What they are really about and what they exacerbate are the most casual kind of social stereotyping of people on benefits. This has deliberately drawn on and sought to foster public fear, loathing and ignorance. Thus the architects of these reforms, from David Cameron and Iain Duncan-Smith downwards, say that they have public support for the harsh cuts, restrictions and tests that they are imposing. ‘We’ are wheeled on to legitimate them. However, if there is some truth in this suggestion of public consensus, it is hardly surprising, given the phoney images the reformers routinely conjure up of ‘work-shy scroungers’, ‘problem families’, exploitative immigrants, irresponsible teenage mothers, malingering long term sick and disabled people. These images are then magnified and endlessly repeated by the right wing media which now predominates in the UK and operates in unhealthy alliance with government.
However the groups who the welfare reforms are actually affecting wholesale and who are living in a growing state of terror, are groups of long term health and social care service users and their families. These are groups that few members of the public probably want to attack and who they can often identify with as neighbours and members of their own families. People with learning difficulties, long term mental health service users, people losing their jobs after being diagnosed with life-limiting illnesses and conditions, people with complex and variable conditions, have all been finding out that these reforms are directed against them and learning how arbitrary and unfit for purpose they are. Add to this the growing numbers of people being pushed onto benefits as business after business goes bust, full-time jobs diminish and unemployed numbers rise For every family the tabloids attack and pillory as headline news for having ‘too many’ children or living in ‘high-cost’ housing, there are tens of thousands whose only ‘failing’ is that the labour market is either not strong enough or flexible enough to accommodate them.
Britain’s class system, however, still seems powerful enough to mean that most of us ‘know our place’ and are still more ready to condemn people more like ourselves who are having bad times, than the over-rich bankers, cabinet members, media proprietors and other hangers-on, who have got us into the economic mess we are now in and are still amazingly profiting from it. Instead these groups have so far faced minimal statutory comeback and public disquiet has largely been ignored by our political masters. In more than one way, we really do seem to have returned to the Victorian Britain of ‘It’s the rich that gets the pleasure and the poor what gets the blame’. Fortunately, there are still vestiges of democratic structure left in the UK and we can see them at work in the petitions now being signed, the parliamentary debates demanded (and sadly often poorly attended) and the high proportion of successful appeals that continue to result from the welfare benefits review systems in operation. But sadly the full enormity of the present welfare reforms is only likely to make itself felt for most people when it actually affects them – and unfortunately, for many others, that is likely to be too late.