Joyce McMillan: Myth of undeserving poor revisited

THE politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’ have pushed us backwards in time to join the heartless Victorians, writes Joyce McMillan

Let us now praise famous women: or one not-so-famous woman, in the shape of Helen Goodman, Labour MP for Bishop Auckland.

For during the last parliamentary recess, while other MP’s went skiing, Helen Goodman decided to have a go at living on the “generous” state benefits provided to typical women of her own age – Helen is 55 – who are either unemployed, or have had to give up work through ill health.

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After setting aside small sums to cover energy bills, water rates and the new “bedroom tax”, Helen had £18 a week left for food.

After seven days of trying to survive on this, she found herself exhausted, cold, hungry, waking up ravenous during the night, and unable to imagine how anyone living on such a diet could possibly work up the energy to even look for a job in the current tough market, never mind also working 30 hours a week, unpaid, on “job experience”.

Worst of all, by the last day of the week she had nothing left to eat at all. And if you think she must have been strangely incompetent to end up in such a situation, then try asking some of the 200,000 people in the UK who last year sought help from charitable food banks just how easy it is, in low-income Britain, to run out of money for food, if you want to keep a roof over your head.

Nor are food-bank users all unemployed. Increasingly, they include Britain’s army of “working poor”, people who are paid so little that they cannot meet the basic costs of living.

Now, of course, as soon as anyone points out the misery experienced by millions on these rock-bottom incomes, the letters pages and comment strands fill up with messages which are both full of bossy advice, and utterly bereft of real empathy.

“Buck up!” cry those voices. “Make soup! Get a vegetable box! Give up biscuits and crisps, and don’t you dare have a drink!”

Then there are those who simply deny that such cases are typical. They prefer the image – all the easier to promote, after this week’s shocking Philpott manslaughter case in Derby – of the benefit “scrounger” with multiple partners and a dozen children, lolling around in some publicly-funded mansion, even though in fact such cases are vanishingly rare, and account for a negligible proportion of benefit spending.

Those who repeat these arguments, though – and they are legion, across Britain – had better beware. For whether they are in the majority or not, they are beginning to sound exactly, and in detail, like the great right-wing bourgeoisie of the Victorian and Edwardian age; those generations of heartless and economically illiterate buffoons pitilessly satirised by great English writers from Dickens to JB Priestley, whose view of the poor was – and is – always the same.

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In the first place, they say, the poor are exaggerating their plight. In the second place, their plight is all their own fault, and could be remedied by a little thrift and ingenuity. And in the third place, they have too many children; so many that the only answer is to punish the children along with their parents, in order to remove the “perverse incentives” that led to their birth.

And the problem with these views is that they are founded on a failure of empathy, of common fellow-feeling with those in misfortune, that is plainly inimical to the whole idea of democracy and equal citizenship. They divide the world into “people like us” – people who, like Iain Duncan Smith, are perfectly entitled to claim five-figure expenses on top of a six-figure salary, and to enjoy life as they please; and those like “them”, who are greedy, feckless economy-wreckers if they fail to survive for a week on what Duncan Smith spends in an hour.

They encourage ordinary British workers to side with the wealthy against those slightly poorer than themselves and they are leading us inexorably back to the kind of world where the unemployed go hungry, and the working poor are forced to depend on charity for basic necessities.

Now, of course, the massed voices of mainstream British politics will join in telling you that there is no alternative to this cruel austerity; that Britain’s deficit reduction programme requires it. Yet this is at worst a lie – Britain’s deficit in 2010 was not at a particularly high level, by historic standards – and at best a profound misjudgment and the true tragedy is that it is a lie that the British people once rejected, and overcame.

My generation, born after 1945, were the heirs of that quiet democratic revolution, of the moment when the British people said no to the party and the ideology that had created the long misery of the 1930s Depression; and it is simply not true that what could be built then – in the way of free health care and education for all, full employment and a decent living wage – cannot be protected or rebuilt now, given enough political will.

So far, of course, the will has been absent. The ideas that could help build a new future are already in circulation, in magazines and on the web.

Yet at UK level – and to some extent in Scotland too, despite the SNP’s fine words – we wait for a political party with the courage to challenge the ugly political mood-music of the time, and to replace it with a practical message of decency and hope.

The Britain in which I grew up was born of the moment when people swore they would never go back to that Victorian politics of snobbery, cruelty, scapegoating and division; we have slid back towards it slowly, through an age of reaction that has been painful to watch.

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Now, though, the real human and financial cost of that ill-fated political experiment is becoming so acute that only the most extravagant of lies, denials and myths can continue to cover it up; and just as rage over the suffering of the 1930s eventually drove the changes of 1945, so outrage at what is now being done to the most vulnerable in our society may be about to bring change in the political weather.