Never mind that the DWP itself found that some disabled people can’t afford food or heating, politicians and the media need scapegoats
By Frances Ryan
The Guardian Tuesday 30th May 2023
Few things are ever really new. British politics – and the media ecosystem that maintains it – effectivelyregurgitates the same talking points on repeat, a kind of Groundhog Day where the key players may appear different but familiar destructive patterns are ever-present.
It is exactly a decade since former chancellor George Osborne launched cuts to the benefits system totalling tens of billions of pounds, and with them, fuelled rhetoric so toxic that it caused an increase in hate crimetowards disabled people. This was the era of Benefits Street and the Sun’s Beat the Cheat campaign, where it was quite normal for a national newspaper to invite readers to report their disabled neighbours to the benefit fraud hotline.
Fast forward 10 years and we bleakly find ourselves back here again, with labour shortages and a population in ever poorer health. Now politicians and the media are setting their sights on the so-called “economically inactive” and “record numbers” of long-term sick. “Millions paid benefits without ever having to find a job,” a recent front page in the Daily Telegraph proclaimed. It has the frenzied air of a piece of investigative journalism that has uncovered some sort of organised fraud racket.
In fact, what they’ve discovered is the welfare state: these “millions” are simply people who are too disabled or ill to work, with sickness benefits being rebranded as “jobless benefits”. Forget the research showing how hard it is to get disability benefits or the number of people who die after being found “fit for work”. The dog whistle is a familiar tune: hordes of disabled benefit claimants could hold down a job if only they weren’t so idle.
Or as Channel 5’s Jeremy Vine Show recently put it in a debate about “cracking down” on “jobless benefits” for sick people: “Is it wrong for taxpayers to fund them indefinitely?” This is what the boundaries of legitimate debate being pushed looks like: TV audiences being asked to weigh in from their living rooms on whether minorities are worthy of state support. Before you know it, “should we leave the disabled to starve to death?” is just a rational form of fiscal inquiry.
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