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Forget Benefits Street. When will we shame the scroungers lapping up corporate welfare?

Ignore the media misinformation: spending on out-of-work benefits isn’t out of control, nor is the welfare state responsible for growing poverty.

From The Big Benefits Row to Benefits Street, everyone in the media seems to want to talk about welfare these days. Or, more accurately, social security.

In an age of austerity, I won’t pretend to be surprised by the obsession with welfare and so-called “welfare dependency”, but there is a point worth making here: why do we obsess over handouts for the poor, rather than handouts for the rich? Why isn’t the scandal of corporate welfare the subject of fly-on-the-wall documentaries, too? When will my former colleagues at Channel 4 air a series called Bankers’ Street?

Ignore the media misinformation: spending on out-of-work benefits isn’t out of control, nor is the welfare state responsible for growing poverty. It cannot be repeated often enough: most of the social security budget (53 per cent) is spent on pensioners. That compares with a little over a quarter (26 per cent) on those much-maligned out-of-work benefits. Spending on the latter, as a proportion of national income, has been pretty flat for almost three decades.

The number of working households living below the poverty line now outnumbers the number of workless households – 6.7 million compared with 6.3 million. A life on social security isn’t the chief driver of poverty; a life on low pay is. Rather than decry the level of benefits that the jobless and the disabled are entitled to, perhaps politicians and pundits should focus on how four out of every five new jobs created under this government have been in low-pay sectors such as retail, hospitality and residential care. One in five of the UK workforce now earns less than the living wage and requires in-work benefits just to make ends meet – that’s five million people in total.

So let us turn instead to the real scandal, the issue that dare not speak its name: corporate welfare. Where is the ministerial or media anger over the activities of G4S and Serco, which are accused of ripping off the taxpayer but which make millions from lavish government contracts? Where are the howls of outrage over taxpayer-funded payouts to the fossil-fuel industry? The Met Office’s chief scientist may believe “there is a link” between the recent floods and climate change but the government continues to subsidise the coal, oil and gas industries to the tune of £2.6bn a year.

Why are the rail company bosses not household names in the same way as White Dee or Smoggy from Benefits Street? The UK has the most expensive rail fares in Europe and yet, according to research by the University of Manchester, the train-operating companies are completely dependent on public subsidies. The university’s June 2013 report for the TUC, aptly entitled The Great Train Robbery, revealed that the top five recipients alone got almost £3bn in taxpayer support between 2007 and 2011. Meanwhile, Network Rail, which is in charge of the UK’s rail infrastructure, receives an annual public subsidy of £4bn (roughly four times greater than the comparable cost under the publicly owned British Rail in the early 1990s).

Dare I mention PFI? Wait, don’t yawn at the back. The Private Finance Initiative, where construction and maintenance of schools, hospitals, roads and the rest are contracted out to private firms, was invented by the Tories in 1992, ramped up by New Labour over 13 years and continues under the coalition. As of 2013, it was forecast that 725 PFI contracts for public facilities across the UK, with a total capital value of £54bn, will cost the Exchequer more than £300bn by the time they are paid off. How’s that for a “something for nothing” culture?

Then there are the bank bailouts, perhaps the biggest act of corporate welfare in living memory. You want benefit spongers? Head for the Square Mile. As of 2013, the total level of financial support provided to the banks by the state, in the form of guarantees and cash outlays, amounted to £141bn, according to the National Audit Office. At the height of the financial crisis, the figure was an astonishing £1.1trn – enough to cover the £5bn Jobseeker’s Allowance budget for the next 200 years. And yet, in spite of being propped up by the taxpayer, RBS and Lloyds are expected to pay out roughly £900m in combined bonuses for 2013. Do I hear the word “scroungers”?

The truth is that the austerity junkies and deficit fetishists on the right aren’t bothered by welfare, or the cost of welfare, per se – only by the billions of pounds that go to the poor rather than the rich; to social programmes, job-guarantee schemes and housing for the homeless, rather than to the shareholders of multinational corporations and other financial institutions.

Remember: big business needs big government. The US economist Dean Baker rightly refers to “nanny-state conservatives”, whom he describes as “enthusiastic supporters of the big-government policies that send income flowing upward”. They are aided by their friends, allies and outriders in the right-wing media echo chamber, who have never had to endure the indignity of turning to payday lenders or food banks in order to survive. The callousness of commentators and columnists who kiss up and kick down, to borrow a line from the Labour MP Jon Cruddas, is unforgivable.

The job of the press, in the words of the Irish-American satirist Finley Peter Dunne, “is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. The modern media, however, with their relentless frenzy over social security payments to those at the bottom rather than corporate welfare payouts at the top, have shamelessly turned Dunne’s dictum on its head.

Mehdi Hasan is the political director of the Huffington Post UK and a contributing writer for the New Statesman

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue