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Benefit 'scroungers' - the New Labour legacy


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The 2012 British Social Attitude's Survey makes for very worrying reading for anyone who believes in the continuation of the welfare state in Britain.

The survey has been a key indicator in evaluating the mood of the 'Great British public' for all most thirty years now. For the ever floundering coalition government, the latest report is another headache in a long line of statistics that show greater public disapproval at their record in office. There has been a 12% drop in approval for the current occupiers of the government benches – down from 40% support to 28% only two and a half years into the term.

However, government approval ratings to one side, the real cause for concern was in the findings around the future of the welfare state in cash-strapped Britain. Every day we are told by the tabloids that benefit 'scroungers' are receiving lump sums that those 'hardworking, honest folk' could never come close to earning. The Daily Mail, Daily Express and The Sun have for years drummed it into the working classes across Britain that there is an 'underclass' that do not work, commit crime and do nothing of any worth for wider society. This tactic of demonising those claimants and dividing a once united group of people not only helps sell newspapers, it makes slashing public services and welfare a widely applauded government policy.

In the 2012 BSA, 28% of those surveyed believed that the government should increase spending on welfare. Like the majority of right wing, populist rhetoric, the actual facts on government spending on welfare is extremely skewed. There is a belief that for those claiming Job Seekers Allowance, they receive a much higher amount of support than what the actual figure stands at. Currently for a claimant over 25 they will receive £71.00 a week in JSA – which is £10.14 to live on a day. For those under 25 they are expected to live on just over £8 per day.

Most people would struggle to survive on £10 a day, never mind £8. But these are the cold facts – not £100s a week with a free council flat and Sky TV thrown in for good measure. For the millions of unemployed in the UK this is the amount of money they have to make stretch to pay bills, clothe themselves and buy food. This is no easy task and something that the right wing tabloid press fail to acknowledge as the norm for the majority of benefit claimants.

Another chilling statistic to come out of this year's BSA was that only 59% of those respondents think that the government should be most responsible for ensuring that people have enough to live on. This is a steep decline from the figure in the late 1990s which showed a 85% support for the very same statement. It is not just the tabloid press that have managed to sway public opinion quite as much – the occupiers of Number 10 during the last decade must be held responsible for demonising those on benefits.

It was Thatcher who argued that there was no poverty in Britain in the 1980s but it was New Labour who turned the working classes against themselves by drawing a line between those in and out of work. Under Blair, the behaviour of the individual determined the prospects in life and not that of external social factors such as poverty or poor health. This allowed New Labour to woo 'middle England' by promising to clamp down on those who were milking the system and tailor their policies towards the privileged few and not the disadvantaged many. Between 1997 and 2010 the Labour Party were solely responsible for creating a society that was no longer tolerant of those who needed a lifting hand. Blair's advisor’s were given a green light to formulate policy that would chime with the wealthy and influential populous and not those the millions of working class voters who put Labour in power.

There were several policies put in place to assist those in the poorest areas of the UK – however this did not begin to scratch the surface on issues such as child poverty nor the massive disparity in levels of health across the country.

In the early 2000s Blair declared that we now lived in a meritocracy and that those who worked hard would reap the benefits. We only need to look at the introduction of tuition fees to acknowledge that this was simply not the case under the Blair premiership. Through hard work alone, an individual cannot reach the dizzy heights of the City of London no matter what Uncle Sam says.

Because of this individualistic mentality drummed into us all by Blair and the New Labour project – many of us now view poverty and bad health as the fault solely of the individual and excluded from any external factors. For the few of us left who believe the facts rather than populist nonsense, this should come as a real concern but not necessarily as a real surprise due to the legacy left to us by Labour.

We have a moral duty to care for those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Despite the economic turn-down, the United Kingdom is still one of the wealthiest nations in the world. No matter what The Daily Mail may tell it's readership that there is only a few pence left in the coffers – we must continue on the work started by founders of our welfare state. It is far too easy for politicians to cast those on benefits as 'scroungers' who are undeserving of any help because it is a vote winner for Sun readers. It can surely not be in the interests of any of us to see families continue to struggle to make ends meet and see children be raised in a life of deprivation.

We only look to look at the Scandinavian nations who lead the way in welfare provision. Contrary to making their citizens work-shy lay abouts, the Scandinavian model works because it lifts those out of poverty and ensures that being on benefits is not something to be ashamed of, nor is it demonised.

The legacy New Labour left us in has given the coalition government a mandate to slash welfare spending and continue to demonise those on state benefits. The debate on our public spending should not simply be tabloid rhetoric – we need to take a look in the mirror and ask ourselves if it is right to take away the ladder to those who most need it. The Paralympic Games of London 2012 made us all stop and think about the way in which we view those who are disabled – now we must stop and think about the way in which we view the poorest in our communities.

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