Who’s to blame for the crisis, bankers or benefit claimants?

Class is the real dividing line in British politics, but politicians only talk about the middle class. That will have to change by Seumas Milne (The Guardian)

Visitors pose in James Turner Street, featured in Channel 4's Benefits Street, which kicked off with a Little Britain-style portrayal of unemployed claimants as criminals, scroungers and addicts. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for The Guardian
Visitors pose in James Turner Street, featured in Channel 4’s Benefits Street, which kicked off with a Little Britain-style portrayal of unemployed claimants as criminals, scroungers and addicts. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for The Guardian

David Cameron’s is a government of naked class interest. Its leading party is the political wing of the City of London. For all its Liberal Democrat fig leaves, it is waging war on the poor while slashing taxes for banks, corporate giants and the richest people in Britain. Its cuts have hit the most deprived, the disabled and women hardest.

In crucial ways – the scale of its attacks on social security, service privatisation and falling living standards for the majority – Cameron’s coalition has outdone even Margaret Thatcher. Its austerity programme halted recovery for four years and has cut most people’s real terms pay deeper and over a longer period than at any time since the 19th century. Wealth is being energetically redistributed up the income scale.

This is the government of foodbanks, payday loans and the bedroom tax. None of that is, of course, very popular. So to divert anger from the top to the bottom – from those who caused the economic crisis to its most deprived victims – Tory politicians and their allies have turned their fire on migrants and benefit claimants.

If they can convince enough people that the crash of 2008 and the stagnation since 2010 has been the result of too much welfare spending, rather than financial speculation and recovery-choking austerity, they’re in with a shout at the next election. In this task, they have the advantage of a mostly pliable media running a daily campaign against “welfare” and immigration.

Latest up has been Channel 4’s Benefits Street series about a deprived area of Birmingham, which kicked off with a Little Britain-style portrayal of unemployed claimants as criminals, scroungers and addicts. It’s only one of a string of such shows whose themes are the meat and drink of Tory tabloids.

The reality of the social security system George Osborne is now aiming to cut by a further £12bn is very different. Most goes on pensions, and far more is spent subsidising in-work poverty wages and insecure jobs than the unemployed. But the distorting mirror of the press and current political debate means that, on average, people think 41% of the welfare budget goes to the unemployed, when the real figure is 3% – and that 27% is claimed fraudulently, when the government’s own figure is 0.7%. That’s about £1bn, compared to an estimated £70bn of tax evasion.

Which gives a clue as to which class interest the government is most concerned to protect. To listen to politicians and the media, you’d think the only class left standing was the middle class. By definition, there must be something above and below this mysteriously undefined class, but almost nobody in public life wants to mention what it might be.

Across the world, corporate elites routinely hail the growth of a middle class as the elixir of development and civilisation. In the US, it has long been the only mentionable class in political life. Britain is going the same way. But contrary to the media mythology of “we’re all middle class now”, most people continue to regard themselves as working class – 60% in the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey.

Those words, however, almost never pass the lips of mainstream politicians. They’ll use all sorts of euphemisms, such as “hard-working people” (or “working people”, if a Labour politician is being especially daring) – the implication being that everyone else is somehow part of a feckless underclass. Only Ukip’s Nigel Farage, now fishing for disaffected Labour voters, uses the term regularly. For the rest, it’s as if to conjure up the reality of working-class Britain – including its traditional association with unions, solidarity and demands – might be too alarming for other sections of the population.

Ed Miliband has this week promised readers of the Conservative Daily Telegraph that Labour would “rebuild our middle class”, threatened by the living-standards crisis afflicting the majority in Britain. The rebuilding of the working class wasn’t mentioned, only “people on tax credits, zero-hours contracts and the minimum wage” – in other words, poorer sections of the working class.

Whether the Labour leader meant his “squeezed middle”, those on middle incomes (about £22,000 a year), deskilled professionals or the more affluent being displaced by the super-rich, he’s right that a winning electoral coalition for Labour has always been based on an alliance of working class and middle-class support. But to treat working-class voters as the captive “poor” would only risk increasing political alienation and the toxic appeal of the populist right.

The same goes for the other side of the class coin. If the middle class is being squeezed, it’s certainly not by manual or white-collar workers. But just as the working class has been airbrushed out of public debate, the ruling class responsible for the crisis still gripping Britain and most of the western world is also hardly mentioned in polite company – though it sometimes gets a walk-on part as the “elite”, or the “establishment”.

The crudeness of the class egotism and greed that has driven much of western politics in recent years means that can’t last. In fact, class politics has been resurfacing in different forms since the crash – from the Occupy movement’s targeting of the 1% to the rise of the left in Greece and the election of the progressive Democrat Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York.

In Britain, the social costs being exacted on behalf of a failed elite means class is “the real dividing line in British politics“, as one Telegraph commentator puts it. Cameron and Osborne now insist they want to make small-state austerity permanent, and are threatening another £25bn of cuts as they demand welfare states be slashed across Europe. They’re hoping the current increase in credit and consumption will boost real wages before the election and soften the sense of a recovery for the rich – though there’s little sign of that as yet.

They’re also trying to push those Labour frontbenchers who want to “shrink the offer” to the electorate to embrace more cuts and austerity. That would be self-harm. Whenever Miliband has challenged corporate and elite interests, from the energy monopolies to Rupert Murdoch, his support has grown.

The government and their friends in the media want to turn people’s anger at poverty and insecurity against their neighbours. The alternative is to turn it against the bonus-grabbing bankers, tax-dodgers, rapacious landlords and employers who are actually responsible.

Twitter: @SeumasMilne

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