By Jonathan Grant.
This week has seen public outcry over Barclays’ attempt to manipulate inter-bank interest rates. The story seems to fit a recent pattern, with the general public paying closer attention to the activities of financial institutions and the macroeconomic forces that shape each of our lives. Perhaps that’s inevitable in a recession – but it’s still welcome. However, the UK remains apathetic about social justice, and considering our desperate levels of equality and social mobility, that’s a worrying state of affairs.
First, we need a look at the facts. In terms of absolute poverty, 2010-11 did see an improvement, with 300,000 fewer children living below the poverty line (defined as less than 60% of the median income). But as the recession and public spending cuts take effect, and with the Conservatives seeking to reassess how child poverty is measured, that trend is set to reverse. Equally worrying are figures that indicate stagnating social mobility. Last week, an all-party Parliamentary group found that the UK lags behind all other industrialised nations, with a child’s future more likely to be predicted by their parents’ wealth than in any other industrialised country. It was reported that 54% of FTSE-listed chief executives, and a staggering 70% of high-court justices attended a fee-paying school. That’s a very exclusive club, comprising just 7% of the population. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson have argued this point compellingly in The Spirit Level, which links large income disparity to higher rates of mental and physical ill health, teenage pregnancy and crime. An unequal society truly is an unhealthy society, and not just for those at the bottom. It is not an exaggeration, therefore, to call this an urgent national problem, one that this year’s budget is expected to exacerbate.
Struggling employment levels will hardly help matters, with the most recent figures reporting that while the jobless rate fell by 51,000 to 2.65 million, the number in receipt of benefits rose by 8,100 to 1.6 million (most likely as a result of rising part-time work). There are as many as 31 applicants for every job in some parts of the country, and this year’s graduates are expected never to match their parents’ income. This situation stems from a lack of demand for labour in the economy, but the Conservatives’ policy response appears instead to blame the individual. David Cameron has suggested the withdrawal of housing benefit for under-25s and the time-limiting of benefit payments to jobseekers. The Coalition has already implemented the controversial Work Programme, which, along with the Mandatory Work Activity scheme, drew accusations of exploitation as unemployed people found themselves with a choice of working for no pay or losing all state support. These policies are an attempt to tackle what the PM perceives as a “culture of entitlement” that acts as a disincentive to work. With a distinctly more abrupt tone, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith described young unemployed people as “slackers” and blamed joblessness on unrealistic “X-Factor” ambitions. These policies and sentiments reveal the ideological heart of the Conservative Party, with a tradition of scepticism towards welfare and caution against dependency. But in the climate we face today, they entirely miss the point. Growing dole queues are the result of a global financial crisis that has reduced demand for labour, not some epidemic of fecklessness. To suggest otherwise is deeply insulting to millions who would give anything for the dignity of the daily grind.
However, the PM knows he is on politically safe ground when making such statements. As a nation, we’re aware that life on the dole is a desperate existence; we’re aware that it is impossible for many to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. And we’re all too aware of how the financial crisis has exacerbated the situation, putting established workers’ jobs at risk and making it harder than ever to get a foot on the ladder. And yet, we still vilify the unemployed. The case of Shanene Thorpe illustrated this. After an extremely aggressive Newsnight interview implied that she was out of work, the BBC was rightly forced to apologise. Ms Thorpe is employed at her local council, but were she not, would that justify a public humiliation? Would it grant a supposedly impartial news agency license to treat her with contempt? It would not, but there’s no denying that the public responds to that angle. In a similar vein, Cameron’s plans to cut housing benefit for under-25s have been widely derided because the vast majority of claimants are, in fact, in work, but are paid too little to make the rent. Again, that truth ought to be highlighted, but we must be careful to avoid inadvertently demonising the unemployed in the process.
Opinion polls consistently suggest that the public longs for the shrinking of the welfare state and the punishment of those without work. Disapproval, even fury, towards benefit recipients appears to be a predictable feature of British public opinion, with a 2010 study finding that the majority were ‘more right-wing than Thatcher’ on the issue. Today, David Cameron clearly has no qualms about discarding the ‘compassionate’ conservative brand and reverting to nasty party type. Meanwhile, Labour abandons even a reluctant defence of the welfare state, instead seeking to make political capital from branding recipients “evil”.
Progress must begin with the dismantling of a few myths. The beliefs that drive these vitriolic opinions can verge on the bizarre, with tabloids raising hackles with stories of extreme examples of fraud. These stories give a tiny majority of cases far more attention than they merit, distracting attention from the country’s real ills.
In response to this hostility, some would argue for an appeal to patriotism. The beginnings of that were seen during the recent Diamond Jubilee celebrations, as news broke of workers sleeping under London Bridge before an unpaid 14-hour day stewarding the pageant. Upon hearing that news, and seeing the obvious contrast it presented, Britons were forced to face some uncomfortable truths about the structure of society. Former Deputy PM Lord Prescott turned his fire on the government, accusing them of “exploitation” and worrying that a similar scenario will play out at the Olympics. Concerns surrounding the aforementioned Work Programme were reignited, and some commentators posed difficult questions about how the inexperienced can break into the jobs market. Spirits were dampened, on a day of national celebration, upon seeing fellow citizens so clearly and so badly let down. Although thinkers on the left tend to distrust any form of nationalism, that kind of argument may yet prove vital to their cause. And even without such appeals, some encouraging seeds of change may be found even in the roots of conservative thinking. Those most dismayed at the welfare system find that it clashes with their belief in self-determination, with the idea that one should get by not on handouts, but by their own hard work. That is surely a belief that can be harnessed to drive us towards a more meritocratic society.
But in the shorter term, all trace of hatred must be purged from the debate. The simplistic, lazy caricature of the feckless poor has no place in this discussion. It must be replaced with due compassion for the victims of a hostile economic climate. Our political leaders ought to be first to make that argument, regardless of whatever gains they may stand to make from tough talk. This is too important for posturing. It’s time to get real.