Monday, 19 December 2011

Is there such a thing as the 'feckless benefit scrounger'

In a blogpost for the Telegraph today, Dan Hodges urged Ed Miliband to shift to the Right in order to win back public support.  In one particularly notable sentence, Hodges argued that Miliband needs to convince people that 'he won't take their money and hand it to a bunch of feckless benefit scroungers'.

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.

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