Thursday, 22 December 2011
But what role has the media played in this? Excellent bloggers like Sue Marsh have consistently held the media to account for their often vitriolic and false accusations against benefit claimants. Similarly, Ben Baumberg over at the collaborative Inequalities blog has recently written three excellent articles on John Humphrys' controversial TV show on the welfare state.
But how can we quantify the media's role?
So we all sense that there has been a qualitative shift in how the media represent benefit claimants, but is there also a quantitative shift? Are the media not just being more pejorative about claimants, but are they doing so with increasing consistency?
One way to check this out is to examine the frequency with which the media uses certain loaded and derogatory terms aimed at benefit claimants. Using the Nexis UK system, I explored the extent to which national daily newspapers in the UK used certain phrases associated with benefits: 'scrounger', 'benefit cheat' and 'benefit fraud'. I looked at this for the past 12 years and the results are shown below:
Number of articles (per year) which reference certain phrases associated with benefits
The results are, sadly, as we might expect. In short, I think we can split the above graph into three
different periods of time. The first is between 2000 and around 2003/04, when media use of the above phrases was fairly steady. Then, after this period we being to see quite a stark increase. The number of articles referencing 'benefit fraud', for example, doubled from around 200 in 2003 to 400 in 2005. Similarly, the number of articles referencing 'scrounger' jumped from 140 in 2003 to 338 in 2006. These years in the mid-2000s appear to represent a first phase in the hardening of attitudes towards benefit claimants.
The third period - which the graph clearly shows as originating in 2009 - appears to mark a third, profound shift in how the media portrays benefit claimants. Between 2009 and 2010, the annual media use of 'scrounger' jumped from 291 to 902, the use of 'benefit cheat' increased from 277 to 693 and 'benefit fraud' from 299 to 530.
While there has been a significant reduction in the use of these terms in 2011, the frequency with which newspapers use them is still way, way higher compared with the start of the century. Thus, in what will surely confirm many people's worst suspicions, it seems true the media has used the onset of financial crisis and economic recession to increasingly pin the blame of our troubles at the hands of the poorest in society. It is data like these which can sometimes make the UK a rather gloomy place to live in.
Tuesday, 20 December 2011
Monday, 19 December 2011
I suspect Hodges used this phrase because he knows that it will seriously annoy many on the Left who, despite New Labour's heady shake-up of welfare, remain deeply uncomfortable with the direction of welfare reform and the language of scrounging. There is a very strong sense - and one that I think is getting stronger - that these attitudes need to be seriously taken on.
The challenge for those of us with this disposition is to question the common use of an anti-benefits language. This is certainly no easy task; as the British Social Attitudes series has show, it seems that people from all walks of life are now united in their view of benefit claimants. The use of this language by a person like Hodges - supposedly a man of the Left - shows how ingrained this kind of psyche is.
But how can this be done? I would argue that there are two ways to challenge this dominant narrative: an ethical way ('is it morally right to conceptualise our fellow citizens in such a way?') and an empirical way ('who are the benefit scroungers and do they actually exist?').
As much as I think that the ethical debate is an important one, it seems a matter of fact that most people do think it is fair - providing it is true - that if people are 'scrounging' then they deserve to be shamed for it. While many of us find this view untenable, changing it is not something that can be done overnight: it will require a longer-term shift in the social attitudes of the British population.
In the shorter-term, a potentially more fruitful approach may be to ask questions of a more empirical nature. What is a benefit scrounger? Who are the benefit scroungers? How many benefit scroungers are there? What cost does scrounging have?
When I come across people with a very open hostility to benefit claimants, these are the kind of questions I'll ask. Quite often, people are forced to reconsider their seemingly ingrained views. They clearly don't think a scrounger is someone who genuinely wants a job or whose health gets in the way of one. They often don't know that there are strong conditions in place to monitor those who might are turning down work. They don't tend to think that £60 per week is enough to live on and agree that unemployed people need good support to get back to work. Finally, they will often agree that tax evasion costs us far, far more than that which benefit fraud is estimated to do.
In other words, if we use such questions to challenge the reality behind the rhetoric, we challenge the very notion that there is such a thing as the 'feckless benefit scrounger'. Only by questioning this myth - and hopefully exploding it - can the Left even begin to outline its own vision of a better welfare state.
Tuesday, 29 November 2011
Monday, 28 November 2011
- Merthyr Tydfil
- Blaenau Gwent
- Neath Port Talbort
Monday, 21 November 2011
Tuesday, 8 November 2011
- 1961-1965 (Macmillan, Conservative: 137 suicides per million)
- 1931-1935 (MacDonald, Conservative/Liberal coalition: 135)
- 1936-1940 (Chamberlain, Conservative: 124)
- 1926-1930 (Baldwin, Conservative: 123)
- 1986-1990 (Thatcher, Conservative: 121)
Saturday, 29 October 2011
Tuesday, 25 October 2011
Wednesday, 19 October 2011
Friday, 14 October 2011
- There is no simple north/south divide. Many areas, regardless of location, are actually experiencing quite similar levels of unemployment: there are no strikingly clear and straightforward differences between regions as we might expect. In the south-east, for example, there are county variations in unemployment which are quite similar to the Midlands or the the North-West. Economic problems are hitting many places in quite equal ways.
- But, there are pockets of the UK where unemployment is chronically high. Although many places have unemployment levels of between 6-8%, there are a significant number of areas where unemployment is particularly high (e.g. over 8%). Further, these places also tend to be clustered into small regions of very high unemployment, such as south-east Wales, west Scotland and the far North-East of England. Such places should be a particular focus for policy-makers.
- Finally, some places are comfortably protected from the UK's wider labour market difficulties. For some places, particularly in the far north of Scotland, the Home Counties and even parts of the North-West (such as Lancashire and Cheshire), there are relatively low levels of unemployment of between 3-5%. It seems that the local economies in these areas are to a large extent protected from the wider difficulties the national economy. We need to understand why some areas have strong local labour markets and, where possible, use this information to benefit weaker economies.
Saturday, 8 October 2011
Thursday, 6 October 2011
Sunday, 2 October 2011
Ed Miliband is right to cast a critical gaze at capitalism; without this, Labour will struggle to matter
In its history, the Labour Party has been most successful at two particular moments: 1945 and 1997. For just six short years after the Second World War, Labour was successful in framing the shape of public policy for over three decades. In 1997, of course, the party was successful in another way: this time consolidating a pre-existing consensus, rather than building a new one.
Friday, 23 September 2011
Saturday, 13 August 2011
Wednesday, 10 August 2011
Tuesday, 9 August 2011
Sunday, 24 July 2011
Tuesday, 19 July 2011
Wednesday, 13 July 2011
Monday, 4 July 2011
Sunday, 3 July 2011
Friday, 24 June 2011
Sunday, 19 June 2011
Sunday, 12 June 2011
What is particularly interesting is the timing of this change in attitudes. It happened abruptly in 1998, when the percentage of people stating that unemployment benefit is too high jumped from around 30% to almost 50%. It dropped a little in subsequent years but in the early 2000s became the clear majority view.
Wednesday, 8 June 2011
Tuesday, 24 May 2011
While the Labour leaders of old were more open - sometimes infamously so - about redistribution, New Labour was much less candid, favouring a controversial strategy of redistribution by stealth.
Although the New Labour approach was quite successful in boosting incomes at the bottom, its problem was its inherent deviousness. You can’t win an argument on fairness if you don’t allow the public to debate in the first place.
Moreover, there has always been a deeper problem with Labour’s commitment to redistribution, linked to the perceived purpose of what redistributing aims to achieve. In striving for a straightforward, linear redistribution from the pockets of rich to the pockets of the poor, there appears to a somewhat uninspiring moral vision.
And here’s why I think this is: redistribution, argued for in the name of fairness, tacitly accepts the nature of the society we find ourselves in. In other words, it is silent on the type of society which should be built and what a good society might look like. Progressives thus tend to agree with conservatives about the nature of how we live; we simply believe that some people should have more money to spend than others, as a matter of fairness and greater freedom.
However, when it adopts this approach, Labour ceases to articulate a vision of the society it wants to build. Redistribution fails to be an architectural tool to build a different society, instead it is a mechanical process, tinkering with what exists, rather than seeking to transform it altogether.
This is not an argument for abandoning redistribution as a policy aim. Rather, it is rethinking why we want to redistribute at all. Do we want to redistribute to correct for market unfairness, as Labour has argued in the past? Or, do we want to redistribute because inequality is damaging in another way, in how it estranges people from each other and makes us lead increasingly separate lives?
So while Old, New and Blue Labour would all support redistribution to build a more equal society, the policy consequences of a blue, communitarian programme would be qualitatively different. In the past, the social democratic understanding of the purpose of redistribution led to policies of a slight tax increase here, more tax credits there and perhaps a change in how we uprate benefits.
However, the aim of altering income distribution, and leaving it at that, ignores the real fallouts from a neo-liberal, Conservative society: individualism, decrepit community life, urban homogenization, the ascendancy of market morals and civic discord. While a fairer tax-benefit system is a noble endeavour, it does not address these problems on its own.
So if Labour wants to be Robin Hood, it should no longer simply seek to take from the rich and give to the poor. Yes, we should continue to argue that it is right to take from the rich, but instead propose to use the bounty in a different way. Rather than tampering with the tax system, we should offer a bolder claim on redistribution. As the philosopher Michael Sandel says, we should use redistribution for a:
"Consequential investment in an infrastructure for civic renewal: public schools to which rich and poor alike would want to send their children; public transportation systems reliable enough to attract upscale commuters; and public health clinics, playgrounds, parks, recreation centres, libraries and museums that would draw people out of their gated communities and into the common spaces of a shared democratic citizenship.”
So there it is. Redistribution to invest in the institutions which would build a shared, cohesive society with stronger relationships and better communities. I think most of us would agree that this offers a more convincing and powerful rationale for redistributing wealth than the arguments which the left has become accustomed to - and has espoused - for far too long.