There's a nuanced debate on welfare waiting to happen, and Benefits Britain 1949 isn't it

Channel 4's Benefits Britain 1949 asked modern benefits claimants to live under conditions from 1949 - the reason being, what exactly?

When it comes to the welfare state, it’s clear there’s a conversation to be had. There needs to be an unpicking of the false dichotomy between "workers" and people on benefits. There needs to be a shift away from the focus on capping benefits to providing a living wage. There’s a nuanced debate waiting about how disabled people can be given the right support to work. That’s why, last night, Channel 4 decided to dedicate an hour of prime time television to asking an unemployed, sick woman to lift a potato and to making an old man cry.

For anyone who didn’t see Benefits Britain 1949 – and as it happens, chose not to enter the televisual equivalent of beating themselves around the head with a blunt object – the programme charged itself with seeing how present day benefit claimants would cope with the welfare system as it was when it was first introduced. “Does it point a way out of this current crisis?” the narrator asked. Well no, of course not, but don’t let that stop you.

It was as if Channel 4 had been hired by the Department for Work and Pensions to summarise government rhetoric for anyone who hadn’t been paying attention the past year or so. In sum, people on benefits should not only be pitted against "workers", but each other.

There was "Good Claimant": a visibly disabled man who wanted to work. Craig used a wheelchair due to spina bifida and although in the past few years he’d applied for hundreds of jobs, he’d been given none. There was "Harmless Claimant": an old man called Mervyn who lives on a state pension. There was "Bad Claimant": a long-term sick woman with an overtly working class accent. Karen had a range of conditions (like arthritis and heart problems) that are hidden and therefore "don’t count", and she had been on sick benefits for seven years.

Karen had styled hair, acrylic nails, and Egyptian style figurines in her house. This was, apparently, evidence that her benefits were too high and that, probably, she was faking her illnesses. I should mention at this point that Karen was fat. There was a moment, about when the camera brushed past Karen’s stomach to focus on her brightly polished nails. It felt as though, rather than a 1940s test, we were supposed to be craving a Daily Mail-led dystopian future – where benefits are awarded proportionate to a claimant's weight and how neat their appearance is. ("Had your hair done in the last six weeks?" "She's fat too! Fatty! She's a fatty!")

Karen was soon told to do a series of "1949 tests" like lifting a potato or using scissors in order to show she was fit for some kind of employment. Like working in a potato origami factory, perhaps. She’d already been assessed by Atos, and seemed to be in considerable pain, but the jaunty music and camera angles told me putting her through a series of humiliating tests was the right thing to do.  

Mervyn, meanwhile, was struggling to get by on a 1949 pension. In one inspiring scene, he was forced to pawn his grandfather’s watch and then move into a nursing home. He then started talking about his dead wife and we watched as he ran into his bedroom and sobbed. “Pensioners barely had enough to live from week to week,” trilled Mrs Townsend, the work officer stalking him. “The stigma was so great for the elderly receiving help in 1949 that many didn’t apply,” added the narrator. I wasn’t sure whether this was meant to be a good thing but I was distracted thinking about how much I hated Karen.

While Craig was happily sent off for work experience at a call centre, Karen was told to sew for her benefits. If you weren’t sure yet if you hated Karen, the producers helpfully orchestrated a scene in which she was put to work next to a seamstress with one arm. The camera paused subtly on the woman’s stump as Karen sat motionless next to her, and at least one Channel 4 producer looked at themselves in the mirror and cried.

Ah well, all’s well that ends well. Good Claimant got a job. Harmless Claimant was given his grandfather’s watch back. Bad Claimant, although annoying legalities meant she had to have her benefits reinstated after the show, had been humiliated.

In a nifty ending, all three were brought together and asked to decide which of them they thought was most worthy of benefits. I was hoping the fat woman would have to fight the crippled boy for a scrap of food, but sadly they all just left. Next week? We can only hope.

Karen, from Benefits Britain 1949. Photograph: Channel 4.

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.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt