeletal problems and fainting”. Lancashire County Council offers the following advice:

“If you have young people who bind their chests, monitor them carefully during physical activities and in hot weather. It may be necessary to subtly offer more breaks.”

I’m perfectly aware that one is not supposed to question guidance of this nature. But I think, just for one moment, we should be honest about what we are witnessing. Young people who hate their breasts, absolutely loathe them, would be willing to take a knife to them and slice them off, would be practically suicidal if someone told them that these breasts were with them for life. Young people who know without doubt that their inner selves, their very identities, are wholly incompatible with the ownership of breasts. Young people who, in other words, feel exactly as I did. And instead of challenging this self-hatred – instead of acknowledging the pain (which no one did for me), but also recognising that it is not caused by the body itself – grown adults are accepting this narrative without question. Because it’s easiest. Because yes, a child still suffers, but the ends (not looking female) are deemed to justify the means (physical pain and possible long-term damage).

Pink News recently described the drawing of comparisons between anorexia and certain narratives of transgender experience as “insulting”. It was not made clear who was being insulted, but I’m guessing it was not anorexia sufferers; after all, they’re the mentally ill ones. While I have no desire to get into a long discussion on the arbitrary nature of definitions of sanity, I think it is perfectly possible to acknowledge the cultural, political and gendered meanings of anorexia without going all-out pro-ana and suggesting it is not an illness at all. It is an illness that operates within particular social settings, in response to and interacting with particular cultural influences. “The world gets harder and harder,” writes Hilary Mantel on self-imposed starvation. “There’s no pleasing it. No wonder some girls want out.”  

The female-to-trans narrative offers a different way of framing the same impossible dilemma. We know that there are countless individuals who have always had this sense of not-belonging. It is now being suggested that contemporary trans politics is granting them to access the language and treatments they have needed all along. But another way of putting it might be that a vocabulary and treatment protocol have been created precisely in order to accommodate rather than challenge the relationship between gender and hatred of one’s own sexed body. What we are seeing remains a symptom, not a cure.

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson describes her partner Harry’s experiences of binding:

“Your inability to live in your skin was reaching its peak, your neck and back pulsing with pain all day, all night, from your torso (and hence, your lungs) having been constricted for almost thirty years. You tried to stay wrapped even while sleeping, but by morning the floor was always littered with doctored sports bras, strips of dirty fabric – “smashers” you called them.”

I can easily see myself, aged 14 or 15, reading words like this over and over again, every bit as reverently as I used to read every anorexia memoir I could get my hands on, absorbing every word, feeling ashamed of not being as hardcore, of not having proven myself yet. You still have breasts. You’re not bleeding. Do better. Do more. This is not to question the genuine pain that is being depicted here. At one point Nelson reports her partner’s response to her own lack of comprehension:

“Don’t you get it? you yelled back. I will never feel as free as you do, I will never feel as at home in the world. I will never feel as at home in my own skin. That’s just the way it is, and always will be.”

I don’t know a single long-term anorexia sufferer who has not expressed similar sentiments. And there is no simple response, because it is, in all likelihood, the truth. It is heartbreaking, a tragedy. We can acknowledge the validity of an individual’s suffering without losing sight of the fundamental injustice of it.

It would be wonderful if there were a simple answer to all this. Every day young women are encouraged – berated, almost – to accept their bodies, love their curves, not give a fuck about what men think. It doesn’t work. If it were that easy – if feminism were self-help, little mantras you repeat in your head, one long, extended Dove advert – we’d all be laughing. It’s not. Body positivity messages do not help, even those that do not come with advice on how to get “beautiful underarms” or “age-positive skin”. To really, truly get to the heart of what is wrong with female flesh, why it feels so hateful and alien to so many of us, we need to relate our alienation to the uses and abuses to which this flesh is put. And even then we need to accept that doing so will not necessarily save us as individuals. But the idea that sexed bodies do not match identities due to some innate mismatch – as opposed to the deeply political meanings inscribed upon them – is not just absurd, it is harmful. It leads us to focus only on our bodies and it short-circuits efforts towards long-term political change.

We are reaching a point where even questioning body-hatred is seen as a cruel denial of an individual’s inner self.  I have even seen articles including statements such as “personally, I would feel more empowered in my body […] if I heard that hating your boobs is OK”. How is one supposed to respond to that? ”Well, then, hate away?” Then there is the assumption that women who “consent” to be women – who choose not to bind or change their pronouns – must be so insensitive, so dumb, so politically unengaged as to be pacified by a quick “love your curves” slogan. The truth is that very few female people can accept their bodies as long as ownership of a female body – failure to starve it away, or crush it, or have it surgically corrected – is taken as implicit consent to be treated as a member of the inferior class.

I am not saying “burn your binders”. Forcing people to live in a body where they do not feel at home causes intense, often unbearable suffering. There is no quick fix, perhaps not even a lifetime one. But we need to think hard and keep asking questions, even if these contradict other people’s interpretations of what is possible for them.

We need to accept that an individual’s experience of themselves and their body is an interaction with the world around them. We need to do what we can to create comfort and hope. For women, there is a cost to growing and a cost to staying small. There is pain either way. But please can we keep open the option that it doesn’t have to be like this for all of us, forever? No matter how much it hurts we must at least believe that.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.