With the constant stream of benefit bashing stories in the national press it is often easy to believe that the argument is over – the public no longer support a social security system and the poor are despised.
Yet this over-simplifies people’s attitudes towards social security which in truth are varied and complex. The most recent British Societal Attitudes survey shows that support for the welfare state is strong – 81% of people believe it is the Government’s responsibility to provide housing for those who need it, whilst 59% say that unemployed people should be provided with a decent standard of living.
This seems to contrast sharply with the hate-fest on social media which has accompanied Channel 4’s recent poverty porn production Benefits Street. But an analysis of 5000 tweets posted during the second episode of the series (which is well worth reading) reveals that the picture is far from one-sided.
Predictably the analysis found many of the tweets were jokes, often aimed at the people featured in the show. Whilst these may seem politically charged, especially in context of the current war on the poor, they should not be seen as indicating any deeply held political views. Unpleasant and sexist jokes about one of the character’s breasts – which made up 2% of tweets – do not necessarily indicate hostility towards the system of social security. Neither in truth do remarks about the participants being scruffy (4.9% of tweets).
The episode of Benefits Street under discussion featured a group of Romanian immigrants and unsurprisingly this was a hot topic of discussion on social media. As the analysis points out, this seems to have been a crude attempt by the programme makers to set up an increasingly familiar narrative of hard working immigrants versus lazy Brits. This is a handy comparison for the right, allowing them to not just to use it as an argument to clamp down on benefits, but also to introduce ever more draconian immigration laws.
6% of the tweets fell into this trap, which fails to recognise the bleak reality that there are plenty of people in Romania and elsewhere like Fungi – the long term alcoholic featured in the show. They are generally not the types to trek across Europe looking for a job.
Only 26 tweets out of 5000 made throughout the programme were found to contain threats of violence towards the participants of Benefits Street – although there’s no doubt that tweets like those below are hard to forget or ignore:
Depressingly only 2.8% of tweets expressed any sympathy for the residents of Benefits Street, although this may be more to do with the way the programme was edited than anything else. This fact was not lost on many posting on social media – 9.7% of tweets were critical of the company behind the show, Love Productions.
An even larger number of people tweeted what the analysis calls ‘balancing statements’, meaning comments designed to point out the reality of life on benefits along with criticism of this Government’s welfare reforms. A further 6.7% of tweets were hostile towards politicians, predominantly Tories and often referencing the MP’s expenses scandal. 2.8% of people mentioned the Royal Family, the UK’s biggest benefit scroungers, whilst 3.4% of tweets focused on tax avoidance.
As the graph shows, the reaction to Benefits Street was far more nuanced then an initial glance at twitter would suggest. The problem is that it’s the offensive, nasty or threatening comments which leap out. A bit like Katie Hopkins and Edwina Currie on Channel Five’s Big Benefits Row this week, those who shout the loudest, and say the most outrageous things, set the tone of the debate about social security. But they are not the majority. Far from it.
What we should learn from this is that attempting to appeal to the braying anti-benefits mob with watered down demands and tacit acknowledgements of their ‘point of view’ is the path to surrender. Calling for an end to bad benefit sanctions only, or for watered down workfare, only strengthens the hand of those who wish to eradicate social security completely. As the mainstream left creeps closer to the right, the right bounds further away, taunting the liberal apologists to keep up.
We should not concede an inch to swivel-eyed monsters like Katie Hopkins and Edwina Curry and there is no need to. Few people would disagree with the arguments that underpin the case for social security – that no-one should go hungry in one of the richest countries in the world, that everyone deserves a home they can afford, that disabled people should have financial support to live independent lives, that every mother is a working mother and perhaps most crucially of all – that there are no fucking jobs anyway.
Those are the arguments that everyone interested in saving the welfare state must make, not only loudly, but with pride. And this means questioning capitalism, which will never provide a job for everyone and at the very least asking what are we going to do about that (it’s probably a touch optimistic to expect Citizens Advice or Shelter to call for violent revolution … yet).
As poverty not seen in generations begins to emerge in the UK, then it is only by going back to basics that we will win the argument. Charities, trade unions and Labour Party activists who are too timid to do that should get out of the fucking way. The argument about the future of social security is really only just getting started. When people see the carnage in the wake of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms and the wider impact of austerity across Europe, then space will open up for radical demands. It is happening already. A compliant left, ever ready to compromise and sell out its values, will only prepare the ground for failure. People are not stupid and they are not heartless, no matter how much this Government wishes they were. And nobody really wants to be like Katie Hopkins.
Read the full analysis of the Benefits Streets tweets at: http://davidrobertshaw.wordpress.com/2014/01/29/the-great-british-hate-off/
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