By John Charles Dyer, UK Correspondent
28 January 2013 Panorama -- BBC’s investigative news arm -- examined the Coalition's programme of “Welfare Reform." One hopes Panorama may have convinced someone of something. One also doubts it. Public Support for Welfare Reform wasn’t fueled by fact in the first place. Public support was -- and is -- fueled by exploited fear and desperation.
Welfare Reform builds upon a widespread perception that benefits recipients choose benefits as a lifestyle because they do better on benefits than they do in work. Those who hold this perception resent what they believe is recipients’ free ride on the taxpayer’s already too tightly stretched pocketbook. They believe the Coalition pseudo statistic that over a third of government expenditure is on benefits, more than is spent on the total spent on the military, the NHS and the police force. But more important than pseudo statistics is the constantly heard refrain, “my neighbour does better on benefits for which I pay than I do working hard and going without.”
Many who oppose Welfare Reform immediately respond to perception and feelings with facts and statistics. I certainly do. But the facts and statistics have yet to win the debate. We may be right. We may be slowly “changing the dial.” But it is not yet enough.
What to do?
I sometimes suggest those who hold the perception sit down with their neighbour to compare accounts. I’m fairly confident such a comparison would prove what the facts and statistics show - the perception is inaccurate.
Suggesting it may shut some up. But for others it leads to the rejoinder their neighbour does better because their neighbour has an x, y & z the speaker (or his/her family) doesn’t have. So I ask, have you noticed the a, b & c you have which your neighbour doesn't? Then comes the argument, I know because (fill in the blank) told me my neighbour said she was better off on benefits. In the end, no one takes up my suggestion. No one sits down with the neighbour, much less with an open mind. In the end, the discussion convinced no one.
It may not surprise you to hear that this attitude aggrieves benefits recipients. They sometimes see it as raw envy - a sort of communal sibling rivalry that would rob the recipient of the means of life the recipient needs so desperately.
Other times recipients do know something more profound underlies stubborn adherence to the perception.
Many who hold this stubborn perception are all too close to the circumstances of the benefits recipients. But even among those who are better off, many struggle to make ends meet. The perceptions about "my neighbour" originate in the quiet desperation to provide for oneself and one's family as real incomes decline, real costs increase.
An unscrupulous media and cynical politicians capitalized on this desperation. They spun it into a narrative that puts negative focus on the fairness of benefits recipients “profiting” from an alleged “life style choice.” It isn’t fact. It isn't. But that no longer matters. It is the prevailing narrative. This narrative provides both social acceptability & a confirming echo chamber to a harsh and negative focus on benefits recipients and the welfare system -- with an intensity born of the British public’s increasingly desperate anger at their own increasingly desperate situation.
It is the con man distracting the mark with his left hand while his right appears to move the shells without doing so. The Coalition diverts public attention with a war on welfare recipients (and a debate on a European Union Referendum of unspecified detail four years from now) while the Coalition systematically undercuts the wages and hours of those same desperate British householders under an expert-sounding term, “competitiveness.”
The strategy works.
If opponents are to succeed, opponents cannot rely on facts, the moral righteousness of their position or the better correctness of each advocate's separate counter arguments. Opponents must unite. But more importantly, opponents must find a way to “bridge” to the exploited desperate. Only if the exploited desperate believe themselves fully heard will more open themselves to the facts and by so doing at last end the hold this destructive narrative has on the public.