A report last week revealed that the coalition’s policies on welfare have caused a dramatic rise in homelessness. For anyone on the Left, this is not a surprise. This is not the first report to lay the blame at the coalition’s door for widening social inequality; the disproportionate effect of spending cuts on women, for example, came to light last year, and was again thrown into the spotlight by the UK’s poor performance in the WEF’s global ranking on gender equality; a study last year showed that this government has overseen a huge transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. It is obvious that when harsh cuts are imposed on the benefits that help to keep the poorest above water, many will go under.
So this is not a surprise - but it should be a scandal. Where is the public and media outcry at the simple fact that this government has made the poor poorer? Where is the outright condemnation of policies that openly take from those who have precious little? Why have Labour politicians and spin doctors not jumped hungrily on these revelations as proof of the cost of living crisis on which - at some points, at least - they have been campaigning?
The answer is that this simply isn’t the climate for it. The Conservatives have set the media agenda for politics at this time, and their narrative has taken root. This narrative blames the poor for poverty, praises the rich for their wealth, and deeply resents every penny paid by the state to the citizen.
With this narrative dictating every move made by the political parties and the angle of every news item, there is no room for horror at the effects of benefit sanctions on claimants - because in the eyes of neoliberalism, those claimants do not deserve to be given the means to live on in the first place. The dehumanisation of the poor in Britain runs so deep that now the very words ‘benefits’ and ‘welfare’ demonise those who receive them. In this context, it is incredibly difficult to attack any party which seeks to reduce state handouts - and it is this context which has reduced Labour to campaign on the basis of its ‘tough new stance’ everything from benefits to immigration.
Speaking out against the tide of this narrative is difficult - but we must try. Taken to its logical conclusion, this neoliberal narrative dictates that a person only deserves to survive if they are able to secure employment which pays enough for them to live on. For many, this involves working inhumane hours for multiple employers. For others, it’s simply not possible. I was recently shocked to hear a Conservative MP on Any Questions welcoming the existence of foodbanks as provisions for those who ‘can’t budget well enough.’ But until the minimum wage is at least a living wage, there will always be millions who are not paid enough to keep themselves alive - let alone their families. Is the justification for benefits cuts, then, that an inability to secure living-wage employment is failure enough to incur the penalty of starvation? In which case, more than a fifth of UK workers deserve to be living hand-to-mouth.
And what of those who cannot find employment? Unemployment has fallen under the coalition - to be replaced by a scourge of underpaid jobs - but there are still almost two million people unemployed in the UK. Nearly 800,000 of these are young people, who have borne the brunt of the recession - and who, under Conservative plans, could lose their Job-Seekers’ Allowance and Housing Benefit in the next parliament. Cameron’s justification for this, too, is revealing: he wants, he says “to end the idea that aged 18 you leave school, go and leave home, claim unemployment benefit and claim housing benefit. We should not be offering that choice to young people.” Because to the Conservative neoliberal mindset - as to the Victorians - poverty is a choice.
It’s challenging, when the media and politicians push this narrative so relentlessly, but we must endeavour to see beyond it. Because when we do, we will see a government that is punishing the poor for their low wages; punishing the unemployed for the lack of employment; and ultimately withdrawing even the bare minimum of state assistance from those who need it the most.