It may be that familiarity breeds contempt for individuals, but contempt for whole groups of people requires distance – cultural, social, economic or geographical (and in some cases all four).
When the Conservative Party brands itself as being ‘for hardworking people’ and George Osborne sets out plans to make unemployed people work for their benefits – using punitive language that will be icily familiar to anyone who endured long-term unemployment in the eighties, or who, like me, was part of a family (indeed, a community) that did – they are making a calculated gamble.
They believe that the majority of people will share the intuition (it is no more than that – evidence is unwelcome in politics of this sort) that the long-term unemployed are workless by choice, because they are lazy and refuse to knuckle down. They suppose that people will be willing to believe that this is one of the biggest, most urgent social problems we face.
Unhappily, they may well be right. It is natural when times are hard to look for someone to blame, and the unemployed are a convenient target. That is why this divisive technique has proved so popular for so long, with politicians of all parties. But it is ugly. It appeals to the worst in us. And while it may appear to be politically expedient, it is, morally, pretty repugnant.
What problem is such rhetoric supposed to address? It isn’t an economic problem – or at least not one serious enough to warrant the ceaseless gushing of hot air on the subject. The cost of out-of-work jobseekers’ benefits is relatively small – it amounts to just three per cent of the total welfare spend – while the vast majority of jobseekers find work within two years. And, in any case, as the government’s own research points out, workfare is the ‘least effective’ method to get the long-term unemployed back into work. If the need to bring in extra revenue really were as pressing as the rhetoric suggests and the moral outrage about people not doing their bit were genuine, as much effort would be put into pursuing and vilifying tax dodgers – a potentially much more lucrative source of income for the state, and a much more significant moral issue.
The real issue here, it seems to me, is the problem of how to manage political dissent. It is much easier to manage people’s moral outrage if it is dispersed, and especially if it can be directed towards the man across the street who has his curtains drawn all morning rather than at the real, systemic causes of worklessness and low living standards.
We should be honest about this. A party which believes in hard work and wants to promote it should also want to reward it. Yet the dreadful toll taken by in-work poverty shows that those who strive the hardest do so for very small rewards, and at huge cost to their personal and family lives. At the same, those who are unemployed and looking for work are faced with a lack of vacancies and huge competition for the (frequently low-paid) jobs that do exist.
What should a party serious about promoting hard work and self-reliance be doing? Well, it should first back the living wage (4.8 million people in Britain earn below this level – 20 per cent of all employees) and find ways of encouraging/obliging employers to follow suit. The tax payer should not be expected to subsidise employers who are not prepared to adequately remunerate their hard-working staff.
Second, it should stop attacking the poor – the vast majority of whom are hard-working – and blaming them for their poverty. Vilifying people who are already struggling on the breadline doesn’t help. It is counter-productive. Better instead to target interventions that will make a real difference, prioritising educational interventions in particular. Education is by far the best way of giving people the resources they need to take charge of their lives and change them for the better.
We hear in the press each week about how working-class parents are failing their children, sending them to school without the basic skills they need to flourish – or even just to cope. But, all too often, these parents are themselves struggling with their own lack of education, having been failed by the system the first time around. As anyone who works with these families will tell you, they want to do the best for their children, as surely as any middle-class parent does.
Instead of spending more later on the consequences of our failure to intervene where it can make most difference, we should invest more in adult education and ensure it is a core part of properly coordinated cross-departmental efforts to address poverty and worklessness. An educated, skilled and enterprising workforce is key not only to an economically prosperous society but also to an engaged, resilient and creative one (something we surely must be if we are to flourish in the harsh decades to come).
It is positive that literacy interventions form a part of Osborne’s welfare-to-work scheme – but while carefully targeted skills development should be a part of any such programme, we also need a much broader lifelong learning offer, giving people the chance to learn at different moments and in different spaces throughout their lives, in and out of work; helping create a culture of learning across – and between – the generations capable of supporting growth of every sort and accessible to the whole community. Education must be about more than employability, important though that is – it should develop curiosity and help people engage as citizens. Instead of flinging brickbats at those on the breadline, we should be offering them hope.