The Tory assault on the ‘unworthy poor’. What kind of society do we really want to be?

Here are two true stories:

A friend of mine once picked up a hitch-hiker at a motorway service station. The bloke looked a bit down on his luck, so my friend asked what his story was. The guy said he’d been living in service stations, bathing in the shower facilities at lorry-driver stops, for several days as he tried to make his way from one end of the country to the other to where a hotel job was waiting for him if he could get there. He’d lost all his benefits and had no way to get the money to take a train or bus.

My friend gave this man all the money he had in his pocket, which was £60. The man seemed genuinely overwhelmed and grateful, seemingly unable to believe that someone would give him a fairly serious amount of money within minutes of meeting him, on the basis of the story he’d just related.

I asked my friend whether he thought the man had been genuine, or might he have been ripped off? His answer was that his gut instinct was that the man was for real – but that if he wasn’t, he’d rather be conned than be hard-hearted and risk ignoring someone in genuine need.

By contrast, the incredibly rich (some $287 billion in today’s money) industrialist Andrew Carnegie once famously said that it would be better for the world if a rich man threw his millions into the sea rather than give any to the ‘unworthy’. To be fair to Carnegie, he gave away a vast proportion of his wealth – but the rich and privileged have a long history of presuming that, from their pinnacle of wealth and comfort, they are able to decide who is ‘worthy’ and who isn’t. The concept of the ‘deserving poor‘, by denoting that some poor are by definition not deserving, has resulted in great suffering while allowing the wealthy to feel satisfied with their lack of concern or action.

The current crop of Tories are truly in line with their predecessors in this regard – except that they’re even worse. Even though they can’t possibly be ignorant of the consequences, they push this line in the most cynical way, with the aim of dividing the British public, fooling the undiscerning into allowing or even approving of policies aimed at stripping the vulnerable of crucial protections. And for the basest of reasons – for short-term political gain (persuading some people that the Tories are ‘at least doing something about something!’), and to release even more public funds that can be channelled into tax-cuts for the already-rich or even greater profits for private corporations.

With their limited moral imagination, the Tories really only know two tactics. Both are calculated to appeal to the baser instincts of the small-minded and thoughtless: fear and vilification. There may be different facets or manifestations – they might try to invoke suspicion, or envy, or to dehumanise or caricature one set of people to get another set to back their policies – but the roots are the same.

I’m working on a post about economic fear and the way that’s fostered by government spokespeople and tame media, but it’s proving to be quite a big project and I’m not going to be online much over the next few days, so it will be a little while in coming. But the other tactic – vilification or demonisation of the vulnerable or resistant – is so plain that this post almost writes itself. Whether explicitly or in the omission, the Tories are at it constantly.

Just in recent weeks, we’ve had:

  • Iain Duncan-Smith accusing Britons of not working hard enough, while bare-facedly distorting figures on fraudulent claims for disability benefit (claiming a 30% fraud rate when in fact it’s bare over one percent) to gain public support for his hateful Welfare Reform Act.
  • A smug Frances Maude announcing that the bottom 10% of civil servants has a year to improve or be fired – conveniently leaving out the fact that if everyone in the civil service was a workaholic genius, there would still be a bottom 10%. Being at the bottom doesn’t mean you’re incompetent or unproductive. He insists that this is not an ‘attack’ on the civil service, even though at the same time he’s making cuts of 25% in civil servant numbers and talking of removing any terms and conditions that are better than those of the private sector that the Tories and their pals have already robbed.
  • Andrew Lansley calling on doctors not to take industrial action and having his department and tame journalists conduct an orchestrated propaganda campaign to persuade the public that doctors are rich, privileged, selfish and uncaring of their patients (‘After all’, he might as well say, ‘we’ve robbed the rest of the public sector, why should doctors be any different?’) This in spite of the fact that the doctors’ pension scheme is not in shortfall and that the Health Secretary, having specifically abdicated his legal responsibility for healthcare provision in his new Health & Social Care Act, is really not entitled to comment one way or the other, let alone to impose new pension terms.
  • David Cameron underlining again that the Tories are on the side of ‘strivers’, thereby saying that they’re not on the side of anyone who can’t strive, or who simply wants to live a decent, balanced life.
  • Iain Duncan-Smith (again!) announcing plans to remove benefits from anyone who dares strike against the removal of pay, pensions, conditions and protection that is now the norm for the treatment of ordinary working people.
  • Claims by Communities Minister Eric Pickles, vocally supported by Housing Minister Grant Shapps and many others, and by the right-wing press, that the UK has 120,000 ‘problem families’ who cause 80% of societal problems, even though not one of the criteria used to decide who is a ‘problem family’ relates to criminality, but instead refer to poverty and physical or mental illness.
  • Endlessly repeated soundbites about ‘benefit scroungers’ to justify capping housing benefit, even though the vast majority of people receiving this benefit are working, but can’t afford outrageous rents.
  • Cameron and others vilifying transport workers for daring to plan industrial action during the Olympic Games money-making exercise, even though industrial action is really their only negotiating weapon and it’s perfectly sensible for them to aim it at the periods when it will be most effective. The Tories really do want a workforce that’s powerless to stand up for itself.

I could go on, but I want to keep this post to a readable length.

The aim of all these policies and pronouncements is very clear: persuading whichever sections of the public that are not affected by a particular measure that those who are affected are not worthy of support, and definitely not worthy of help.

The consequences of these and other Tory measures are not hard to imagine – and they’re already being played out. Disabled, ill or mentally ill people spend their days in fear at the prospect of having their benefits stopped because they’re ludicrously assessed as fit for work, while some even attempt or commit suicide. People are forced to accept part-time ‘work’ that offers few (or even zero!) hours while the government crows that it has reduced unemployment; jobless people are forced to work for free and sleep under bridges by companies who ruthlessly exploit them to maximise profit. And so on.

In this context, it’s patently clear that the Tories’ policies, attitudes, sleaze, self-enrichment and their unholy alliance with powerful corporate and media interests show that they are not fit to judge a vegetable show, let alone judge whether a vulnerable person is ‘worthy’ of help.

Fortunately, we get to choose whether we believe them. To choose whether we agree with the kind of approach to life that says that, while no system is perfect, it’s much better to err on the side of goodness than of suspicion and selfishness, that it’s better to set up or protect systems that protect the genuine many than one which might prevent a very few ‘playing the system’ but that also strands people in genuine need in a situation of despair. We have the privilege of deciding what kind of society we want to be.

From everything I’ve written, you’ll probably have guessed that I absolutely agree with my friend, rather than with Carnegie, about which side it’s better to err on. But Mr Carnegie did say something that I agree with very much:

‘A man who dies rich dies disgraced’

In our current government, and in the people who support and fund them, we have a lot of walking ‘disgraces in the making’. Let’s think for ourselves, see them for what they are, and not make it easy for them to become even bigger disgraces than they already are.


  1. Don’t forget Duncan-Smith’s ludicrous lie that there are 500,000 new jobs per week in job centres!!

  2. An excellent article again! I feel so angry and ashamed. These Ministers are the absolute dregs, base apologies for human beings. They are dragging Democracy in the dirt. Just hope enough people realise that.

  3. F**kers! Unfortunately, unless we can turn around the opinions of the very people who will be discriminated against, we’re heading the same way in Australia. I could scream! And my surname is ‘Walker’ & I’m long term unemployed [no benefits though].

    1. Re the situation in Aus, I keep telling people that it’s getting just as bad there whenever they go on about how terrible the UK is and thank goodness they’re emigrating etc. They never believe me. I have dual nationality and wouldn’t consider moving back to Aus any time soon. Anyway, 9K miles is the perfect distance to have between me and my family 😉

  4. One reason the Tories are making these attacks is to deflect attention from the fact that on any measure the austerity policy is not working – the structural deficit is not going to be cleared by 2016 and government debt is going to double in the life of this parliament – so all this hardship is purely hateful dogma. They are doing this for themselves not for “the good of the country” – and one last word for the
    monster Clegg standing by for all this for a moment of power, no words can describe such treachery.

    1. I agree – except I wouldn’t even grant the concept of a ‘structural deficit’. It’s meaningless Tory jargon designed to sound like economics and be swallowed whole as truth by the electorate.

  5. Remember, too, the annual cycle of something like 600,000 new entrants to the job market at the end of each academic year, whilst retirements are more evenly spread out over the year.


  6. Reblogged this on skwalker1964 and commented:

    In ‘honour’ of the start of the Tory party conference, I’m reblogging this post that I think will be a salutary antidote to the posturing, self-satisfied crap we’ll be hearing over the next few days. Plus it moves me.

  7. Reblogged this on Socially Housed and commented:
    I hate getting into the “Political Party debates” I just know as a Socially Housed person my housing status makes me 2nd class in many peoples eyes (I am a low/middle income earner) so dont fit the current 2 demographics quite yet – Wealthy & Homeowners or “Vulnerable & needy” & benefit claiming/unemployed. which is all the media spout. However I do know my fight is not for me – I am used to the constant spitting/swearing/lies about me purly because of my Housing Status, My fight is for the next generation who currently have NO HOPE of housing – Not unless mummy & daddy can bail them out by “Raiding Pensions” or unless their parents may be “Landlords” & have multiple properties etc to live off of. If the Next Gen are the product of the Working class (I am proud to be one) they have no chance in hell of being housed, unless they “Dumb-down” & fit into a “Needy/Vulnerable” category so some namby-pamby social cleansing machine can take over & put all the “Jeremy kyle-esque” of the UK together…. What happens to the proud working class? At the moment I am hearing rumblings of a fight coming…. Something I never thought I would in my lifetime…. What do you hear?

  8. The poor & vulnerable could be better protected if the neoliberal policy of inflation targeting was better understood by those on the Left. The scaremongering over 1970s inflation was used to reintroduce mass unemployment.

    Keynesian economist Joan Robinson wrote in The Times in 1943 that:

    “Unemployment is not a mere accidental blemish in a private enterprise economy. On the contrary, it is part of the essential mechanism of the system, and has a definite function to fulfill.
    The first function of unemployment (which has always existed in open or disguised forms) is that it maintains the authority of master over man. The master has normally been in a position to say: “If you don’t want the job, there are plenty of others who do.” When the man can say: “If you don’t want to employ me, there are plenty of others who will,” the situation is radically altered.”

    The use of unemployment to suppress wage inflation has been enshrined through the practice of inflation targeting, and the “best” type of unemployment was considered in the very candid minutes of the Bank of England`s Monetary Policy Committee in December 1997.
    On that occasion its concern was that the long-term unemployed were not “competing” and thereby, as it put it, not exerting as much “downward pressure on earnings” as the short-term unemployed. The following paragraphs taken from those minutes demonstrate the thinking (the letter “A” before each paragraph stands for Annex):

    A41 The relationship between unemployment and earnings was then considered: in particular, did short-term unemployment exert more downward pressure on earnings than long-term unemployment?

    A43 Whatever the reason, the implications for the effect of long-term unemployment on wage pressure were the same: when the proportion of long-term jobless was high, for a given level of total unemployment, workers would probably realise that they could not be replaced so easily, and hence that their bargaining strength was higher.

    A44 The empirical evidence in general supported a more powerful role for short-term unemployment in putting downward pressure on wages. Some studies suggested that only short-term unemployment mattered. But recent Bank research had suggested that, although short-term unemployment was more important, the potential downward effect of long-term unemployment on wages should not be disregarded.


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