A lack of empathy is why ex-Tory MPs get payouts while benefits get squeezed

The distinction between the deserving and undeserving reeks of the workhouse.

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The swing to Labour on 8 June which handed the party an extra 34 seats also saw 17 Conservative MP’s lose theirs. In keeping with the tone deafness of her campaign, Theresa May was reportedly quick to promise those unfortunates, robbed by the electorate of their £74,000 (plus expenses) MP's income, that the Tory party would support them financially.

The details of this extra financial support have not been made entirely clear, but we do know that, upon their final exit from the gates of Westminster Palace, defeated MP’s already receive some standard parting gifts: usually somewhere in the teens-of-thousands based on time served (the “Loss of Office Payment”), and access to a winding-up fund for leaving drinks and moving offices and other bare essentials. But these are public funds to which all MP’s, rightly or wrongly, are entitled by law.

May’s reported promise was different but while it lacked specificity, detail, and legal commitment, it shows a degree of concern for the welfare of those who lost their jobs as a result of her decisions. Yet in terms of “lost income,” the fallout from Theresa May’s snap-election slip up pales in comparison to the impact that years of cuts to universal credit, botched work capability assessments leading to deaths on the Jobcentre steps, or onerous regulations forcing full-time in-work benefit claimants to spend dozens of hours of week “finding a better job.”

Why, then, would May be struck to offer an outpouring of sympathy and support for her colleagues, but not the third children of poor families (who, as of April of this year, will no longer be supported with a child grant)?

The logic goes that there are poor people who deserve help (hard-working folks, including those former Tory MP) and poor people who do not. This cuts a clean line between an “us,” worthy of help – people in whose places we could imagine ourselves, and “them,” suspicious third-child-having skivers unworthy of a farthing.

The identity of the “Benefits Claimant” – whether pitied for living poorly, or derided for living slightly too well – is based on… well the fact that they claim benefits. The narrative of claimants deftly trading every minute off work for more leisure, gaming a feckless government to fleece honest taxpayers helps reduce complex humans into walking cost-and-profit centres.

May and her party have spent years caricaturing these people, and promising to squeeze them as much as possible. But it’s difficult to imagine Theresa May carrying out a similar calculus before blurting out a promise to support sacked colleagues. “Hmm – now what are the chances that Ben Gummer threw the election so he can claim his Loss of Office Payment and buy trainers with it...”

This deficit of empathy has defined the British approach to helping those in need for centuries.

I’ll share a brief historical anecdote: Samuel Green was a poor 61 year-old living in the Andover Workhouse -- where the 1835 Poor Law required him to stay if he was to receive state support. In the workhouse you would crush bones (this was Green’s job), pick oakum, break rocks, or undertake other painful labour. 

The official government justification for the workhouses relied on hand-wringing over the consequences of too much generosity to a calculating poor: “Every penny bestowed, that tends to render the condition of the pauper more eligible than that of the independent labourer, is a bounty on indolence and vice. But once the condition of the pauper is made more uncomfortable than that of the independent labourer then new life, new energy, is infused into the constitution of the pauper.” 

In mandating how the workhouse would operate to ensure life inside was just slightly shittier than life outside, the Act included such provisions as: the separation of inmates into different categories, the provision of “plain, frugal, but sufficient food,” the prohibition of luxuries, and similar. In reality, this meant families were separated, as husbands, wives, and children were considered different “categories” of inmate, while “plain, frugal” food was a caloric minimum for survival; life was a cruel, demeaning slog.

“We looked out for the fresh bones,” explained Green of the destitution he experienced, “and then we used to be like a parcel of dogs after them...the marrow was good as the meat.” The “plain frugal fare” for residents of the notorious Andover workhouse was so “plain and frugal” that the inmates were starved to the point that they set upon the bones they were supposed to be crushing. While Andover was, admittedly, an especially bad workhouse that caused a national scandal, the concern was not that it was cruel, but only that it was a little too cruel.

One feels empathy for Green – he has a name, not to mention a harrowing story. He was not merely a cost centre, but a bent-backed old man, alienated by industrialism, alone and stooped, looking for some food. But the kindness of the New Poor Law 1835 extended only to those who the framers of the law could empathise with – the old and infirm, not the simply poor.

May’s concern for the dignity and lifestyles of her colleagues, but her inability to understand the humanity behind the those battered by years of austerity, betrays the fact that she is not a ruthless robot seeking to reward the deserving and punish the sinner, but merely unable to extend her empathy outside SW1 or the villages of the Thames Valley.

Riley is a writer based in London. He has several short books on key works in politics, economics, and social sciences coming out under the Routledge imprint in July.