Reposted from The Guardian Society.
Populist attacks on benefit claimants rarely make practical politics. They seldom bring in the enormous savings claimed and usually create policy problems that have to be addressed later, often at significant cost. So what is the coalition’s welfare reform really about? The government claims it has broad public support to reduce social security expenditure. Opinion polls show large majorities believe many benefits are claimed by people who do not deserve them. Is this true? Or does it tell us more about a psycho-politics that seeks to play on people’s fears and aspirations – and encourages division between us – as a response to difficult times?
A 2013 Ipsos Mori study showed that the public grossly overestimate the cost of benefits and fraud. The TUC found that support for benefits cuts rested on ignorance . And the latest British Social Attitudes surveysuggests attitudes to benefits are actually softening.
The presentation of the coalition’s welfare reform and its media coverage echo Peter Golding and Sue Middleton’s Images of Welfare, a study of press and public attitudes to poverty in the late 1970s. It was a story of often vicious reporting: one tabloid journalist saying, just as they might now, “We don’t cover tax evasion much because if you asked people, 95% would say social security fraud is more important.”
Perhaps one difference today is how disabled people have become a focus of political and media hostility. Groups of people ranging from those with terminal illnesses or learning difficulties to deteriorating conditions are being targeted, ostensibly with public support.
This raises the question: what kind of disturbing and divisive psychological misrepresentation is this politics based on? Such policy increasingly encourages us to draw lines between them and us, where we are encouraged to see benefits claimants as the “other”, as if we could never lose our job, be diagnosed with cancer or become disabled. We are constantly nudged to think of our situation not as it actually is, but as we’d like to imagine it – “empowered” and “aspirational” – further alienating us from ourselves and others. This connects with wider divisions between the young and baby boomers, and migrants and the rest of us.
This politics of fear and division can only work if people are sufficiently insecure and uncertain to be ready to accept others as scapegoats. It is less likely to benefit mainstream than extremist parties, whose stock in trade is sectarianism, rather than solidarity. For the rest of us, when we do need some kind of support, it is unlikely there will be much left to help us.