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Labour must end a culture, not just a recession

Monday 1 April 2013. Remember that day. With drastic changes in nearly every area of Britain’s Welfare State, you can bet your bottom dollar it’ll engulf the history books of the future.

For a start, legal aid has been slashed. So in addition to the pain that losing your job, going through a divorce, or facing the possibility of deportation brings, thousands of Britain’s most underprivileged will now have the added misery of having to come up with the money for legal representation.

Indeed, it would seem that our Tory-led government is bent on ruining the lives of anyone and everyone. Not even families caring for those suffering from severe disabilities have been spared. For 660,000 of these people, the Bedroom Tax will rob them of £14 a week. I say ‘everyone’, but this is a Tory-led government after all! No surprises then when the scrapping of the 50p tax for 13,000 millionaires was announced. They can continue to feel confident that Dave will spend more hours trying to ring-fence their opulence than the NHS.

Many have found instant solace in an apparent resurgence on the left. As Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 graces cinemas around the country, a flurry of flattering Guardian articles have been published and online petitions have sprung up calling on a People’s Assembly to oppose the cuts. Others, including Loach himself, go further – arguing for a new party of the left. The online network Left Unity is now attempting to fulfil this ambition.

But whilst anti-cut websites and petitions are available for those who look for them, the overall lack of public response has been shocking. Take a look at Monday’s front pages. From the Daily Mail’s focus on police injury claims and Pippa Middleton’s “derriere” to The Independent’s emphasis on cuts to military spending, no mention is made of the dismantlement of the welfare state.

Monday represented the transformation of a state that claimed to provide for all of its members, to one that ceased to care. Unfortunately, with it seems to be a society complicit in this apathy.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see a newfound degree of mobilisation on the left. But until we realise the success the Coalition’s had so far in being able to implement such huge cuts, and recognise the relatively poor display of public opposition to them, we’ll never be able to change the culture that has given birth to these cuts to welfare in the first place; a culture that has not only created them but, worse still, made them acceptable.

John Harris’s recent article in the Guardian has highlighted the need to address this culture. His evidence leads to an undeniable conclusion. Research carried out by ComRes has revealed that 40% of people believe those on benefits are ‘scroungers’ and over 64% think the benefits system isn’t working. Clearly, the culture of demonising people on benefits has become ingrained in our society.

But where do we begin? After all, it’s a lot easier to campaign against specific government policies than to tackle a vague and intangible ‘culture’. Targeting the Bedroom Tax, as UK Uncut and now Left Unity are doing, is a far more attractive call to arms than an appeal for support against a vague-sounding “culture”. But it has to be tackled nonetheless.

We need to start with the media and politics itself. Take the recent tragedy at Victory Road in Derby. Instead of dealing with a man clearly suffering from psychopathic propensities, Mick Philpott was attacked by the Daily Mail as a “benefit scrounger” and ridiculed on Jeremy Kyle. Of course, his actions were deplorable. They left six children dead. But by continually victimising him, the press undoubtedly contributed to the sickening plan that he formulated.

More worrying still is that the propagation of the ‘benefit-claimant equals scrounger’ belief is evident in every mainstream publication – including those supposedly on the left. The Mirror and the Guardian in the aftermath of the trial both denounced him as a “freak” and an “evil dad of 15 who never washed”.

So rather than focusing on lack of provision for those suffering from mental health problems among the very poorest, newspapers have decided to associate Philpott’s benefit claims with his murder of six children. And by doing so, they’ve misrepresented the overwhelming majority of benefit-claimants to their audiences, and upheld “benefit-blame” culture.

Take a glance towards politics and the situation seems equally disparaging. The Tories’ support for this demonisation is epitomised in Ann Widdecombe versus The Benefits Culture. Aired in 2007, Widdecombe’s patronising presentation of Philpott during the TV programme rivals even that of Iain Duncan-Smith, who recently claimed that he could live off £53 a week if he had to.

Instead of calling on social services to intervene, Widdecombe transformed a man who completely misrepresents the vast majority of benefit-claimants into the face of ‘the benefit culture’. And instead of discussing Duncan-Smith’s own department’s research, which has revealed how only 0.8% of benefit-claimants are cheating the system, Britain’s media moguls have toed the Tory line. They’ve helped transform the 0.8% that Philpott represents, into the 100%.

But there is cause for hope. Some in Labour are showing signs that they will no longer be complicit in this culture. Last month 44 Labour MPs voted against Duncan-Smith’s jobseekers bill in support of benefit claimants’ rights, when the party put out a three-line whip in favour of abstention. By highlighting how jobseekers shouldn’t be forced into work and are more than a machine on a production line, they took a stand against this culture.

But it’s time for the entire Labour party to listen. Ken Loach and Left Unity have something to say. But when it comes down to it, it’s the Labour Party that has the potential to put words into action. Only Labour can form concrete policies that will unite the disillusioned. Talking about a Spirit of 45 is all well and good but it’s not enough. Labour’s task is to erase a culture that has undeniably crept deep into every crevice of our society.

5 Comments

  1. Dave says:

    “it’s time for the entire Labour party to listen.”

    From my experience most of the Labour Party are listening – it’s just the majority of the PLP/London elite who are cocking a deaf ‘un.

  2. Chris Brennan says:

    Impossible to find more anti welfare, anti immigrant, racists than the average Labour member

  3. Jon Williams says:

    Right wing press coverage has been awful – new press complaints commission backed up by law – oh we’ve just tried this again without success!

    We’re all in this together umm perhaps applies to our politico friends in Parliament but not the rest of us ordinary voters.

  4. Tom Blackburn says:

    Unfortunately there are still far too many within the PLP who are more than happy to join in the benefits-bashing frenzy – Danczuk and the hack Tom Harris spring to mind. Owen Jones is just about the only Labour voice providing a robust opposition to the pernicious, inflammatory nonsense being peddled by the Tories, and who sticks the boot into him? Labour MPs!

    Given the parlous state of the labour market and the continuing decline in living standards (now increasingly affecting the middle classes), you’d think Labour would be making hay. But no, it’s easier to dance to Lynton Crosby and the Tory press’ tune. Embarrassing and utterly cowardly.

  5. Seyi Akiwowo says:

    A very well written article!
    You have touched on very key points and I will raise this at our next Labour Party ward and branch meeting.

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