Despite the fuss which you have undoubtedly read over the ‘Bedroom Tax’, the indignant tweets and blogs, the marches – the government know that they will get away with this. As I wrote last year re: ATOS, they know that their assault on the welfare system can, if framed in the ‘right’ way, tap into a widespread and deeply held anti-welfare stance. The scene will surely be familiar to anyone who has had the conversation: you can wheel out as many facts and statistics as you want; you can present them to people from the government’s own figures, even – but they will not budge from their general belief that people do too well out of the welfare system, that many choose it over work and that it traps too many in a dependency culture. Invariably these assertions will be supported not by facts (other than variations of highly disputed statements like “there is no money left” or “the welfare bill is too large”) but by personal anecdotes. Their brother’s girlfriend’s friend got pregnant to get a council house; their work colleague’s mate has never worked but goes on holiday twice a year and so on. It’s pointless to even begin to wonder how many of these stories are true (or even how people can even begin to know that they are true) because what matters is that many believe them.
In these conversations it becomes unavoidable that we live in an anti-welfare culture. Our media continually presents the worst excesses as ‘typical’ examples of welfare abuse. More than this, our entire society is premised on the idea (the myth!) that we live in a meritocracy and that working hard will set you free. The power of this is such that even many ostensibly ‘liberal’ and/or ‘left-wing’ people buy into it almost unconsciously. They may wring their hands about something like the ‘Bedroom Tax’ but on some fundamental level they consider themselves to be ‘different’ from people on benefits. They believe that they (and their friends and families) deserve their position in society because they have worked hard for it. Again, anecdotes are wheeled out thick and fast – my mother grew up in a poor family but she worked hard and did without and made it out, and so on. As with addressing myths over welfare, no amount of facts and figures will shake this belief that working hard leads to social mobility – a belief that has rarely been more demonstrably false than it is today. No-one wants to believe that they have been lucky, do they? In fact, today more than ever we conspire to present the ways in which we believe ourselves to be unlucky, oppressed and lacking privilege. It seems at times that the entire industry of ‘comment’ is predicated on this. Yet the fact is that each of us who lead what could be termed ‘comfortable’ lives (the kind of lives where we have the time, ability and inclination to blog, in fact!) have been very fortunate indeed. A myriad of circumstances have led us to this position and to borrow a well-worn phrase, it is by the grace of God that we don’t have very different lives.
The government’s rhetoric very skilfully pushes all of these buttons – the shirkers vs the striders. Even if we think it crass and blunt, many of us will still believe that we are in the latter group. It’s classic divide-and-rule and it’s working. So even many who are ostensibly against what the government is doing to welfare won’t actually feel that strongly about it – they don’t, after all, imagine that it will ever affect them or their families. Throw in the age of clicktivism and the picture gets worse – we flatter our self-image by sharing links about these things on Facebook and Twitter, letting people know that we care, but don’t even take 15 minutes to write to our MPs about it let alone doing much more.
I think this is why pieces like this one are astute, even if they won’t be much noticed by the people whose minds need to be won. Indeed, it’s notable that the loudest voices of the left in the media tend to be people who seem far removed from the lives of ‘ordinary people’ – again, twenty-somethings who have weekly columns and fifty-somethings who have had columns for most of their adult lives don’t typically reflect on how fortunate they are and how easily their words about the lives of others can be portrayed as elitist and out-of-touch. However if we wish to stop not only this government, but Labour governments too, from bashing the welfare system then what is needed fundamentally is a concerted campaign to tackle anti-welfare attitudes. Each of us has a part to play in this – it’s easy to share things on Facebook, easy even to rant about it in the pub with friends – it’s more difficult to try and tackle anti-welfare attitudes when we encounter them in our work places and other situations where we feel that we have to be on our ‘best behaviour’ and not rock the boat. These daily interactions are hugely important but of course they aren’t enough. Ken Loach’s appeal for a new party of the left, a party which will actively campaign on these issues and aggressively fight anti-welfare attitudes, is a more long-term strategy. This is, however, where we have to begin. Without challenging and changing the culture, no amount of marches, columns or direct action will have the desired effect because they can be so easily dismissed (though certainly they can all play a role in that challenging). We need to be far more intelligent about the framing of the debate and of our action because, as it stands, those in power understand full well what they are doing and how it is viewed, and they know that they can safely ignore us.