I remember going on a media training course well over 20 years ago, run by a lady who was a hard-bitten Fleet Street hack of the old school. The kind of person who could type 40 wpm with two fingers, while chain-smoking Silk Cut. She started by explaining that there were only three things that qualified a story as news: sex, death and conflict. How salient her observation seems to be in the light of the extraordinary case of Mick Philpott – ‘Shameless Mick’ as he’s branded by The Daily Mail – whose conviction for the manslaughter has thrown up a generous helping of all her three criteria.
Philpott would have been big news at the best of times. But these aren’t the best of times in the UK. On the week his trial concluded, the government introduced cuts in welfare benefits which are going to leave a lot of people poorer. Amid the polarised debate, the trial set another sinister fire raging in pubs, workplaces and social networking sites. Just how far was Philpott’s lifestyle symptomatic of a wider malaise? To what extent was his life a morality tale which underlined the bankruptcy of the welfare state?
When George Osborne and David Cameron joined sections of the right-wing press in suggesting the Philpott case raised serious questions, the left reacted vehemently. They correctly pointed out that one violent, misogynistic man with 17 children is hardly typical of most welfare recipients. The vast majority of people on benefits and tax credits are everyday folk, who happen to be poorer than others. They are us. There but for the grace of God. If any one of us happens to lose our jobs or fall sick, we then become the ones reliant on support.
Actual levels of recorded benefit fraud are pretty low. And for every extreme example of someone milking the system, there will be countless examples of others playing by the rules.
I don’t disagree with any of this. Indeed, I’ve seen at first hand the wider effect of government austerity measures, as my wife – who works in the voluntary sector helping the elderly and people with disabilities – is currently in a dispute with her employer about the erosion of her terms and conditions of employment. It’s not only people on benefits who are suffering, but many of the lower-paid workers (often women) who are there to support them. They are victims of squeezed budgets, outsourced contracts, redundancies and wage cuts.
Where the left has to very careful is in being seen as a defender of the status quo. In other words, there’s a massive trap into which Eds Miliband and Balls might all too easily walk: saying that there is nothing wrong with the structure of the current benefits system, that no improvements can be made and that we can learn nothing from extreme cases. Owen Jones, for instance, who is one of the most visible and articulate defenders of the current system, has drawn an analogy with Harold Shipman. We don’t blame doctors as a whole for the crazy antics of one mass murderer, so why should we draw general conclusions about the welfare system from the state-subsidised life of one outlandish and terrible individual?
This sounds a superficially plausible argument, but once you start to pick it apart, it’s riddled with holes. The Shipman Inquiry made a number of recommendations for improvements in the light of the case. Better training for coroners. More control over access to controlled drugs by doctors and pharmacists. It even drew wider conclusions about the role of the General Medical Council and the way in which medics are overseen. It is possible to recognise that the vast majority of doctors are not like Harold Shipman while realising there was a system in place which had allowed Harold Shipman to exist. Perhaps we shouldn’t care about phone hacking? After all, it’s only the extreme actions of a few rogue tabloid journalists and it would be wrong to tar anyone else with the same brush? It’s an argument which goes absolutely nowhere intellectually.
God knows Philpott’s motives for having so many kids. (Or – given his reported personal hygiene habits – the willingness of so many different women to accommodate his desires.) Some people have speculated it was about controlling further the women whose lives he dominated and although I’m not a psychologist, that seems pretty plausible. Perhaps his motives were not – as the right-wing press likes to suggests – to bring in more money. But the left cannot shy away from the fact that more money did flow into the household with every child. And given the man’s violent history and conviction for attempted murder, doesn’t society have a right to draw the line somewhere?
Owen Jones says there are fewer than 200 families in the system like this. But this is a little disingenuous. He’s taking 10 children as the benchmark. There are actually 40,000 families in receipt of benefits who have over five kids. So is it a taboo subject to ask whether the state should support people so far, but no further?
This is the profound danger for the left. Dismissing every question as an attack on the welfare state or part of some right-wing ideological agenda. Of course, the Coalition government is ideological. They do intend to do real harm to the poorest in society, while disgracefully supporting tax cuts for the super rich, including members of the Cabinet. We should feel rightly angry about this. But anger alone and defence of the status quo will lead to disaster, just as surely as it did in the Thatcher era.
I spent the whole of the 1980s marching for causes that failed to resonate with the majority of the population. Meanwhile, the Conservatives won large majorities in the 1983 and the 1987 elections. It was only when the left was better in tune with the views of the public that it managed to score victories. Apartheid was one example. Perhaps the most obvious one though was the poll tax, which led to Thatcher’s downfall. She misjudged the public mood very badly and paid the price.
Are politicians there to lead or to follow? The truth is they need to do both. This is what makes politics such a difficult balancing act. Labour can lead the debate on welfare and help to defend the most vulnerable in society. But not if it fails to recognise where most ordinary people are right now. Not if it fails to read the polls which show support for the welfare state in steady decline since the early 1990s. It can only succeed if it creates its own positive vision for change that resonates more strongly with the electorate. At the moment, there is no sign of this happening. And that’s the worst possible news for the people who rely on the welfare state the most.