Owen Jones: Here's the question... could you live on £67 a week?

Social contempt can appeal to low-paid workers who resent struggling while others 'milk the system'

Share

In a church in Birmingham Ladywood, one of Britain's poorest communities, I recently sat next to Edwina Currie as she lectured poor people that they were not really poor if they owned a mobile phone. Currie, a former Tory minister, had been sent there by the BBC to explain her fact-free assertion that no one had to choose between heating their homes and feeding themselves.

She had form: in the 1980s, she claimed northerners were dying from "ignorance and chips". She refused to budge even when I pointed out the tragic case of Mark and Helen Mullins. Mark walked a 12-mile roundtrip every day to a soup kitchen; their desperate circumstances drove them to suicide. Here was a damning indictment of Britain in 2011, but still Currie demanded the poor pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

I'm sure Currie felt vindicated by last week's Social Attitudes Survey. Even as the ranks of Britain's poor and unemployed have been swelled by economic crisis, social contempt has increased. 54 per cent of those surveyed felt that unemployment benefits were too high, compared with 35 per cent in 1983 – another era of dole queues. If the question had been, "Could you live on £67.50 a week?" – the actual value of Jobseekers Allowance for those aged 25 or above – it's a safe bet the results would have been rather different. Nearly two-thirds believed that one factor for child poverty was parents who "don't want to work". Scroungers and work-shy freeloaders: these are Britain's poor as far as millions are concerned.

It's a triumph for the Tory governments of the 1980s in which Currie served. Margaret Thatcher once argued that "there really is no primary poverty left in this country", putting some people's lack of money down to a "really hard fundamental character-personality defect". Unemployment and poverty were not social problems, they were individual failings – or so Thatcherism drummed into the minds of the British public.

An integral part of the current Government's mission to turn a crisis of the market into a crisis of public spending has been to demonise benefit recipients. It was taken to its ugliest conclusion last week when a Government report suggested making chemotherapy patients prove they were too ill to work. Sections of the media happily fan this prejudice. When unemployed people make an appearance, it's invariably as the "scrounger". Channel 4's grotesque TV series The Fairy Jobmother featured the "feckless" being harangued back into work. The BBC's John Humphrys fronted The Future State of Welfare, condemning Britain's "dependency culture" and a "sense that the state owes us a living".

The reality of unemployed people desperate for work – like the 110,000 applications for Royal Mail's 18,000 temporary Christmas jobs – barely gets a mention. We don't even really talk about the unemployed any more: they're more likely to be "people on benefits", defining them not by lack of work, but by a reliance on taxpayers' money.

But it is Labour that must accept a large slice of responsibility for growing social contempt. Since the mid 1990s it has opted not to challenge the Thatcherite mantra of individual responsibility for social problems. Ed Miliband used his Conference speech to call for those in work to be given priority in social housing.

Forget the political rights or wrongs for a moment. It is a suicidal strategy for Labour to take. Failing to challenge – and even fuelling – social contempt simply increases potential support for the Conservatives. Those who hate "scroungers" most will never trust Labour to crack down ruthlessly enough: that's what the Conservatives are for. If Labour won't take on the consensus, the reality of unemployment and poverty will disappear from the public domain – and ever hardening social attitudes will cripple the party at the ballot box.

Social contempt can appeal to middle-class voters who resent spending their taxes on the undeserving, and low-paid workers who resent struggling to pay bills while others "milk the system". According to a survey by BritainThinks, it even includes benefit recipients who – belonging to a demonised group – are keen to distance themselves from "scroungers". A mass campaign revealing the reality of poverty and unemployment is desperately needed to shift public attitudes. Without such a crusade, there will be no political space to oppose benefit cuts or push for progressive policies like redistributing wealth. After all, if poverty is a product of individual failings, why have a welfare state at all?

The winners in all this will be the City firms who helped cause the crisis, and tax-dodging companies that deprive the Treasury of up to 60 times the amount lost through benefit fraud. How pleased they must be that those worse affected by their crisis are turning on each other, rather than on an ever-wealthier elite. As living standards plummet, misdirected anger could turn ugly. Unless there is a political game-changer, Canary Wharf will remain the glistening symbol of a City prospering while others suffer, a middle finger stuck up at the British public as they seethe with contempt for each other.

Owen Jones is the author of 'Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class'

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in hock to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before