Facing criticism from all sides for proposing draconian welfare reforms during a recession, the Prime Minister said – as if responding to another question – that ‘doing nothing is not an option’ (1). In a way, of course, he’s right the benefits system is in a mess and needs sorting out. But sometimes it is better to just leave things alone until you’ve got something useful to contribute. Job Seekers Allowance which currently stands at less than 10 pounds a day is an insult to anybody thrown out of work as a result of the economic crisis. Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC describes it as a ‘poverty income’ and insists that the government needs to put ‘more money into ordinary people’s pockets’ so that they can weather the recession. That the TUC have only asked for slightly more than 10 pounds a day mind you is a moot point. But at least that would improve the situation for those losing their jobs through no fault of their own, however marginally (2).
But the kind of ‘doing something’ that the government is intent on will only make things worse for those on the receiving end. Single parents with a child aged 12 or older will have their already meagre benefits cut unless they find someone to look after the kids and get a job. This is a desparate attempt to make a dent in the child poverty figures by making the lives of hard-up parents that much harder. Similarly, when work is drying up for even the most able and active, those currently claiming incapacity benefit will be subject to rigorous testing of their eligibility for state support with the introduction of a new regime focused on getting them into employment (3). The government will also be piloting a scheme that will force the long-term unemployed to take up work for up to 6-months at a fraction of the minimum wage (4). Not only that but the responsibility for getting them into work will be handed over to private contractors as of next year (5).
Taking some apparent comfort from the collapse of the market economy and the dependency of the banking sector on the State, Peter Beresford – professor of social policy at Brunel University – complains that for too long ‘we have been told how hopeless public welfare is and how damaging state intervention has been’. For too long ‘[w]elfare claimants have been held up as figures to despise and suspect…their dependency presented as a burden on the rest of us’. But perhaps, as Jenni Russell puts it in The Guardian, he is afflicted by what she describes as a ‘blindness on the left’. Is he just trying not to think too hard about what I would argue is the very real problem of dependency in this country? (6) The ‘welfare culture’ is only a part of it, but it is there nonetheless. While Frank Field’s one-man crusade for a far tougher workfare approach to the jobless problem than that proposed by the government is as wrongheaded and austere as the man himself – he at least recognises the gravity of the problem (7).
A contributor to The Guardian’s Jo Public blog argues, quite rightly, that we can’t ignore the fact that the ‘multi-billion-pound welfare cheque keeps people stuck just above the gutter’ (8). Whatever the merits of the reforms themselves, the Work and Pensions Secretary, James Purnell, is surely right to ‘not repeat the mistakes of the 80s and 90s when hundreds of thousands were shuffled on to inactive benefits to keep the unemployment count down and were trapped there without support, abandoning them and scarring their communities’ (9). It is this waste of human potential that must be addressed not just the drain on the public purse. This means finding ways to make people’s lives easier not harder and better not worse. However many ‘scrounger tales’ we hear, most of the poor do in fact work – indeed most single parents, for all the problems they face, also work – but they are still poor (10). In fact they possess what their supposed political advocates lack: an appreciation of the importance of resilience and self-reliance particularly when times are hard.
To associate yourself with the ‘enduring values of collectivity and mutuality’, as Beresford does, while presenting notions of ‘independence and individual responsibility’ as something foisted upon people by the market, is to sell welfare claimants short as the work-shy scroungers some would have them be. Whatever you and I might think of the market or the capitalist system, we can surely agree that it would be a good thing if people moved from being what Beresford sarcastically describes as ‘clients and claimants patronised by the state to public consumers with choice and control’. Granted, I might not put it quite like that myself but the sentiment is a welcome one as far as I am concerned (11). The trouble is that there is more than a little inconsistency in the government’s rhetoric when it comes to helping people become more independent.
David Freud – Purnell’s one time adviser who is now advising the Tories – at the time at least described the reforms as ‘a significant change in the approach to the welfare state, aimed at calling a halt to the build-up of a dependency culture and in tackling our pockets of obstinate poverty’ (12). But this distaste for dependency (unless this means relieving us from our base urges) rather goes against both the ban happy approach to bad habits – be it smoking, ‘binge drinking’, or just saying ‘bad’ things in public – and the more subtle ways in which ‘choice and control’ is being taken out of people’s hands. According to Anna Bawden, writing in The Guardian’s Public magazine, ‘[d]espite large increases in public spending, social problems persist and they are connected to detrimental ways of living and thinking’. That certainly sums up the view of officialdom when it comes to weening people off the things they most like to do.
Whether it is ‘sexual health, recycling, energy use’, road bumps or benefits policy, we are all increasingly being ‘nudged’ – no doubt by a kindly and caring state – in the right direction (13). Cameron – a very public fan of nudging – promised, at his party conference, to be ‘as radical in social reform as Margaret Thatcher was in economic reform. That is how we plan to repair our broken society’, he said. He complained that ‘the returns from endless state intervention are not just diminishing, they are disappearing…because too often state intervention deals with the symptoms of the problem’ rather than ‘the long-term causes’ (14). Which begs the question what is the problem and what are the causes? Or rather who? In the age of Little Britain and Shameless depictions of working class life (or should that be the workless class?) leave much to be desired.
A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – The media, poverty and public opinion in the UK – was particularly scathing about the Jeremy Kyle show for its ‘rather brutal form of entertainment that is based on derision of the lower-working-class population’. In response, the producers presented themselves as members of the caring profession, intent on helping guests (or should that be clients) with their problems: ‘both within the programmes and with the support of an aftercare team comprised of qualified mental health nurses and a psychotherapist’ (15). This is the kind of psychobabble, however cynically employed, that plays well these days. Which is perhaps why the DWP – as well as proposing introducing lie detector tests to weed out fraudulent benefit claimants (16), a device employed for helping people with their relationship problems on shows like Kyle’s – are reportedly in talks about a TV series provisionally titled Jeremy Kyle Gets Britain Working (17).
But those who raise the alarm on the excreble Kyle as often as not unwittingly reveal their own prejudices – wanting to defend the good name of the government’s so-called anti-poverty strategy, or expressing their disgust with this populist ‘car-crash’ TV. For instance Peter Wilby, writing in The Guardian, thinks more should be done to feature the plight of the ‘uncoping poor’. By which he means the ‘rowdy children, chaotic finances, unstable families, unhealthy eating habits and propensity to crime’ that supposedly characterise the worst of our communities. They are, he says, ‘models of how not to behave, and sometimes objects of fear or ridicule’ (18). This disapproving tone – both with regards the poorest sections of society and those that supposedly exploit them – was also apparent in the now infamous remarks of a Judge during a court case involving guests from the show. He described it is akin to ‘bear baiting’. ‘It seems to me that the whole purpose of the Jeremy Kyle Show is to effect a morbid and depressing display of dysfunctional people who are in some kind of turmoil,’ he said.
This low view of the lower orders is shared by the government’s Social Exclusion Unit. Apparently as many as 2% of the country’s families are ‘on the edge’. They are ‘borderline coping, plagued with drink and drug addiction, mental illness and deep inadequacy.’ (19) My only query would be whether they are sure it is just 2%. According to a recent Audit Commission survey of local authority chief finance officers, we can expect ‘more family breakdowns, with more children being taken into care, an increase in demand for residential places for the elderly, increased drug and alcohol abuse, and an increase in demand for financial advice’, as the credit crunch bites (20). Such is the esteem in which communities are held by officials these days, that more and more of us are regarded as rather troublesome and inadequate, so prone to addictive and abusive behaviour that we are heading for emotional as well as financial meltdown when things get tough.
Not only are we somewhere between potentially unruly and just not coping, but we are also severely lacking in something we didn’t even know we needed until recently – social capital. And yet, as Polly Toynbee has argued, even in the most testing of circumstances people seem to pull together. For all that Karen Matthews lived up to her alloted image as a neighbour from hell (and more besides); it was a ‘remarkable community strength’ that brought the rest of the street out in the search for Shannon (21). That this case became the focus of a renewed attack on the tracksuited classes speaks volumes. It served to confirm officials and liberal commentators alike in their prejudices. Namely that there exists a slippery slope between deprivation and depravity – and that the latter is bred and spread in our ‘broken communities’. The implication being – like in one of those revolting NSPCC adverts – that we are all in danger of sinking to unimaginable lows if the State doesn’t step in, not only to protect the children, but to protect us from ourselves.
No wonder the Prime Minister believes that what the country needs now more than ever is a government that intervenes, that is both a ‘rock of stability’ in difficult times and has the ‘power to change lives’ (22). He went around the country at the start of the year on what was described as a ‘recession recce’. The intention was to show, as one minister put it, that nobody ‘will be left on their own to deal with the effects of the credit crunch’ (23). Whether or not you find this a comforting thought, given the low regard in which at least some of us are held, on the face of it this is worrying for those who want to see the government devolve power to communities (24). Surely all of that is on hold for now. Well no, not really. There is a new Bill promised that will require local authorities, amongst other things, to hold public hearings, and build on the piloting of participatory budgets – just the kinds of initiatives that at least have the merit of sounding positive and trusting in our age of doom and gloom (25). We hear a lot these days about how people should be more ‘involved’ in their communities. Even David Cameron, apparently drawing inspiration from Tony Benn, describes himself as a ‘confirmed localist’ committed to a ‘fundamental shift [of power] – to local people and local institutions’ (26).
Some of the initiatives announced as part of the government’s reforms of local government are to be welcomed. From holding ‘question time’ style debates in town halls to grill local councillors, to requiring that councils respond to petitions. These sorts of things are likely to put political representatives on the spot. And that is always a good thing. However, in the absence of anything else, can the process of consultation and participation – of itself – create a thriving civil society and a new ‘deliberative democracy’ that will involve and re-engage people both in their communities and in politics? For me, the answer has to be no. It is the content of those public deliberations, rather than the form they take, that is most important.
You only have to listen to the kinds of things politicians want to ‘engage’ us in to get an idea of how narrow the terms of engagement with communities really are. The presumption that ‘small is beautiful’ means that large infrastructure, road building and housing projects – the kinds of things that would, in my view, benefit communities – are off the agenda, and the petty concerns of a small-minded elite (e.g. anti-social behaviour, road safety, dog-fouling, fly-tipping) are very much on the agenda. Despite the rhetoric of ‘strong and prosperous communities’ and ‘communities in control’ in the white papers that set out the proposed reforms, it is this diminished and parochial vision of community life that advocates of the new localism have in mind.
In the parallel world occupied by the political class and the commentariat, communities are very different things. They are not the taken-for-granted, imperfect but living breathing things that we are all a part of to a greater or lesser extent – they barely exist at all except as vehicles for offloading political problems. By exploiting, for their own ends, people’s already heightened insecurities about neighbourhoods falling apart, not only are they making a politics out of anxious communities, they are also obscuring what is in reality the desperate thrashing around of a disoriented and isolated elite that senses its own illegitimacy all too keenly.
This collapsing of the question of our relationship with our political leaders and our relationships with each other, tells us a lot about the preoccupations of the political class. The community agenda, far from reflecting the experiences of real communities as its advocates claim, is rather an expression of these elite anxieties and their inability to resolve them. Faced with the problem of how to engage people and secure a sense of legitimacy for themselves, they seem intent on making a virtue of not having any ideas, and not being able to lead us out of what is as much a political as it is an economic crisis. Instead of owning up and declaring themselves bankrupt – we are told we are being empowered, listened to, and involved.
If this is just me being cynical then we can look forward (as we find ourselves increasingly empowered) to the State gradually withdrawing from the scene and leaving us to get on with our everyday lives. A press release announcing the publication of the New Opportunities White Paper certainly gave the impression that things are moving in the right direction. Instead of ‘residents having initiatives done to them’ it said, the government wants to ’empower communities to respond locally to the problems they face’ and to ‘help themselves’. Except. Some disadvantaged communities, we are told, are filled with inadequate, vulnerable people who are not in a position to ‘help themselves’ and may very well need to have ‘initiatives done to them’. Apparently, ‘as well as economic disadvantage, lower expectations and low self-esteem can hold people back’ too.
So the government wants to do something to provide people with ‘the tools they need to change their own lives’. This doesn’t mean creating new jobs, or building social housing, or ensuring that the kids get a decent education, or that the unemployed receive benefits they can live on – the kind of something many of us would welcome. The ‘tools’ they have in mind are about finding new ways to involve the ‘wider community’ or the ‘wider neighbourhood’ and drawing up community pledges, encouraging people to become volunteers and set up social enterprises. None of which I necessarily have a problem with – indeed, as with initiatives aimed at improving local accountability, these may have much going for them. But if our communities really are ‘broken’ is this really what is going to fix them? Instead of enhancing the ‘supporting role’ of communities, they (or at least their appointed representatives) are as likely to be sucked into a relationship with officialdom that will diminish their ability to act in their own interests.
While there are some very real problems in our society and in our political culture, we would be foolish to invite more state intervention into our communities. We need to argue for really giving people the tools they need to get on with their lives; but otherwise, we need to reclaim the space for communities to pursue their own goals, in their own right and according to their own agenda. This presupposes that we start challenging the official view of people – notwithstanding the rhetoric of involvement, participation and empowerment – as essentially feeble, unable to make decisions for themselves or look after their own affairs. It is only by making the case both for social solidarity and personal autonomy that we can really gain some control over our lives, find the inspiration we need to aspire to much more than is currently on offer …and ‘do something’ about it.