Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Left needs to stop parroting the terminology of the Right. Talk of "welfare" only fuels the scrounger myth - it's time to go back to "social security"

I've been planning for a few weeks to write about the change in the language used to describe people who claim benefits - a resolve hardened after seeing the much-shared Daily Mail front page pronouncing Mick Philpott, convicted of manslaughter following the death of six of his children, a "vile product of welfare UK".

Once my spluttering rage at the grotesque inappropriateness of equating an extreme criminal act with claiming benefits had subsided and I'd wiped my spittle-flecked monitor clean, I started to pay closer attention to the headline's wording. One word clearly took centre stage: welfare, a term known once upon a time as "social security".

Then, quite by accident, I stumbled across this excellent article by Labour peer Ruth Lister, chairman of the left-wing Compass group. Lister charts brilliantly why this change in language matters. If social security suggests a safety net to stop citizens falling through the cracks, then welfare, used as a noun, is easily associated in the minds of the public with what she calls:
a stigmatised US-style residual form of poor relief. It is all the more stigmatising because of the constant coupling with "dependency", so that in many people's eyes receipt of social security is now equated with a "dependency culture" that research does not in fact substantiate.
With the scrounger myth continuing to exert a strong hold over tabloids and public alike, it's ever-more important that the Left chooses its words carefully. In other words, it's time to stop borrowing the Right's terminology. Let's bid farewell to welfare and "benefits" (the latter carrying a vague suggestion of luxury rather than entitlement) and say hello to good old social security.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Most politicians have no idea how the less well-off live. They should be forced to find out if they want to remain our elected representatives.

In Thomas More's Utopia, a strange sixteenth century mix of fiction and political philosophy, the author floats an intriguing idea: that anyone who seeks political power should automatically be disqualified from holding it.

While that might be taking things too far - after all, we don't want to press-gang people into public office against their will - we should give serious consideration to the question: why do people choose go into politics?

For large swathes of the general public, the answer to this would be because they are all self-serving individuals out to feather their own nests. Personally I think that's overly glib and cynical, and not a view borne out by the politicians I've met in person. I'm still naive/gullible/stupid enough to believe that the majority of politicians enter politics out of a genuine desire to make a difference, but to succeed that needs to supplemented with a large dose of personal ambition.

There's also no question that the last few decades have seen the professionalisation of politics and the rise of a distinct "political class". If More's criteria were applied today, the House of Commons would be entirely empty. As the Guardian's Aditya Chakrabortty pointed out in a recent column:
In 1979, 40% of Labour MPs came from a manual occupation; according to analysis by the Smith Institute that is now down to 9%. Just 4% of all representatives in the Commons can claim a background in a manual occupation, which is roughly the same proportion as went to Eton.
Over one in four of all Tory MPs were previously employed in finance; more parliamentarians came from jobs in politics than from health, teaching, the army, agriculture and voluntary services put together. With his frictionless ascent from thinktanks to backroom Labour politics to the cabinet, David Miliband is typical of the gilded class who masquerade as our delegates in Westminster.
But while it's perhaps perverse to ban those who want to do the job, it's not unfair to say that, as a bare minimum, our political representatives should know how their constituents live and a degree of empathy for those living in less fortunate circumstances than themselves.

Fast forward then to Iain Duncan Smith. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions experienced what many pundits referred to as his "Marie Antoinette moment" this week by claiming during an interview with the Today programme that he could live on £53 a week "if I had to". A hastily drawn-up petition asking him to do just that has currently amassed almost a quarter of a million signatures.

Yes, there is something unseemly about a Cabinet minister on £134,565 claiming he would have no problem getting by on a fraction on that. But what was more disturbing about IDS's dismissiveness was that he is one of the most knowledgeable Tory ministers when it comes to the reality of social deprivation. His issue is not that he is unaware of how people live, but that he lacks the empathy to put himself in their shoes. For the former Tory leader, the impoverished are simply not aspiring and striving hard enough.

Empathy has become a vogue subject in academia over the past couple of years but it's something that large swathes of professional politicians - and not just on the Tory benches - completely lack. Last November, Lord Freud, the government's welfare reform minister, launched a scathing attack on
the incapacity benefits, the lone parents, the people who are self-employed for year after year and only earn hundreds of pounds or a few thousand pounds, the people waiting for their work ability assessment then not going to it
When it was suggested that his background - Oxford, Financial Times journalist, investment banker, Tory peer - might prevent him from fully grasping what life was like for those living on benefits, the peer's reply was instructive: 
You don't have to be the corpse to go to the funeral, which is the implied criticism there.
Which is, of course, true. The idea that's it's necessary to have experienced something directly to understand it is the worst of all postmodern fallacies. I haven't personally been caught up in an extreme weather event, but that didn't prevent me feeling sympathy for people who lost their lives and homes in Hurricane Sandy.

There are, though, limits to this principle. In order to empathise, you have to at least make the effort to imagine your way into another person's situation. It's worth pointing out that Lord Freud has never actually been an elected  representative, which means he's never had to trundle round an estate or a tower block canvassing support from people who live there. Instead he's known the Oxford quad, the newsroom, the plush banking headquarters and now the Lords. It's hardly surprising he's not got a handle on the lives of those in Britain's low-income households.

So I'd like to propose that all Britain's political representatives spend a week living on benefits before they take office. This is not a new idea. In 1984 writer Matthew Paris, then a Tory MP, spent a week attempting to live on the benefits paid to an unemployed worker in Newcastle. He failed miserably. In 2003 Michael Portillo starred in the BBC documentary When Michael Portillo Became A Single Mum documentary (clips available to watch here). He emerged a seemingly changed man, somewhat chastened by his experience. More recently Austin Mitchell, Mark Oaten, Tim Loughton and Nadine Dorries featured in Tower Block of Commons.

You might think this all sounds like a colossal waste of time. Haven't MPs got more pressing things to worry about? My answer would be an unequivocal no. Empathy is an absolutely crucial part of the political picture. Take the Coalition's spending cuts. Without that empathy they are just a policy. It isn't until you seem the damage they have wrought up close that the human element begins to loom into focus.