Malcolm X famously warned, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
Divide and rule. It is the oldest trick in the book and it still works.
The Daily Telegraph is asking readers “just how much of our hard won salaries are spent on the benefits of those who do not work?”. The Spectator’s editor, Fraser Nelson, asserts, “the UK system seems to have…no idea how to properly process a mental health claim”. And, in a since deleted tweet last week, the Jeremy Vine show asked “is it time to crack down on jobless benefits?”
In every economic crisis, governments need scapegoats and distractions. For much of Margaret Thatcher’s time in office, it alternated between single mothers and the trade unions. The unemployed were not portrayed as the victims of Thatcher’s disastrous policies, but as feckless layabouts who should be demonised instead.
For David Cameron and George Osborne imposing harsh and damaging austerity upon Britain, it was anyone on benefits who became a “scrounger”, “shirker” or “skiver”.
Under Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and now Rishi Sunak, the Tories have demonised migrants (too many or “illegal”), trans people, supposed “liberal elites”, and that old favourite, the unions, all in a vain attempt to distract from their own pathetic governance which has trashed the economy.
Today, Britain is in the worst cost of living crisis on record. Wages are lower today in real terms than they were in 2008, and are falling. Our living standards are in the middle of their second decade of decline.
The stark facts don’t lie. The UK is the only country in the G7 where wages are lower today than 15 years ago. We are the only country in the G7 where the economy is smaller today than it was pre-pandemic. Many countries have had to cope with the financial crisis, the pandemic, and the economic consequences of Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Only one has handled it so badly.
And the public has rumbled this: opinion polls consistently put the Conservatives on less than 30 per cent; and less than a month ago, the public kicked out over 1,000 Conservative councillors in local elections.
As the Tories flounder, it’s no wonder then their right-wing press outriders are trying to replay the Osborne-era demonisation of those on benefits. The Daily Telegraph declares “millions are claiming benefits without ever having to look for work”, and offers an online calculator where readers can enter their salary and see how much of their tax goes to “welfare”. Spoiler: it is 31.4 per cent. The largest part of that is on pensions – more than twice as much as is spent on sickness and disability benefits.
While irresponsibly demonising ill and disabled people (disability hate crime rose by 43 per cent last year), the paper fails to investigate why more people are claiming sickness benefits.
Could it perhaps be because there are a record 7.3 million people on NHS waiting lists due to the failure of Government to invest in our NHS and adequately to recruit and retain staff? Many working age people are unable to work because they are in chronic pain or suffering a mental health crisis and are stuck on waiting lists in pain and anguish.
They would have you believe that millions of British people have suddenly decided to feign illness or disability somehow. In his article, Nelson let’s out this disablist dog-whistle: “many are categorised as too sick to work: some actually will be”. He cites no evidence for suggesting that people are faking illness.
As Labour’s shadow mental health minister, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, herself a A&E doctor, has pointed out: “1.6 million people have been left to suffer on long waiting lists for mental health treatment.” This record backlog might explain why more people than ever are claiming sickness benefits.
Nelson notes that “people are signing [for sickness benefits] on at twice the rate they were pre-lockdown”. He might also note that NHS waiting lists for treatment have increased by 60 per cent since 2019.
Dividing those who pay “hard-earned cash”, as The Telegraph article aims to, from those who receive benefits is dividing us from ourselves. This is the meaning of our social security or social insurance system. We pay so that we get unemployment benefit when we’re made redundant, that we have subsistence when ill and a pension when we’re old.
Many of us pay household insurance too. We may never claim it but it buys peace of mind. It would be stupid to demonise victims of fire, flood or burglary for receiving payout just as it is perverse to do so against those with disability or suffering illness.
Instead of this finger-pointing and divisive rhetoric, we should be having an informed debate about NHS funding, societal stigma, the chronically low rates of UK benefits, or the workplace discrimination that prevents many disabled people from working or advancing.
But it’s far easier to find scapegoats than solutions. And much more politically convenient for right-wing newspapers to blame others and exonerate failing governments.
Andrew Fisher is the former director of policy at the Labour Party