We’re living through a kind of social democratic End of Days. In a political culture that holds up Mrs Thatcher’s social blitzkrieg as the height of state-shrinking excess, people are struggling to comprehend that what the Coalition government is doing now is worse. Even hardened activists who fought Thatcherism in the 1980s can’t quite bring themselves to accept that the situation we’re facing today exceeds the one they tackled thirty years ago.
The Conservatives are trying to permanently end the convention whereby the rich pay for the upkeep of the less fortunate. By surreptitiously pulling apart what remains of the welfare state, they’re trying to drastically reduce what their descendants will have to shell out for in taxes. Existence-threatening cuts to the public sector mean that thousands of people are being ejected from secure, less profit-oriented jobs and forced into the private sector. Private sector workers, meanwhile, are forced to work harder, for longer, for less, with less job security – which guarantees bigger profits for the companies they work for, and bigger pay packets for the kind of rich Tory supporters that run them.
But turn on the TV news and you’re unlikely to hear about any of that. Instead, two issues dominate the headlines – two much-mangled, contentious, bitterly emotive issues. One is immigration. The other is ‘benefits’.
For the source of the former moral panic, we don’t have to look any further than Nigel Farage. UKIP are in the ascendant, its jovial, airwave-straddling leader suddenly inescapable. The media indulge colourful UKIP, giving them far more media exposure than their modest electoral achievements deserve. And Nigel is all too happy to capitalise on his free air-time.
He’s currently using that media pedestal to whip up panic about immigration. By December 2013, Bulgarians and Romanians are set to gain the right to live and work in any EU member state. Farage believes that thousands of impoverished Eastern Europeans will flock to the UK. The available evidence suggests the opposite, but Nigel isn’t especially bothered by pesky reality. He knows that immigration is a sure-fire way to make people irrationally angry, riling both the kind of post-industrial communities where jobs are scarce and extra competition for work is extremely unwelcome, and rural traditionalists who fret about ‘outsiders’ sullying their way of life. His aim, presumably, is to channel that anger into getting Britain out of the EU.
We can largely thank Her Majesty’s government for the current anti-benefits frenzy. Their strategy is almost identical to Farage’s – by playing to the darker aspects of human nature, and embarking on a spot of insidious psychological manipulation, the Tories are manufacturing the public furore they can then claim legitimises their policies.
They want to destroy the social safety net that has ensured quality healthcare, education and financial assistance has been freely available to anyone that needs it for decades. To do that, they need to turn the public against something that it’s blatantly in their interest to support. And they succeed by turning that public against itself – painting benefit claimants as feckless layabouts, parasitically feeding off the taxes of the hard-working.
Again, the facts don’t matter. Only 70 pence in every £100 of government spending is paid out in benefits. But as a large chunk of the population limps through the worst economic crisis in generations, people are hypersensitive to any suggestion that others are taking advantage of them, getting one over on them, somehow squeezing more out of the system than they are.
Even the term distorts the reality – ‘benefits’ are company cars and free private dental care for FTSE 100 executives. Used to describe welfare payments, the word keeps that air of frivolity, waste – again, suggesting people getting more than you at your expense. What we have, and what the Tories are attempting to kill off, is social security – state provision for anyone who needs it.
The Right’s sinister media voodoo is frighteningly effective. It’s spread an irrationally angry, callously prejudiced view of migrants and the poor. People are incredibly sensitive about their status. If they feel they’re being undermined, that their stability is being threatened, they unplug the rational part of their brain and furiously lash out. Facts don’t matter. Objective reality doesn’t matter. Emotive hearsay trips a hair-trigger persecution complex, and people react. Sadly, it’s never a nuanced response – people want the offending thing banned, abolished, them all sent home, the problem blasted out of the sky in the simplest, most emotionally satisfying way possible. When public policy is shaped by these kinds of reactions, you know you’re in trouble.
But in its rightly outraged response to those distortions of reality, the Left tends to be more than a little simplistic itself. The rhetorical counter-attack doesn’t extend much beyond shouting ‘No to cuts!’ and ‘No to racism!’. Bellowing excellent sentiments at people who aren’t already convinced of their worth doesn’t get you anywhere. Unavoidably, there are people who believe that immigrants are a menace and benefit claimants are scum. And if you’re ever going to convince these people otherwise, you have to properly communicate with them rather than bombard them with fluffy slogans.
It’s uncomfortably true that the large-scale immigration of the last decade, mostly from Eastern Europe, has made life more difficult for some of the people who were already struggling to get jobs. Suddenly, they were faced with competition from highly motivated migrants willing to accept lower pay. It’s also true that there are people and families who live off state benefits – the large majority because they genuinely can’t find work that pays enough, or work at all. The Right enters the fray with its usual blustering fury, directing people’s rage against the newcomers and claimants themselves – but that rage is just a gruesome symptom of an underlying problem.
The other day, the Bemolution discussed this with a sassy Kiwi it knows. Never letting the fact she’s married to a Blairite ultra get in the way of talking sense, she argued that no-one is inherently racist or prejudiced. What people are concerned with above everything else, she said, is personal stability, jobs that pay and housing that’s affordable. The Right encourages the disgruntled to think small, to blame their troubles on scapegoats within their own communities. But what they’re trying to hide, and what the Left should seize upon in a dash for the moral and strategic high-ground, is that these are problems the Right created.
Why do so many people go without jobs that pay, homes they can afford and lives that are generally stable? Because for decades, the Right has repeatedly won its political battles. Once, millions of British people were employed in the manufacturing sector. They had jobs that paid decently and provided a stable, comfortable standard of living. From the late 1970s, the neoliberal tsunami hit across the developed world, having already ravaged Latin America, and all that was ripped away.
In Britain, in the space of a decade, a whole section of the economy was snapped off. In industrial areas, the result was the wholesale destruction of a way of life. And millions of people were cast adrift in the shiny new ‘service economy’ that the country was left with. Now there weren’t anywhere near as many jobs available, shops and hairdressers and investment banks being far less labour intensive than the factories of old. Most people were paid less and their jobs were far less secure.
Thousands upon thousands, meanwhile, just couldn’t find work in the economic wasteland that was left behind. Because we somehow escaped the Thatcher era with a shred of civility, these people weren’t just left to shrivel up in the street – they got benefits to help them survive. In the worst hit areas, conditions have barely improved, and social security is the only thing keeping some communities afloat.
And now, the slavish followers of that same political agenda are attacking the welfare dependency that they brought into being. Having scrap-heaped a generation, they’re blaming a financial crisis brought about by the reckless elites they freed from regulation on the communities they destroyed. They’re pushing millions towards ever greater job insecurity, making thousands jobless, closing public-funded sources of employment and then blaming immigrants for the lack of work. While Cameron and Farage wrestle over Mrs Thatcher’s legacy with one hand, they’re stirring up hatred, prejudice and fear with the other, all the while blaming the powerless for problems she and they caused.