Polly Toynbee is right to highlight the vileness of attacks on so-called “scroungers” (The Tories are losing their vile war on ‘scroungers’, 18 December). However, she (along with the parliamentary left) is in danger of reproducing the distinctions made between the “striver” and “scrounger” that she (and it) is critical of. Essentially, the concern has been with the consequences of recent benefit changes for people in low-paid work. Little is said about the consequences for unemployed people. This does not challenge the Conservative position but merely adds weight to the idea that people not in work are the most problematic.
This should not be surprising. In recent years the left has framed its own social security policies in discourses that stigmatise workless people as irresponsible and feckless. The problem is that Britain’s approach to social security is structured by liberal notions of responsibility and self-sufficiency in a neoliberal market where worklessness is an important damper of wages which, therefore, are inadequate for many workers. Until these inter-relationships between morality and economics are addressed through a questioning of what is now an obligation to work in Britain, the drawing of distinctions between claimant groups will continue on both the right and left.
Dr Chris Grover
• Where oh where is HM’s opposition? The Labour party frontbench continues to sits on its thumbs, leaving Polly Toynbee as the only loud voice to attack this government with conviction. I hope that, after a Christmas lie-down, Labour will release its attack dogs to tear into a government that has declared economic war on large sections of our society.
• George Osborne has attempted to wrongfoot Labour by challenging it to defy public opinion, which he claims solidly supports the view that welfare payments are too high, and are predominantly made to shirkers and slackers. True, several respected polls have shown that between 50 and 60% agree with this. But opinions are not always based on accurate knowledge. The best example is the overwhelming verdict of the US electorate that too much of the federal budget was being spent on foreign aid. But it was found the average respondent thought over 20% of that benefit was spent on aid rather than the actual figure of less than 1%.
I have carried out a small pilot study in Winchester, asking people how much they know about the payment of six different benefits: child benefit, housing benefit, income support, jobseeker’s allowance, tax credits and rent rebates. Of 900 responses, 53% overestimated the level of benefit; 12% underestimated it and just over 8% came close to the actual figures; 27% said they had no idea. The only one with more than one accurate reply in 10 was child benefit, with 17%. Opposition MPs would do well to put down a barrage of parliamentary questions to elicit detailed information on the level of welfare payments and who they are paid to.
• A TV researcher asked me to introduce him to a two- or three-generational family in Easterhouse in which no member had ever worked. I replied that, in all my years there, I had never met one. He groaned: “That’s what they all say.” But I could name millionaires who never worked for their huge wealth but inherited it – the “something for nothing” people.