History tells us that in times of austerity, the poor and vulnerable are easy targets for those seeking to divide and weaken society. Benefit Bashing appears to be a new national sport, and this is a direct result of the death of the conviction politician, and the readiness of careerist MPs to dance to the tune of press barons in the hope of currying favourable electoral coverage. The ordinary voter is no longer the lynchpin, and press barons have seized the power our elected representatives have so readily ceded, now acting as king maker. Consequently, it’s now okay to making sweeping generalisations against huge swathes of people suffering deeply at the hands of a government composed of morally myopic, finger wagging millionaires, while ignoring harsh realities of how those government policies embed poverty and inexorably entrench class divides. The truth is no more than an inconvenience to be misreported or ignored. The fact that the media have shown more interest in where Bob Crow sunbathed on holiday, than the fact that 1 in 7 schoolchildren will endure a winter without a suitable coat says it all.
The untimely demise of Bob and Tony Benn could not have come at a worse time. The attacks on the working poor, vulnerable and disabled are not only coming from predictable government and media sources, but also from Labour. Both men were conviction politicians, routinely castigated for their views on most subjects, and in a minority of left wing advocates who managed to achieve broad media presence, speaking up for those with no voice, railing against casualisation of employment, and crusading against the excesses of a broken political system. They both passionately espoused radical socialist democracy, similar to the post war Labour administration that introduced universal health care, widespread pensions, expansive house building and full employment, but were ultimately deserted by New Labour, as the party engaged in a limp wristed arm wrestle for what certain media outlets decided was the centre ground. It is the embedded fear held by political leaders of press barons, and a complete lack of political voices of conviction and passion, willing to defend the working poor and vulnerable that has opened the door to such flagrant collective character assassinations of benefit claimants, the like of which we have not seen since the darkest days of Margaret Thatcher.
Back in 2010, I remember discussing the prospect of coalition with many who saw alliance between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as a necessary evil, as well as being symptomatic of that broken system. In the infancy of this parliament, sun-kissed press conferences told us how new politics would establish new economic balance, the intoxicating melody of false hope weaving its thread through the sweet fabric of those summer afternoons, atop hypnotic drumbeats of blame aimed squarely and repeatedly at the previous administration. Four years later, the coalition is not so much necessary evil as it is a political infection that has been encouraged and cultivated by the collusion of a rudderless Labour Party, and the enthusiastic applauding of the more unedifying elements of the right wing press. Like any infection of virulence that goes unchallenged, it grew in size and severity, morphing from the Coalition of the Willing, into a Coalition of Haters.
Despite grand promises, the coalition has not found a new way forward, nor has it overseen a resurgence of democratic engagement. It has overseen the legitimising of repeated smears and attacks from government and massed media aimed squarely at those least able to defend themselves. It has overseen swathes of the legal aid system becoming virtually inaccessible for the working poor and vulnerable. It has overseen the bedroom tax continuing to wreak havoc among the most disadvantaged families, and employment rights and job security sacrificed with impunity. It has overseen the very poorest among us looking on helplessly while foreign nationals and bankers massage their tax burdens via London property acquisitions, with the working poor languishing on poverty pay in part time work, on zero hours contracts, or subsidising the profits of wealthy multinationals through workfare placements.
We must take some blame for this. We buy these papers, and we recycle these lies. We need to stop subsidising this horror show. We need politicians unafraid of voicing opinion, men and women of conviction and passion willing to stand up for the poorest and most vulnerable, because those on benefits should never be column fodder for wealthy press barons. We need more Bob Crows and Tony Benns. They are the bulwark against the race to the bottom, and the worst instincts of a feckless coalition. They are a reminder that we must continue to oppose injustice and cruelty, and are an example to every professionally beige career politician of what it means to engage in public service.