Who’s winning the welfare war?

Two significant events this week – the start of long-awaited cuts to certain benefits, and the conviction and sentencing of Mick Philpott – has led to the outbreak of a war of words over the rights and wrongs of our welfare system.

Grant Shapps and Iain Duncan Smith kicked things off last weekend, with Shapps pointing at some Government figures and then lying about what they told us about welfare and IDS telling Jon Humphrys he could live on £53 a week. This led to the heart-warming sight of a petition set up to challenge IDS to prove it garnering almost 450,000 signatures in less than a week. There were also stories about some of IDS expense claims, like £39 for one breakfast and £110 for a bluetooth headset added to the ridicule.

Then came Mick Philpott and the Daily Mail’s nasty front page on Wednesday:

daily mail philpott

There was also this fairly objectionable and fact-free piece in the Telegraph by Allison Pearson. At first, the linking of Philpott’s crimes to the welfare system were confined to the right-wing press but then George Osborne decided to give everyone the benefit of his wisdom on the matter saying:

“Philpott is responsible for these absolutely horrendous crimes… But I think there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state – and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state – subsidising lifestyles like that, and I think that debate needs to be had.”

In response to this assault on the welfare state, many on the left pushed back admirably, providing detailed and fact-laden rebuttals to some of the propaganda being put out by the media and the politicians. Owen Jones in particular repeatedly called out those on the right who sought to score political points from the Philpott tragedy:

Bloggers also played an important role in getting some facts about welfare out there. In particular this post and this one struck me as being important contributions.

So I would say those of us defending the welfare state definitely have the facts on our side, but this brings me to the question posed in the title above – Who’s actually winning the welfare war?

People on the left like John Harris have been cautioning for a while that polling shows people in favour of more cuts to welfare, and George Osborne certainly thinks he is on the right side of the argument. At the same time, there are also voices from the right urging caution over appearing to be “foaming-at-the-mouth” over welfare. Owen Jones on the other hand sounds more optimistic, tweeting:

At the moment I’m somewhat less pessimistic about where this will go. The reason is amply illustrated in this video clip from one of Stewart Lee’s standup shows:

The truth is, an awful lot of people seem to be impervious to facts or reasoned argument. Here’s another (mindboggling) example. Look how Richard Dawkins patiently explains the evidence for evolution, while the creationist lady just keeps repeating “where is the evidence” (I like to imagine Dawkins just going into a room on his own and screaming after these type of interviews 🙂 ).

Bringing it back to this week’s welfare debate then, after tweeting a link to Johnny Void’s excellent post explaining in detail how it would be very difficult to make a profit from benefits by having more children, someone replied to my tweet to say:

The Daily Mail also ran a poll on Thursday asking whether people thought benefits contributed to Philpott’s crimes. Around 70% agreed. Now often, when the Mail runs hateful articles, the comments underneath show people in disagreement with the article’s content, but under this one, the three most popular comments were:

“It was not the benefits that killed the children but sure as hell he was the master of abusing the benefit system and he is the prime example why we need the benefit changes introduced and more to come hopefully.”

“Sound right to me. Why should I pay for the lifestyle choices of others? My wife an I stopped at 2 children because we could not afford more!. How many more are there claiming large amounts of money pushing out kids year after year?”

“This is what happens when there is benefits system that makes it pay to breed, the more kids the merrier. Limit all benefits payments to two children only NOW!”

Now to me, these comments (particularly the third one) are batshit crazy, but it seems to be what a lot of people actually think, hell, a lot of people I know personally think like that. I don’t think people are impervious to facts, just that it takes no time at all to repeat a lazy stereotype about welfare, but much longer to rebut it. It seems to be much easier to spread fear and resentment with a few lies and some unrepresentative extreme case than it is to persuade through coherent argument and facts and figures.

I think those who defend welfare (and public services in general) need to come up with some better strategies for dealing with misinformation of this kind, because there is undoubtedly a lot more of it on the way. Owen Jones is doing a good job, as are a number of Guardian columnists and notably some relentless disability campaigners who are trying to fight back, but the Labour Party don’t seem know which way to face at present. I’d be interested to hear if people agree with me, or are more optimistic. We all need a bit of hope!

6 thoughts on “Who’s winning the welfare war?

  1. You’re asking a number of questions that I suspect a lot of us on the left are asking, not just because they’re good and necessary questions, but because the “debate” (if it deserves the term) on the welfare state in the media is so very lacking, so toxic and so overwhelmingly one-sided. Owen Jones is doing excellent work, but the void where the Opposition should be is horrifying. Despite many people seeming to disagree with Osborne, the only visibility for that opinion seems to be a few principled journalists, lots of bloggers, and… well, that’s it. I suppose it’s because hate is so much pithier and easier to blart out than reason.

    I’m torn between wanting to shout the facts and just wanting to shout, partly from frustration at how horrible and vindictive the Mail/Conservative agenda is, but also because the terms of the debate, as framed by the Mail, and Osborne, has nothing to do with facts. Oh sure, they can quote the amount that some people receive, but even when the number is deconstructed, and the context is explained, the attitude doesn’t change. And that’s because it’s the existence of the welfare state itself that seems to be seen as an affront, rather than the details. Much as a racist was happy to take the actions of any one person of that race as justification for how the whole race could be condemned, the underlying reason for making the argument in the first place was that they already hated the rest of them anyway. The fact that people get money, and then are allowed to choose how to spend it, and they don’t work? Some of them even have children! The outrage! £60,000! It isn’t a rational argument, because it is based on the presumption that these people are necessarily undeserving, and whether or not they’ve done anything to deserve specific criticism doesn’t matter, given they’re already guilty of need.

    I’ve just been reading Fraser Nelson’s slightly more measured rightist piece “Matthew Parris is right – and George Osborne should calm down.” http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2013/04/matthew-parris-is-right-and-george-osborne-must-not-show-relish-over-welfare-reform/ and there are three things that stand out. Firstly, even though Fraser is keen to state clearly that Philpott’s actions are not a shorthand for an entire system, and that it is wrong to link the two, and wrong for the Chancellor to demean us all by stooping to making capital from it, he still says “I’m dead against a welfare system that turns kids into income streams, and supported the (Labour and Tory) plans to address this.” This ties in with the second point, that a lot of the problem with Osborne’s approach is that it makes the Tories look nasty. Fraser doesn’t think attacking the welfare state and assuming it’s an incentivised pregnancy subsidy is nasty, so much as he is worried it makes them look nasty. A case of rejecting the style but sharing much of the substance. I don’t know any way we can win this argument, given that the basic assumptions are so deeply held despite the facts. The third is the comments, where Osborne is represented as having made “measured comments” (because, I suppose, if you support hate speech in a measured tone, then that is somehow measured, right? No, me neither). Horrifying.

    We had 175,000 UK corporate directorships revealed to be offshored on the same day George was asked his question on the Philpott case. You’d think this was more George’s remit. But there was no mention of that, and everything about how one man represented a lifestyle choice. So the storm over this is also great at avoiding the many other wrongs that need to be highlighted. Equally, the press are outright shouting that any attempt to challenge the narrative from the left is a hijack that ignores the facts, and in order to get away with that, they’re ignoring and misrepresenting the facts pre-emptively. So although social security has become the battleground, it’s more a blunt stick and a distraction than it is a debate, because it isn’t about welfare: it’s prejudice masquerading as policy, a giant distraction and a lie, a prefiguring of language. It’s like Fox News, only it’s here. Many people seem to believe these lies sincerely, but the sincerity of their prejudice doesn’t make it any more acceptable or any more true.

    How do we win this, then? I really don’t know. It’s dirty tricks, a strategy to achieve the dismantlement of the welfare state in any way they can. Engaging in this is absolutely necessary, but there seems to be little way of doing this without condoning the nature of the agenda. I’d be interested to see any answers that we can come up with, because the lives of thousands of people will suffer even more, the more this divisive non-debate goes unchallenged. And I’ve no desire to see us turned into the snarling caricature of morality that existed in Victorian times, that we spent years correcting, only to see dismantled by disingenuity in 30 years of neo-liberal finger pointing.

  2. Facts and statistics, dear boy. Yes, it may be a hard slog to win the argument but there will be no victory without sustained honesty and effort. Honesty and truth must be the tools, even when at first they may appear to work against victory. Truth is ultimately a friend and since our position is supported by facts, statistics and other evidence we must not resort to lies, distortions and other dubious means.

  3. Fine piece. I fear we’ll only succeed in winning the argument when more folk are victims of it. There’s been much complacency in the visible left for too long, preferring to fight small battles, the big societal schisms being too difficult. A fear of right wing media, matched with ignorance. Social Security was not the most popular thing in 1945, but there was real passion for it, belief in it. We need an opposition, with passionate people at the fore, who enough people will believe in. Problem is the Labour top brass don’t seem to understand. (Have you seen how they’re selecting for Dave Ms seat?). We’ll never persuade them all, but we don’t need to, just the compassionate ones.

  4. The debate on the welfare state would stop stone dead if you just guaranteed people a job. That sorts the workers from the shirkers instantly and if an alternative is guaranteed then anybody who thinks the guaranteed job is better than their current circumstance can take it.

    Which funnily enough will create competition for labour and stop the wage chase to the bottom stone dead. And its easily defended against attacks from the right because competition is good isn’t it.

    I sometimes think that the Tories are more likely to introduce a National Job Guarantee.

  5. Human beings are intrinsically status driven animals – generally, they revere those with superior status to them and wish they could be like them and they love having a group beneath them in the social hierarchy to feel superior to, look down on and to denigrate and ridicule.

    The sad truth of the matter is the right-wing are going to win the welfare debate, because the strivers vs skivers divide and conquer rhetoric appeals to people’s penchant for having someone to feel superior to and having someone they consider beneath them to blame, disparage and scorn. They will win because they are exploiting human nature. They will win through deception and the constant repetition of their lies because they own the media and they will be successful in dismantling the welfare state completely and as a result, many people will suffer terribly and will die.

    Believing that the poor deserve to suffer because they bring their poverty on themselves has a great psychological payoff. The suffering, poverty and injustice in the world doesn’t upset or depress you, because you believe the poor bring it on themselves with their feckless, lazy and immoral behaviour, so you don’t feel obliged to do anything to try to change or alleviate it. You also feel virtuous about being ok financially, because you have earned and deserve everything you have because you “do the right thing” – you’re thrifty, law-abiding, respectable, responsible , hardworking etc, unlike those benefit scrounging scum. Facts and statistics don’t mean anything when you want to believe in right-wing fairy tales because you find them psychologically rewarding and are determined to believe in them because you have a great incentive to.

  6. There are no easy solutions and fighting the smug apathy of Joe Public has been proven time after time to be damn-near impossible. I would suggest taking a leaf from our ‘opponents’ playbook: Misdirection/redirection.
    If you can’t argue their beliefs away with facts, then give them something else to focus on. In this case, it’s already there and provable. The ultra-rich club that is being funded by, and part of, the entire government. Highlight the overseas directorships. Highlight the payoffs, the vested interests. Give people a new thing to understand that builds on their suspicions, shed some light on how most of society has to live less well for a few to live very well. Give them the rhetoric to fuel righteous fury. Make them angry. From that will come the tainting of any goals that the few have espoused. From there will come the guilty realisation that they fell for a hate campaign, but they can assuage their social embarrasment in knowing that ‘everybody else’ was taken in too.
    Of course, you could look at it that people ignore the crimes of the rich because that is where they want to be. Successful by society’s standards.
    The trick is showing them that no matter how much they buy-in and believe, the top echelons are a private club.

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