The camera may not lie but sometimes it tells truths you weren’t expecting. As the government’s flagship benefits cap is rolled out across the nation, amid protests from homelessness charities, women’s rights groups and food banks already overwhelmed by demand, the BBC is devoting hours of its prime-time schedule to pitting the underpaid against the unemployed. The spectacle of one single mother telling another in the tin-can aisle at the supermarket that she’s greedy because she wants her kids to have a hot meal says a great deal about modern Britain. It tells us whose suffering matters and whose children will never have their dinner dissected for our scorn on national television.
The BBC1 programme Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits (11 and 18 July, 9pm), echoing the rhetoric of the Department for Work and Pensions, pits “taxpayers” against “shirkers” and asks how we can “make work pay”. Of these gristly little semantic nuggets of state propaganda, “making work pay” is the most noxious – a mantra that’s incanted by every jobsworth Tory in every debate, in line with the logic that if one repeats a lie for long enough it will function as truth.
Taking away benefits will not “make work pay”. The reason why work doesn’t pay is not that benefits are too high. It is that wages are too low. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that, with the rising cost of living, there have been 40 consecutive months of contraction in real wages in the UK. In many occupations, the basic pay is too low to cover rent, food and bills, especially in London and the south-east, where housing costs are out of control. This is why a large proportion of housing benefit is paid on behalf of those who are in work, straight into the pockets of private landlords.
Then there’s “the taxpayer”, a phrase that is deliberately misused to imply that only those in waged work pay taxes. Everybody who buys a warm Cornish pasty puts pennies into the Treasury. Drawing an arbitrary distinction between “taxpayers” and “people on benefits” implies that those who rely on state support are taking money directly out of the pockets of workers, when they are being supported by a system to which we all contribute, which is there to help all of us should we find ourselves ill or unemployed.
The anxiety to separate the interests of “taxpayers” from those of the unemployed falsely suggests that unemployment benefits are now the main drain on the state. Despite savage welfare cuts, state spending on unemployment remains high because unemployment remains high, for the simple reason that one cannot “incentivise” people into jobs that aren’t there. A far higher proportion of state spending goes on subsidising tax cuts for multinational corporations and arms dealers, maintaining our nuclear weapons programme and having a military presence abroad. “Taxpayers”, though, are not being invited into the homes of devastated Afghan families, taken on tours of the Trident base or shown around the mansions of offshore millionaires and asked to make judgements about how their taxes are being spent. The idea is preposterous. Poor people are supposed to make moral judgements about other poor people only. We can afford to offer Vodafone billions in tax breaks but God forbid some kids in Ipswich get a second-hand PlayStation.
That’s the judgement call that representatives of the working class are invited to make in We All Pay Your Benefits, deciding whether or not the unemployed are being indulged, as Nick and Margaret, a pair of well-spoken, pension-age presenters, ride around in a taxi prattling on like something out of a David Lynch film. For most of the show, the camera leers at the jobseekers but the truly fascinating characters are those who have been invited on to the show to judge.
Their anger that their hard slog has not raised them above the level of a family on Jobseekers’ Allowance is distressing to watch. Clearly they all work hard – for not enough money and with few prospects of improving their circumstances as rents rise and essential services are dismantled. It is hardly the fault of a disabled single father-ofthree that a care worker who runs her own business is still struggling to cover the bills. But that is the only conclusion that this programme and this government are permitting us to voice.
On any other channel, a programme such as this could be written off as a crass cash-in on public mistrust of the welfare system, treating the unemployed as a telegenic cross between criminals and animals in a zoo. That it was given the green light by the BBC, a publicly funded and supposedly impartial broadcaster, indicates something more. It suggests a culture shift: the wilful misdirection of public anger towards those who least deserve it.
The cruellest thing about the benefits cap is not that it could make thousands of people homeless or force more families to depend on food banks (three of these open every week). It’s that it’s not really about people on benefits at all. They aren’t the voters this government is interested in attracting. It’s about placating public rage and persuading people who would vote for a tin of beans if it had a Tory ribbon on it that this government is tough and in charge.
Like any pack of bullies, the Conservative Party likes to prove its strength by picking on the weakest people within reach. In this case, the targets include single mums and the mentally ill. That tens of thousands of children will spend their school years going to bed hungry because of this policy is incidental. The benefits cap is first and foremost a public relations exercise. With a former PR man for Prime Minister, what else would it be? Behind the relentless campaign of spin, though, is the truth – and the truth is that those on benefits have nothing, absolutely nothing, to be ashamed of.
Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman.