Thu 28 October 2021

There is still a steady and pernicious denigration of low income groups by the Conservative Party, says Maheen Behrana

Amidst all the excitement of Budget day, Rishi Sunak’s spotlight (and personal PR output) threatened to eclipse all other Conservative publicity efforts. Nevertheless, news coverage was not entirely centred on the Chancellor.

Shaun Bailey, the party’s candidate to be the next Mayor of London when elections are held on 6 May, shared his thoughts on universal basic income (UBI) at the London Assembly’s economy committee on Tuesday.

Bailey suggested that if people received a UBI – essentially a stipend provided by the state to all its citizens – that they would blow the money on drugs. He also added that such a payment could remove people’s “work incentive”.

Naturally, Bailey has been criticised for his comments, which pander to harmful stereotypes about those who are struggling financially. But Bailey is no stranger to these sorts of controversies.

In 2011, he argued that “poverty is as much about mindset as it is about money.” More recently, he made the bizarre claim that homeless people would be able to stump up £5,000 for a deposit on a property.

Bailey comes across as gaffe-prone. He churns out outrageous statements and earnestly sticks by them, even when all evidence points to the contrary. But his viewpoints – and his manner of expressing them – are far from inconsequential.

Statistics from the past year suggest that British attitudes towards poverty have hardened. A YouGov study from June 2020 found that 63% of those surveyed supported extending free school meals throughout the school holidays. But, by October, this had fallen to 57%.

Bailey’s comments tend to generate a backlash, but because of this, we may be underestimating the extent to which such comments – made by Bailey and other prominent Conservatives – influence public mindsets.

The Conservative MP for Mansfield, Ben Bradley, is another case in point. Bradley, like Bailey, has been responsible for a number of outrageous public statements. Just a few days before YouGov published its October survey results on the extension of free school meals, Bradley issued a tweet dismissing the policy – arguing that extending the meals would instead channel money directly to crack dens and brothels.

While Bradley was lambasted for his comments, a number of other Conservatives also deployed extremely negative rhetoric about the policy. Danny Kruger, MP for Devizes, alleged that such support would “trap people in dependency on the state and rightly enrage people who are working hard for themselves” – despite the fact that many working families are eligible for free school meals. Another, Mark Jenkinson, MP for Workington, came to Bradley’s defence and alleged that food parcels were being traded for drugs.

We can disagree forcefully with such medieval convictions, but the concern is that the damage is done before a counter-narrative can take root.

General public opinion towards poverty and inequality tends to view the poorest and most vulnerable as responsible for their own plight. A recent survey from King’s College London found that 47% of those asked believed that job losses during the Coronavirus pandemic were a result of individual poor performance – rather than bad luck. These findings tell us a lot about how Britons view economic exclusion – to many people, the fault for joblessness (and by extension furloughing, reduced hours and low pay) lies with individuals who have failed to achieve something better.

None of these opinions exist in a vacuum. They are carefully cultivated by a Government and a pliant media seeking to divide and conquer by pitting ordinary people against each other.

Consider the £20 uplift in Universal Credit, which was extended for a temporary period of six months as part of yesterday’s Budget. Despite the fact that even a Conservative think-tank has urged the Government to make the uplift permanent, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister decided not to. Instead, Boris Johnson has presented the uplift as a choice between providing state support to alleviate poverty or encouraging job creation. While this is very much a false dichotomy, perhaps the Government is hoping that its aversion towards welfare spending will resonate with ever-greater proportions of society.

By doing this, the Conservatives can create a false social division between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor, turning the vulnerable into scapegoats for under-resourced welfare systems and a whole host of other social ills – such as struggling schools and health systems. In this, the Conservative Party is following a playbook. Public attitudes display a shocking level of apathy and even hostility towards asylum seekers – those fleeing war-torn countries – surely fuelled by Tory rhetoric. The poor and the vulnerable are just another target.

The more we hear our politicians shame those in poverty and scorn those who need society’s help, the more we become desensitised to it. Though we might feel outraged at Shaun Bailey’s recent comments, perhaps our energies would be better spent considering how we and those around us genuinely perceive poverty. Are we free from Bailey’s prejudices, or do we need to work harder to educate ourselves and others?

Because, make no mistake, poverty shaming is a dangerous thing.


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