The EU Referendum, the SNP and Political Fog

Before the election last year I wrote about the problem of ‘politics as comic book’, a ‘twilight’ world of good and bad, right and wrong, conducted by fighting fog because relatively few people had any idea what they were talking about. We’ve long known, for example, that the public remains stubbornly misinformed about issues like welfare and immigration.

In some respects the rise of ‘populism’ in recent years takes advantage of this, offering simple certainties in an age which seems frighteningly precarious and complex: your problems are caused by immigration, by the European Union, by Westminster, by ‘bankers’. This populism has largely been associated with smaller parties, contrasted with the ‘responsible’ and ‘mainstream’ larger parties who had a duty to combat it. This started to change with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn here in the UK and now Bernie Sanders/Donald Trump in the USA: these are politicians who are presented by those who identify as ‘moderate’ and ‘reasonable’ as offering simple, populist responses to complex problems.

Yet it is increasingly unavoidable that this is little more than self-delusion. What these people like to call the ‘centre-ground’ of politics is conducted in that hinterland of unreality where no-one really has any idea what they’re talking about but everyone pretends otherwise. It’s clear, for example, that much of our politics is addressed at the myths around welfare and immigration rather than the reality. This has found strong, grim expression in the discussion around the referendum on the European Union.

It’s obvious that public awareness of the European Union, on the basic level of what it is and what it does, is woeful. In a survey last year less only 27% of respondents in the UK could correctly answer three relatively simple questions on the EU – if people have no idea of the number of members, the chances that they have any understanding of how laws are made or even what the bodies of the EU are aren’t high. Yet, as with (and not separate from) welfare and immigration, strong feelings and perceptions of the EU have come to dominate our political discourse with little regard as to how informed or otherwise they may be.

So it was that we ended up with yesterday’s bizarre spectacle of the Prime Minister trumpeting an improved ‘deal’ for the UK in the EU and asking that people vote to remain in it as a consequence. The two centrepieces of this deal underlined that this was about responding to ignorance rather than any practical concerns: a ‘red card’ veto over ‘unwanted legislation’ and an ’emergency brake’ on ‘migrant benefits’.

The ‘red card’ is clearly aimed at those who believe the much-renowned ‘faceless bureaucrats’ at the EU impose legislation on the EU, “like some distant imperial ruler legislating for its colonial subjects.” Aside from not even beginning to address the lack of education on EU decision-making or, for example, the distinction between the EU and the European Court of Human Rights, the ‘red card’ basically already exists. That’s a lot of noise mad about nothing much at all.

The hoopla over ‘migrant benefits’ gets, I think, a lot closer to the actual ‘concerns’ many have regarding the EU – concerns based on ignorance, xenophobia and just plain racism about ‘uncontrolled immigration’ and migrants ‘coming over here and taking our jobs/benefits’.  Suffice to say, the available information doesn’t support this being a problem at all. The data is sketchy but suggests that:

EU migrants make up only a small proportion of the overall benefits caseload. They accounted for 2.5% of benefits the DWP administered in 2014 – mostly out-of-work benefits – in 2014, and 7% of tax credits, based on the HMRC definition discussed above.

The DWP analysis says EU migrants on “in-work” benefits cost the taxpayer £530m in 2013. That represents a modest 1.6% of the year’s total tax credit bill.

The vast majority of EU migrants living in the UK are in employment, while EU migration has been found to have “no statistically significant effects” on employment for those born in the UK (and in fact contributes billions to the UK economy). I’m also aware from personal experience that many, even on the left, are completely unaware that people living in the EU can’t just come to the UK and start claiming benefits. There are conditions,  and the benefits they can claim are limited. It’s also the case, of course, the people from the UK are resident across the EU and some of them claim benefits.

The scare about EU migrants claiming benefits, then, feeds into the demonisation of welfare and immigration in general. We might not expect David Cameron to address these, given how well the Tories did out of inflaming English nationalism in May 2015. Could we expect the ‘moderate’ wing of Labour to do so? Of course not:

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In claiming this as a ‘substantial win..for Britain’, Chuka Umunna reinforces the harmful myths around the EU and throws migrants under the bus. This comes after Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall spoke of wanting to restrict EU benefits in the Labour leadership election (contrast with Corbyn’s rhetoric). These are intelligent people who presumably identify as ‘progressive’, perhaps even left-wing. I find it hard to believe they aren’t aware that they’re responding to concerns which are largely baseless, and flirting with deeply unpleasant sentiments as they do so. Yet this is what seems to pass for ‘centre-ground’ politics – fighting fog to avoid being seen to challenge ‘ordinary people’, who must be deferred to always (except when they believe in things which punch upwards rather than downwards, such as nationalisation and wealth taxes).

Ignorance about the European Union isn’t, of course, confined to those who view it negatively. The incoherence of the SNP’s position, demanding ‘independence’ and ‘all decisions affecting Scotland, made in Scotland’ while being uncritically pro-EU, remains largely unchallenged. Amongst Scottish nationalists I would assert that much support for the EU comes not from a deep understanding of it (or a belief in countries working together in unions), but rather as a response to anti-EU sentiment being associated with right-wing English nationalism. This may be more benign than anti-EU sentiment but it is no less based in fog.

The SNP, of course, have made exploiting many people’s ignorance about politics into an artform. Whether it be going to war to prevent Westminster from implementing much the same law on fox-hunting as Holyrood did, constantly misrepresenting (read: lying about) EVEL while not even bothering to vote on the Housing and Planning Bill (EVEL’s first use) or presenting economic plans largely idential to Labour’s and framing it as ‘anti-austerity vs Red Tories’, the SNP understand that what is going on in Scottish politics has little foundation in fact and much in nationalist rhetoric. We saw this perfectly illustrated yesterday, when Scottish Labour called the SNP’s bluff on austerity and announced proposals to use the Scottish Rate of Income Tax to invest in public services. The SNP line on the SRIT has been consistent since Swinney’s December budget: that it’s not a ‘progressive’ tax and would hit the poor more than the wealthy. This is plain incorrect when it comes to SRIT as is and it’s even more wrong about Labour’s proposal. Yet the SNP knows that the faithful need lines and so it dutifully pumped them out: by making plans to protect the poorest income tax-payers, it was acknowledging the tax wasn’t progressive (a circular argument if ever there was one); the rebate was unworkable and possibly ‘illegal’; the tax rise was a ‘unionist’ tax to pay for Tory policies.

It was this last claim which most exposed the utterly daft, if deeply sad, state of Scottish politics, unleashing lots of unhinged ranting about ‘unionism’. Scotland doing things differently was apparently a ‘nightmare’ scenario:

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Bearing in mind that public spending in Scotland is consistently higher per capita than in the rest of the UK, asking people to pay a bit more for more spending seems a no-brainer. Especially in a context where the SNP has, for example effectively cut Council Tax with its 8 year freeze, leading to a crisis in local government, while using the funds to ensure free university tuition while cutting student support for the poorest (something the SNP, again, condemned at Westminster, safe in the knowledge few would know they had done much the same). Clearly ‘doing things differently’ in Scotland is fine when it comes to enacting policies people like but when it comes to paying for it, it’s unacceptable. This is because we have the bizarre situation where, for many, the SNP get the credit for everything perceived as better than the status quo in England/Wales, but anything difficult is judged against an imaginary independent Scotland. Scotland is currently ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’ to do things differently because once the country is’independent’ it will be able to do everything better. The SNP has, of course, never actually said how it would pay for doing things differently: its White Paper offered a corporation tax cut, it is cutting air passenger duty and, prior to is general election plans proposing ‘anti-austerity’ plans largely identical to Labour’s ‘austerity-lite’, it proposed more borrowing. The latter is, of course, a valid option but one which again relied on a lack of any realistic consideration (and again was probably inconsistent with EU membership). As Professor Wren-Lewis put it, it was “being in denial about macroeconomic fundamentals because they interfered with…politics.” If the fatuous fog of the EU ‘debate’ is infused with xenophobia and English nationalism, the Scottish variant has much the same effect of impeding informed debate.

Let’s be clear: people will support different political parties, different policies, different ideologies, for many reasons. I don’t mean to fetishise some ‘reality’ which exists in an ideology-free vacuum. There are certainly discussions and debate to be had about the European Union or spending/policies in Scotland. Yet to get to them we have to first acknowledge where we are and face the truth that what’s actually happening – the truth, as far as we can get it, of how much is spent on what, of what laws actually mean, of what governments are actually doing – is a secondary consideration.  It would be tempting to accredit this to an age where ‘opinion’ has become a sacred right with no corresponding responsibility to inform oneself but this isn’t a recent development, as this excerpt from The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists shows:

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If we are to have any hope of a better world we have to be able to debate and to be proved wrong.  Facile assertions that challenging the perceived status quo ‘insults ordinary people’ or ‘talks down Scotland’ or ‘presumes to know better’ are little more than dangerous demagoguery. It is beholden on each of us, as far as we can, to fight the political fog and refuse to flatter that which we know to be untrue. This doesn’t mean shouting about the media attacking Corbyn or protesting outside the BBC – it means attempting to understand where power lies, how it is operated and how it can best be challenged to achieve our goals. The alternative is darkness.

The Demonisation of Jeremy Corbyn: Labour Repeats Itself

Jeremy Corbyn Post-crash politics may at times have been so bleak as to bring me to tears but it’s certainly not been dull. The financial crisis of 2008 briefly seemed to offer exciting opportunities for the left yet it quickly became obvious that the overriding response of elites was ‘let’s get back to normal asap’. Many are convinced we’ve done this, with the surprise Tory victory in May confirming that the ‘status quo’ was back in business. However there’s been a palpable sense of papering over the cracks, of those in power (across the establishment) sticking their fingers in their ears and saying ‘laaaaaaaaa laaaaaaaaaaaa’ very loudly. Whether it be the changing fortunes of the various political parties, the fragile economic ‘recovery’, the crisis in the European Union or the increased visibility of grassroots groups such as Focus E15, there’s been a real sense of flux; of an interregnum with no clear end in sight. The current storm (if it can be called that) around Jeremy Corbyn feels perfectly at home in this context. If you live in the UK and follow politics, it can’t have escaped your attention that the demonisation of Corbyn is in full swing. Ever since Yougov released a poll putting Corbyn in first place of the Labour leadership election, those who want to pretend that we’re ‘back to normal’ have been going feral. The Guardian in particular has been dismally hilarious with their endless attack pieces:

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I don’t need to write how utterly absurd most of this is – many others have already eloquently done so. I did, however, want to write a few words about some of the stock responses the Labour right (exemplars of the ‘carry on as normal’ crew) have offered in response to Corbyn’s rise. Much of them are encapsulated in this truly terrible piece by Robert Priest, finger-wagging at the left for being out-of-touch with the electorate. Most people, he argues, aren’t particularly left-wing, although they are ‘surely to the left of the Conservative frontbench on many issues’. We are, it seems, in that ever mythical ‘centre-ground’ which the Labour right are absolutely obsessed with. Priest uses data from the British Social Attitude survey to make this argument. The following paragraph leapt out at me:

Most pressing for the Left is the big picture: the proportion of people in favour of higher taxation and spending has collapsed from 63 per cent to just 37 per cent in the ten years from 2004 to 2014. Support for welfare spending has plummeted. Those who remember Blair-era clichés about a ‘social-democratic majority’ should consider whether they still stand up to scrutiny.

It’s true that the proportion supporting higher tax and welfare spending has been in ‘long-term’ decline. Yet if we take an even longer view, the picture isn’t quite so clear-cut: Evil_EyesSupport for increasing taxes and spending more actually rose between ’83 and plateaued around ’91/’92 before beginning its (shaky) decline. If we look at this graph in 10 year increments, it’s clear that public opinion on this question can vary enormously in relatively short periods of time. The BSA argues that this variation may match public spending – ie when the Thatcher government was cutting spending, support for more spending rose and the converse under New Labour – but this seems too pat:

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We can see, for example, that support for more tax/spending rose in ’90/’91 while public spending was rising, and decreased betwen ’98-’00 when public spending was still falling. We’ve also not seen any marked increase in recent support despite public spending falling since 2010. What we can take away from this, then, is that a) public opinion is fluid and not easily explained and so therefore, b) there is no such thing as a fixed ‘centre’ of opinion. It seems fair to surmise that government and wider politics plays a role in shaping public opinion; it also seems certain that the media plays a big role here. This seems to be underlined by this infamous study which found that the  ‘British public (are) wrong about nearly everything’. It cannot be a coincidence that opinion on matters like teenage pregnancy, immigration and welfare closely echoes the misconceptions advanced by our largely right-wing media (and indeed government). This is why one of the key arguments of the Labour right, that “we must start by meeting the voters where they are, not where we would like them to be“, is a nonsense. This means making policy on the basis of opinion which is both fluid and often misinformed.

It’s notable, of course, that this argument is always deployed to defend reinforcing negative stereotypes about welfare and immigration rather than, say, supporting renationalisation or taxing wealth. In the latter cases public opinion is seen as complex, changing or just plain wrong (see also Priest’s attempts to parse public opinion on abolishing tuition fees). Right-wing public opinion, however, is presented as immutable. So we end up with the absurdity of Labour leadership candidates supporting clampdowns on ‘welfare migrants’ despite it being based almost entirely on misinformation and ignorance as to its actual impact. Similarly, Labour’s capitulation to the welfare bill was based largely on public ignorance, whether that be with regards to the ‘benefit cap’ (which doesn’t save much money and makes people poorer) or welfare spending overall (increase over past 35 years is overwhelmingly due to pensions, approx. 31% of spending goes to older people as opposed to 3.6% to the unemployed/those on low incomes and it’s not out of line with comparable economies). I don’t even have to go into how far from any reality our immigration ‘debate’ is.

The Labour right, then, would have us make the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens worse in order to satisfy public ignorance.This brings me to another of their favoured arguments: that if Labour don’t win an election it is “not in a position to help people in Britain”. Ironically enough, this argument betrays the kind of paternalism and lack of imagination which these people like to berate the left for. Politics and the change it delivers is not gifted from on-high by benevolent politicians – it is a constant terrain of struggle and ‘ordinary’ people fight every day to change opinion and to help each other. Public opinion on ‘equal marriage’, for example, was far ahead of our politicians, with a majority supporting it before even civil partnerships were introduced. In refusing to acknowledge the power it has as both the party of opposition and as a potential social movement, the Labour right abdicates the terrain of public opinion and perception to the right. I’m not suggesting for a moment that public ignorance re: immigration or welfare is easily addressed but imagine a passionate, vibrant Labour Party vigorously making those arguments. It would matter and it would help people. Would support for benefit spending have steadily declined over the past 30 years had New Labour not embraced the rhetoric that it was a ‘problem‘ and aimed at the feckless? Would welfare policy be as it is currently had Labour not introduced ideas like workfare, tougher sanctions and work capability assessments? Would Labour’s achievements in reducing (some) poverty be so easily reversed had it loudly made the case for a welfare state and redistribution rather than attempting to ‘redistribute by stealth’? Would we be seeing the current Tory attack on industrial rights had Labour rolled back Thatcher’s restrictions on trade union activity?

We need only look at tuition fees to see the reality of the Overton Window and Labour’s ability to actively shape public opinion – in under 20 years the debate has moved from ‘tax-funded higher education vs tuition fees’ to one on what the level of tuition fees should be, with the Labour right presenting Corbyn’s abolition policy as the politics of irresponsibility and fantasy. The great irony is that it is the attachment of the Labour right to its own fantasy which is repeating itself here. The modern Labour right is obsessed with the founding myth of Michael Foot and the ‘longest suicide note in history’. Again and again we are told that Foot (and people like Tony Benn) took Labour to the brink of destruction with their loony left-wing ideas. Yet one of the things which radicalised Benn was his discovery in office of just how little power the left had against the forces of the British establishment and global capital. The context of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ wasn’t profligate left-wing barons running wild but a global crisis in capitalism which led Labour to seek an IMF loan, with concomitant stinging cuts. Following Thatcher’s election in ’79, Labour was actually ahead in the polls: 1983graph

As you can see, Labour support actually briefly increased following Foot’s election. It then begins to decline as soon as the Labour right broke away and formed the SDP. Note that Tory support continued to decline during this period – the decline was clearly overwhelmingly due to the SDP splitting the vote. As late as April 1982, the ‘unelectable’ foot was still ahead of the Tories in the polls. That same month, the Falklands War began and the Tories experienced a massive surge in the polls – in the space of 14 days they went from being behind to having a double-digit lead, clearly the beneficiary of inflamed nationalist sentiment (where have we seen that since, I wonder?) This is now an ‘alternate history’, rarely advanced due to the dominance of the notion that Labour under Foot was irredeemable. Yet it was the Labour right who delivered the initial blow and in that sense history really is repeating itself as they obsess more over the ‘positioning’ of the party than in fighting the Conservatives and articulating a positive vision of society.

Labour has real power now and it actively harms people now when it refrains to use it in the arrogant assumption that it can only effect change when in government. I think this is a large part of why so many have been enthused by the Corbyn campaign, which seems positively exploding with energy when compared to his three competitors. It is also, ironically, the one which seems most based in reality in its refusal to bend to ignorance re: issues like welfare. There can be no doubt that Labour faces an almighty struggle to return to power and that Corbyn would face an onslaught (including from his own party) if he were leader. Yet he grasps that being in power is not a goal in itself. He grasps that what Labour does now mattersThat’s why his demonisation by the right is failing dismally and why a sense of real possibility is afoot. It is not Corbyn who is repeating the mistakes of the past.

The Coalition Will Get Away With “The Bedroom Tax”

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.

Atos and anti-welfarism

I want to believe that Atos’ sponsorship of the Paralympics is proving to be a huge PR disaster for them. I want to believe that it has thrown the spotlight on Atos’ cruel, cynical and profit-driven treatment of those on incapacity benefit (not least due to the sterling efforts of Disabled People Against Cuts and UK Uncut). Certainly there have been sympathetic pieces in the places you might expect to see them. Looking at Twitter, it’s tempting to forget that it’s largely an echo-chamber for your own views and believe that there is widespread fury.

And yet, and yet. There are two barriers to raising awareness which campaigners against Atos face. The first is something I have written about many times this Summer – the tendency for Olympic/Paralympic support to be apolitical, placing the events as outside the boundaries of critical thought. As I argued here, this apolitical jingoism which reduces the Games to ‘get behind Team GB!’ is an inherently reactionary position. It is a defence of the whims of those in power. This is clearer than ever when looking at responses to Atos’ critics, with Seb Coe pulling them under the umbrella of sponsors whom ‘we can’t do this without’. The intention is clear – shut up, whingers, these sponsors allow us to put on these magnificent Games! Similar responses have been wheeled out in defence of Adidas’ sweatshops, or Dow’s ‘handling’ of the Bhopal disaster. Never mind the fact that even by conservative estimates, over £9 billion of the funding for the Games comes from the public while less than £2 billion comes from private companies. The sponsors (and other advertisers) have spent the whole Summer telling us that we couldn’t do it without them, that they’re behind ‘our’ boys and girls (patriotism curiously always uses juvenile terms), that positivity is the thing. Facing this barrage, it’s difficult for any political (read: human) message to get through. There are a hefty number of people out there who regard any ‘bad feeling’ encroaching on their Olympic hysteria as a personal attack.

The second barrier is a much greater, far more damaging one. This is the fact that the Atos issue concerns benefits. Last week I found myself having a discussion about benefits with a guy I’d only just met. Without wishing to be uncharitable, I think it’s fair to say that his views on benefits were lifted straight from the pages of the Daily Mail: the UK can’t afford its benefits bill and must reduce it; too many people choose an easy life on benefits; people should be forced into jobs by penury; unemployed people were being given houses beyond the reach of most families, and so on and so forth. Sadly, I think these views are common – certainly opinion polls routinely find that majorities think benefits are ‘too high’, ‘too widespread’, ‘too open to abuse’. It’s remarkable to think that, as late as 1991, a majority of people believed benefits to be ‘too low’, perhaps a combination of remnants of social democratic attitudes not yet stamped on by Thatcherism and a recession. It’s very clear, however, that over 30 years of posturing and drip-feed poison from both Labour and Conservative governments has drastically undermined public support for our welfare system. The idea of the ‘undeserving’ benefits claimant is one that has taken strong hold in our society, perpetuated and propagated by an overwhelmingly right-wing media.

The role of said media became clear in the discussion I had, as it became clear that cold hard facts played little role in the anti-welfare attitudes held. He simply did not believe that over a third of welfare spending goes on the state pension. You can see a similar graph from a different source here. If you have strongly held anti-welfare beliefs, the urge to simply ignore the fact that the biggest chunk of welfare spending goes on your gran must be enormous – it blows quite a hole in your value system. 

The next largest chunk of the welfare bill is tax credits. These divide into Child Tax Credits and Working Tax Credits. The former are for those on low-incomes who support a child, the latter are for those on low-incomes who are employed. Approx. 76% of families which receive these are in work. We are a long way from the idea of feckless scroungers watching ‘Jeremy Kyle’. Similarly, almost 60% of children in poverty come from working families and a small minority of housing benefit claimants claim Jobseeker’s Allowance. Far from supporting scroungers, our welfare system subsidises the poverty pay of employers and the extortionate rents of private landlords.

On the subject of unemployment, I asked the man if he believed that it had risen in recent years simply because benefits looked more attractive to more people. To my astonishment, he said ‘yes’. Yet unemployment was at its lowest in the UK in 1973, when ‘welfarism’ was far more entrenched and supported than it is now (and as you can see in the graph on page 12 here, unemployment benefit almost exactly matched personal consumption rates.) The value of what is now called Jobseeker’s Allowance hasn’t changed in 30 years and amounts to only 50% of the income you need to be classified as below the poverty line. That’s without going into the uniquely disheartening experience that is signing on at your local job centre. I find it difficult to believe that anyone who has experienced that could ever believe that people choose it over employment. Of course, with reports suggesting between 4 and 6 jobseekers for every vacancy in the country, most have no choice.

I’m pleased to say that I remembered a lot of this during the discussion. Yet each and every fact was dismissed – not with a counter-claim, but with personal anecdotes and tabloid stories. The government’s own figures suggest that benefit fraud costs approx. £1 billion per year, a figure which is dwarved not only by the £16 billion in benefits which go unclaimed, but by the approx. £15 billion which is lost due to tax evasion. Yet the man I was discussing this with wheeled out the usual arguments about how the wealthy have worked to get what they have and would just ‘leave the country’ if they were taxed fairly. His anger was entirely aimed at the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.

This is the massive problem which Atos campaigners face. The dripfeed of lies from government and the media mean that the public massively over-estimate disability benefit fraud, just as they over-estimate all benefit fraud. It’s this widespread hatred of those on benefits – the belief that they are at best lazy, at worst thieves – that has allowed the government to viciously attack the poorest in society without any real hit to their poll ratings. And it’s this same hatred which makes many turn a blind eye to Atos. Sadly it doesn’t look like Ed Miliband is going to change the record, which means it’s up to us. All of us. We need to challenge the lazy myths and prejudices which surround benefits every time we encounter them, in whatever way we can. This is the larger battle against Atos, against the government, against billionaire media barons who rant about benefit cheats while pumping money into their offshore accounts. I want to believe we can do this, because to believe otherwise is to believe in humanity at its worst.