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“Scroungers” and Class

I’m sure many readers were depressed to learn that Labour voters have swung to the right over their attitudes toward people who subsist on social security. According to Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who commissioned the research:

  • Two-thirds (66%) of the public identify an explanation for child poverty that relates to the characteristics and behaviour of parents, compared to the 28% who say it is down to broader social issues.
  • Fifteen per cent of the public in 1994 thought people lived in need because of laziness or lack of willpower, compared to 23% in 2010. Support for the view that people live in poverty because of injustice in society fell from 29% to 21% over the same time period.
  • These changes are most marked among Labour supporters: just 27% of supporters cite social injustice as the main cause, down from 41% in 1986; while those identifying laziness and willpower rose from 13% to 22%.
  • Labour supporters also increasingly hold the view that welfare recipients are undeserving (from 21% in 1987 to 31% in 2011) and that the welfare state encourages dependency – 46% say if benefits were not as generous, people would learn to stand on their own feet, up from 16% in 1987.

It’s one of those moments that anyone with a socialist bone in their body would shake their heads. Throughout the New Labour years not only did its MPs and apparat adapt to the press-orchestrated poison around social security, they actively connived and encouraged it. Workfare and the Work Capability Assessment are New Labour’s distinctive contributions to the dehumanisation of unemployment and disability support recipients. Makes you proud, doesn’t it?

In a way, Labour people’s growing hostility to the less fortunate proves how successful divisive, dog-eat-dog policies and rhetoric can be. It also demonstrates the continued salience of class, albeit in a negative way. As appallingly crass it is, rubbish around the “squeezed middle”, “hard-working families/taxpayers”, and “strivers” does speak to large swathes of people. The public at large are being explicitly addressed as people who work while on Britain’s council estates, bajillions of others are idly living off their taxes. You have to work every hour you can send, while those on JSA or ESA get an income handed to them on a silver dish. It’s one class politics of envy card the Tories are never afraid to play because they know it resonates.

What can be done? Labour should never play this game because, ultimately, not only is it repugnant – it damages the party’s self-interests. Therefore, positive policies are the answer. Unfortunately, like Gus, I cannot understand why Labour aren’t making more of its jobs guarantee policy. Cultures of worklessness are a shaggy dog story – unemployment, after all, is everywhere and always the result of lack of jobs. But a guarantee guillotines the very possibility of scrounger myth-making as well as offering the long-term unemployed a route back into work.

Policy is a means at the labour movement’s disposal. But much harder is the tough work of turning the culture around. And, unfortunately, you cannot undo 30 years of relentless rhetoric and lies over night.

This article first appeared at A Very Public Sociologist

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