I’ve written variously about this Tory-led government’s fetish for demonising the vulnerable in order to facilitate its attacks on their state support. Disabled people, young people, housing benefit claimants, the unemployed – all come under sustained propaganda attack from government spokespeople, echoed by the right-wing press and even, on occasion, by the BBC.
This demonisation usually takes the form of some kind of ‘scrounger’ rhetoric, although the perpetrators will throw in ‘shirker’ or ‘skiver’ occasionally, just to mix it up a little. It’s clearly a tactic aimed at the basest instincts of people who are able, or willing, to believe it and resent the ‘scroungers’ who are supposedly the opposite of the ‘strivers’, or ‘those who work hard and do the right thing’, according to the Tory mantra.
This kind of rhetoric is in every government statement about the ‘Uprating Bill’ that will be voted on today in the Commons, as ministers talk about whether it’s ‘fair that those who don’t work should receive better rises than those who work hard and do the right thing’, or whatever variant they pick for a particular statement.
Of course, the rhetoric has very little basis in fact. Most benefit recipient – 60% – are working people who are so poorly paid by their employers or so exploited by their landlords that they can’t manage without state assistance.
But is any of it true? More to the point, if it is – does it matter? And do the government’s stated reasons for targeting them have anything to do with the real reasons?
There don’t seem to be any firm figures that indicate how many of such people there actually are, but certainly they’re far fewer than the government would like everyone to think.
For example, an article in the Guardian highlights cases in which the government grossly exaggerated ‘scrounger’ issues for political purposes:
Ministers had made a big issue – in order to justify their benefits cap – of a supposedly high number of families that were receiving £100,000 a year in housing benefit.
The reality? There were only 5 such families, in the whole country.
Ministers briefed that over 1,300 people had been ‘off work for a decade with diarrhoea.
The reality? They were suffering from cancer and other severe bowel diseases.
Anecdotal evidence also seems to back up the idea that people avoiding work by choice are a very small minority. For example, on a discussion forum for social care professionals, in a debate about ‘scroungers’, one wrote:
I expect our experiences depend a lot on the location and teams that we might work in. Personally I see a LOT more people who are not claiming the benefits that they are wholly entitled to. I’ve come across a few families that might have stepped out of the front page of the Daily Mail but that has been very uncommon in my experience.
There’s no real doubt that a small percentage of people living long-term on benefits do so (as the government likes to put it) ‘as a lifestyle choice’. But most of what evidence there is seems to suggest that it really is a very small percentage.
However, I believe that – at least now and for the foreseeable future – their existence is absolutely irrelevant to the benefits issue. Any reference to them by politicians and media as justification for any benefit reduction or cap is absolutely, and deliberately, misleading – and hides a true motive that’s much darker.
The numbers game
For the sake of argument, and so that no one can accuse me of minimising the issue to make my assertion more convincing, let’s assume that every single one of the long-term unemployed are living on benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’. It’s a ludicrous proposition, of course, but bear with me for the moment.
The latest ONS statistics indicate that there are 449,000 people who have been on unemployment benefits for 24 months or more. I’m sure you’ll agree that ‘lifestyle scroungers’ are going to be, almost without exception, in this category.
So, if every single person in that category was a ‘scrounger’, choosing to live on benefits, that means we have, at worst, 449,000 scroungers in this country – out of a jobless total of around 2.5 million.
However, the number of available jobs in the whole of the UK – again according to the latest ONS stats – is 489,000. For 2.5 million unemployed people.
This means that, even if you can get someone into every available vacancy, you would still have over 2 million people unemployed. Of course, you never will fill every vacancy – many of those jobs will be vacant because they require special skills and experience that aren’t available, or because they pay so badly that no person in their right mind would want them.
But, again for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the government cuts benefits so drastically that all our notional ‘scroungers’ decide they are going to have to take those jobs – and we’ll assume that they have the necessary skills to do them.
What situation do we then have? Simple: over 2 million people who want to work, and no jobs for them.
Unless and until we reach a ‘full employment’ situation – one in which there is work for every person who wants to work and is capable of working – the ‘lifestyle scroungers’ are absolutely irrelevant to the benefits or ‘fairness’ issues.
In the current situation, where we have more than 5 unemployed people for every available job, every ‘scrounger’ forced into work means one less job for someone who wants to work. Somebody is going to be on benefits – a lot of ‘somebodies’, in fact – even if we had zero scroungers.
The only time when it would be legitimate to spend Parliamentary time and effort even discussing the genuine ‘scroungers’ would be if we ever return to a full-employment situation. However, there’s a massive reason why we won’t in the foreseeable future – and why it’s incredibly hypocritical for anyone to use so-called ‘scroungers’ as an excuse to ‘bash the benefit claimants’ as the government and the right-wing press love to do. It’s tied up in the last 2 sentences of the previous paragraph – but all should become clear shortly.
The ugly truth
For all their ‘striver vs skiver’ rhetoric, right-wingers don’t want everyone in work – and that includes politicians. They just don’t want people to be able to live on benefits in the long-term – for a very specific reason. That’s possibly a shocking thought for you. However, it’s not just my opinion – it’s on record as fact.
In 1997, the Bank of England’s ‘Monetary Policy Committee’ (MPC) met to discuss its business. In the minutes arising from that meeting, an incredibly frank and extremely revealing couple of paragraphs were included:
According to the Bank of England’s MPC, high numbers of long-term unemployed people does not push down wages – to them a desirable thing – to the same extent as numbers in short-term unemployment.
Lots of people unemployed in the short-term means that those in work are more worried about their job-security – and are therefore more likely to tolerate lower wages and less likely to demand increases. High numbers of long-term unemployed are less ‘effective’ in holding the employed to ransom, because the long-term unemployed aren’t as much of a threat to their job tenure.
Another part of the same document talks about a ‘natural level of unemployment’, saying that if
“the level of unemployment [was] below the natural rate, increasing inflation would generally result.”
In other words, a certain level of unemployment is natural and desirable – the wealthy right does not want everybody to have a job.
The Bank of England’s motivation is, notionally at least, a concern that upward pressure on inflation might stoke higher inflation. These concerns have not gone away since 1997. In one of its 2012 reports on inflationary pressures, the MPC stated:
Since the second quarter of 2011, the number of vacancies had been broadly stable while unemployment had increased, suggesting that the unemployed were less able to fill those vacancies.
But for employers, and the politicians they donate to, there’s another, clearer, baser motive.
David Cameron, George Osborne, Ian Duncan Smith and co want there to be a lot of people out of work – because that keeps the rest of us ‘in our place’, and stops us expecting pay rises that will reduce fat, corporate profits. Whatever the rhetoric, the fiscal cost of that level of unemployment is perfectly acceptable to the bankers and CEOs, because it bolsters profits and executive salaries. The Bank of England says so.
They just don’t want there to be many long-term unemployed people – because that doesn’t do the job as effectively. So the Tories and their donors have a vested interest in targeting the long-term unemployed – one that has precisely nothing to do with fairness.
To you and me, if we had to choose which of the 2.5 million unemployed people to put into the <500,000 jobs that exist for them, would probably see it as best, fairest and most logical to fill those jobs with people that really want to do them – whether they’ve been unemployed for 6 weeks or 6 years – rather than have them filled by people who don’t really want to do them.
But the government and its wealthy friends have a different agenda. One that’s better served by having only short-term unemployed people who are desperate for work – so that a sword is always hanging over the rest of us that employers can use to dampen our ‘uppity’ expectations of decent pay and conditions.
Scroungers are irrelevant to the issue of benefits and fairness while we have our current level of unemployment. They are not irrelevant to the Tories’ real, strategic but hidden aims – which go against the very same hard-working ‘strivers’ whose side they claim to be on.
When you hear about the vote today, or think about the issues, or consider whether Labour is doing the right thing for the country by voting against the ‘uprating bill’, bear all this in mind.