This week has seen the culmination of years of hard work by the neoliberal media and political parties of all colours. The Welfare State that provided for social security from cradle to grave, as envisioned by Beveridge, suffered a violent attack from the Tory party. The Welfare Reform Act, introducing universal credit, is nearly upon us and will take money away from thousands of people. Child Benefit is no longer a universal benefit but will be means tested. The Welfare Uprating Bill, which passed it second reading in the Commons this week, will mean benefit increases will not match inflation but be frozen at 1% for the next three years.
When Beveridge established the welfare state, it was described as social security, and was there to deal with the issues caused by capitalism. It was to be free of the social stigma associated with the earlier forms of public assistance.
It was universal, it was to tackle the issue of want in society and it would provide security for those thrown out of work due to the failings of the market or those unable to work. This perception of the role of the welfare state has been so undermined that it is hard for people to remember its original intentions.
The cultural attack has been clear. The privately educated comedians of Little Britain presented a so called underclass for us to ridicule. Oxford students attended 'Chav Bops'. The future king of England went to a 'Chav' themed fancy dress party at Sandhurst. The Daily Mail and Express raged against benefits cheats and frauds and today the Daily Express gloats with its headline, The Party is over for benefit skivers.
A recent study by Gaffney, Baumberg and Bell has revealed that of 6,600 articles national newspaper articles on welfare from 1995 to 2011, 29% focussed on benefit fraud. A recent YouGov poll suggests the public believe that 27% of the welfare budget is spent on fraudulent claims - in fact only 0.7% of the welfare budget is spent on fraudulent claims.
This figure is far lower of course than the amount of unclaimed benefits (£17.7m in 2008/9), the amount lost by the state from cutting the top rate of tax (£3bn) and is dwarfed by the figure of unpaid taxes every year (anywhere between £42 bn to £120 bn per year).
The political parties of all colours are in collusion with this project. Labour rebranded 'social security' as 'welfare', a far more politically loaded term. The Tory party led by Osborne has drawn up the dichotomy of 'skivers' vs 'strivers'. Iain Duncan Smith, the welfare and pensions secretary described those on social security as 'slackers'. Alec Shelbrooke MP, a Tory backbencher, even introduced a Private Members Bill, proposing that benefits should be provided via a welfare cash card that would only cover priority purposes and not luxury goods like cigarettes, alcohol, Sky television and gambling. A greater example of crass stereotyping and prejudice it is hard to find.
This 'skivers' message has really hit home with a recent YouGov poll showing that people believe that 41% of the social security budget goes to the unemployed whereas the real figure is actually 3%.
There are three areas where the hegemony of this discourse must be challenged.
Firstly the perception that somehow the British Welfare State is incredibly over generous and that this has created a dependency culture where people would prefer to live on benefits rather than work. For instance in the TUC commissioned YouGov poll, most people believed that a two parent household with two kids would receive £147 in jobseekers allowance. The true figure is actually £111.45.
Since Thatcher, social security has been slowly strangled. In 1979, a single unemployed person would get unemployment benefit worth 21% of average earnings yet today that figure is only 11%.
“if you look at unemployment and sickness benefit as a proportion of average earnings, then Britain has one of the meanest welfare systems in Europe. Worse than Greece, Bulgaria or Romania.”
The second area is the suggestion that people on social security have chosen this as a lifestyle choice rather than it acting as a defence against the worst excesses of the capitalist system. The real issue here is the collapse of the job market in the United Kingdom. We have undergone 40 years of deindustrialisation leading to a collapse of well paid, well respected work that had provided people with a job or career for life. In return, we have a huge increase in the number of low paid, insecure, part time and often temporary work. This can be seen in the fact that 75% of people move off social security within six months but only about 50% are still in work eight months later. Indeed the rate of long term unemployment has risen by 146% since 2010. Pay rates are so poor that 60% of British households receive more in benefits than they pay in support, more than 60% of those who will lose out in the Welfare Uprating Bill are currently in work.
The time has come to put forward a plan for secure work that is well paid and provides people with the security and respect they deserve.
Thirdly, it is important to show how the impact of these attacks on social security will impact on the most vulnerable in our society in order to pay for an economic crash for which they bear no responsibility.
According to the figures of the Department of Work and Pensions the bottom 10% of households will lose the most in real terms and the second poorest tenth the most in cash terms. The study also shows that households with a disabled person are more likely to lose out than those non-disabled households whilst lone parents will lose more than any other family type. In addition, women are more likely to be affected than men.
The phrase “we are all in this together” is one of the greatest lies perpetrated by this government and the media. The tide is certainly beginning to turn with a poll last November showing that 61% of people feared the impact of the austerity cuts and 39% disagreed with the idea that cuts should be made to tackle the deficit despite all major parties and the mainstream media supporting austerity. This 39% is a starting point for a mass movement against austerity and we need to expose the myths behind the cuts to convince the rest.
The core to reforming the welfare state is to expose the myths of the neoliberal political class and media. We need to show that the root cause of the problem is falling employment and stagnating wages. We need to show that we will not stand silent whilst they declare war on the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society in order to line their own pockets.
As the economy continues to flatline and living standards continue to fall, this message will find an increasingly receptive audience and the Tories and right wing mass media will start to fear the consequences of starting a war on the communities of ordinary working people.
In the parks, halls and public spaces around Kings Cross
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