A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Charity begins at home for the elite

It is hard to remember a time when politicians did not complain about all these layabouts on benefits scrounging off the state. It was shocking when new Labour's first home secretary Jack Straw denounced single mums, the disabled and the homeless, but he didn't invent mean-spirited attacks on the poorest in society. He simply gave those attacks a new, more vindictive twist. Ever since we've had a welfare state we've had members of the elite complaining about the cushy lives that are generously granted to the sick, the unemployed or the old. The workhouses were introduced at a time when the rich were complaining loudly that if they were to prevent children from starving, the least that society could do was lock them up and make them earn their keep. Workhouses were not known as the New Bastilles for nothing. The current economic climate might have given ministers an added incentive to cut the benefit bill, but they need to be careful not to believe their own rhetoric. With a slurry of unnamed ministers sending out quotes on the end of universal pension provision and reducing housing benefits, they have managed the neat trick of looking vile and incompetent at the same.

They need to remember that welfare provision has never been simply about generosity to the unfortunate. Just like the sewage system and other public works, the dole was introduced because the well-to-do cannot live in their own little bubble no matter how hard they try; they could catch cholera or TB just like everyone else if diseases were allowed to spread. Bins are collected for free not because there is any general principle about the right to have your rubbish removed, but because if someone on a street couldn't or wouldn't pay then the public health hazard that this would create would be everyone's problem. Over time, the rich decided that having their throats cut by the destitute was less appealing than ensuring the poor did not get too desperate. The safety net was also a shield to prevent murder, robbery and anarchy. The trick has always been to pay out enough to prevent rioting while making the process of claiming benefits unpleasant enough to prevent having to pay decent wages or make workplaces good places to be. With rising unemployment, there's no point in the government wasting resources trying to bully claimants who have no job to go to. But it is possible to ensure that the whole process is soul-destroying, leaving the recipients of benefits feeling like atomised outsiders. The government has learned lessons from the '30s, just as we should.
The unemployed used to have to sign on every day as a method to ensure they were instantly available for whatever dangerous, ill-paid work might be going that day.

The downside was that by collecting all the out-of-work people in an area in the same place day after day, organising a movement of the unemployed became a good deal easier. The National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) became a real force for change last century not simply because it protested against genuine social injustice but because the state assisted it by drawing its potential audience into one place and forcing them to stay there day after day with nothing to do but talk about their problems.
These days claimants sign on every two weeks and they are often corralled as quickly as possible through open-plan offices under the watchful gaze of security guards. The need for a new NUWM is still there, but this time the government has chosen not to do socialists any favours when it comes to reaching our audience. The benefit cheats hotline also plays a part in the process. It was a clever sleight of hand by the government which has never paid for itself. The few people who do ring up to grass on someone are actually reporting totally legitimate recipients of benefits - or people who don't receive benefits anyway. It remains in place not because it's an effective way to prevent benefit fraud - it isn't - but because it helps to embed in people's minds guilt by association.

Somehow, because some people defraud the system, everyone who claims benefits without being totally miserable is somehow slurred as dishonest. The insipid message is that claiming benefits is itself an immoral act similar to fraud. During the Thatcher years, not a day went by when the unemployed were not harangued, scorned or despised from the Cabinet pulpit, but welfare spending always rose. But if she hated the dole so much, why did Thatcher keep paying it? Not from the goodness of her heart - that would have required possessing one. The truth is that the bullying and the payouts are two sides of the same coin. It's cheaper to pay housing benefit than it is to imprison the destitute and you don't get any awkward rebellions either. However, you still need to make sure that it sounds like you are doing the poor a favour rather than keeping the lid on Pandora's box. The moment the poor realise why the powerful are handing over money, what appears to be charity could well be seen as something very similar to demanding money with menaces. And who knows what society's poorest might demand next if they started getting ideas.

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