Jumping the impoverished shark

December 10, 2012 by
Filed under: Credit crunch, Politics, Public policy 

The phrase ‘jumping the shark’ describes the moment when a popular TV show overstretches its founding concept and begins the process of decline. I am starting to wonder whether George Osborne jumped the shark last week.

As I wrote in my last post, it has become commonplace in political communication to distinguish between the worthy (working) and unworthy (unemployed) poor. It was this that lay behind a skirmish last week between the Chancellor and Shadow Chancellor, with Ed Balls claiming that the Coalition’s cuts in the real value of benefits would predominantly fall on working households.

The backdrop to this debate is opinion polls which show a steady hardening of opinion against welfare recipients, especially the unemployed. But the world is complicated; public opinion is both reflexive and subject to substantial shifts in mood. I suspect that three things may be coinciding to produce just such a shift.

First, there have always been ebbs and flows in public opinion when it comes to a general spectrum of values relating to social justice and collective provision. While the swing against state help for the poor (which is to simplify the issue) has been long and deep, there is no reason to believe the pendulum won’t in time swing back.

Second, the longer economic problems and accompanying austerity continue, the more people there are who will be directly or indirectly affected by some combination of poverty, benefits cuts and unemployment. The number who find the striver/ shirker distinction uncomfortable may be increasing.

Thirdly – and this is where political analysts may have committed the classic error of linear thinking a complex world – it may be that the gradual build-up of social concern about the poor was just waiting for a catalyst. By seeming to be making a point of moralising the cut in welfare, rather than simply saying it was necessary for reasons of austerity, Government ministers may have inadvertently provided just that catalyst.

I have this afternoon been chairing an event on child poverty in London, being hosted by the Peabody Trust and held at John Adam Street. A question I posed the audience concerned how the poverty lobby might take advantage if there is a shift in public opinion. I can’t say the ideas were flowing thick and fast. Probably, the London Living Wage and universal free school meals for primary children – a measure already implemented by Southwark and some other London councils – were the most popular ‘transitional demands’.

My own thought centred on connection. I was very taken by a story told to me by a friend who had spent time on websites for parents of new born children. Amidst the normal lively conversation about illnesses, sleep patterns, diet, equipment and child care, some parents let slip how hard they found life on benefits. The better off parents started asking questions and pretty soon the chat rooms were full of people saying things like ‘until I had a child I never really thought about how hard life must be if you are poor’. Subsequently a great deal of charitable giving started flowing through the site – so much so that it had to be regulated by the site’s moderators.

Regardless of anyone’s political leanings and economic analysis, it is surely a good thing if more people who are fortunate in their circumstances understand more fully the lives of those who rely on state help, whether in or out of work. My hunch is that some clever way of providing such insight and of connecting people across the social divide could go viral at this moment of inflection in public opinion, especially with Christmas almost upon us.

The Autumn Statement and the unappealing politics around it may have marked the beginning of the end of one long running narrative;the opportunity may now be there for some campaigning brilliance to provoke a very different and more unifying public discourse.



  • Adrian Perry

    Where do we get this shared experience in an increasingly polarised society ? It comes in occasional flashes. A friend who conducts humanist funerals visited the family home of an unemployed man in Sheffield to get some information for the oration. It was November, and the flat was bitterly cold, but he realised he could not ask for the heating to be switched on, as it could not be afforded.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/edward-harkins/15/40/635 Edward Harkins

    There does seem to be something a stirring. I too have recently picked up a change in nuance in the normally arid lands of business fora on Linkedin (of all places – perhaps online is increasingly where we get the share experience Adrian asks after?).

    My sense is that the changes afoot are to do with the everyday impacts and realities of the Coalition’s policies now striking home. I seemed to strike a chord with several people at a recent event when I related the statements made by an ordinary ‘non-political’ person who said ‘this just isn’t what I thought we’d get, this isn’t right’.

    Behind that there is a growing apprehension about how hard things will now get for the rest of us (‘us’ being the overwhelming majority who must definitely are not ‘all in it together’ with the likes of the millionaires’ Cabinet). Folks are realising that the ‘squeezed middle isn’t something just for the research people like me, or a slick bit of rhetoric from politicians pretending they are identifying with ordinary people – no, the squeezed middle is more and more seen by ‘us’ to be ‘us’.

    But if the outcome of all this is just a party-political change of power with a neo Blairite and Brownite Labour tacking to the centre right, then I fear the outlook for the UK is an un-relieved negative; with TINA still the consensus among an alienated political class that has an ever-declining base of legitimacy. To whit it is being reported tonight that ‘globe trotting Gordon Brown has just declared £300,000 in the past month’s MPs’ Members’ Interests declarations’ – no the rest of ‘us’ are very definitely not ‘all in it together’ with ‘them’.

  • Auntie Wow

    I too have been increasingly uncomfortable recently with the demonising of unemployed people. Dangerous – remember the contempt the press encouraged for Liverpool people in the Thatcher years. People who were not in a position to defend themselves.
    If the folk on the average street had control of the unemployment benefit payments for their community, they’d no doubt find suitable jobs for everyone on benefits; fixing, growing, caring, doing paperwork, adding value to community/family festivities.
    That way the money would stay in the community a bit longer and everyone could hold their head up because they would be making a valued contribution.

  • Robert Burns


    your “hunch” is wrong, it is a pretty desperate attempt to find something positive where it doesn’t exist.

    The example you cited from Southwark is just an extension of the “let’s only give to the people we like” agenda that is being promoted by a government and political class that either can’t (or just won’t) solve the problems they have allowed to escalate to their present level.

    Nor should we suppose that any “Christmas Factor” is going to “provide a catalyst” for a change of public opinion and political action that will provide an escape route out of poverty.

    It will take more than a few van loads of secondhand junk to do what needs to be done.

    Bah, humbug and a plague on the “givers” houses.

  • http://www.lasa.org.uk Paul Treloar

    The most obvious way to help to begin to bridge the social gaps and build understanding is to let those people affected by the cuts tell their stories, utilising the power that social media can bring to this grassroots approach.

    The recent We are Spartacus campaign http://wearespartacus.org.uk/ by disability activists has shown how this can work in both challenging the official discourse and in highlighting real stories by real people about their experiences of “the system”.

    Discussion forums, twitter, facebook, you tube and other channels all offer easy-acess and low costs methods of interactions – the challenge is how to equip people with access to the web, instruct them how to use the tools and channels available, and how to liaise with the more traditional media to get those stories heard and listened to.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/edward-harkins/15/40/635 Edward Harkins

    Of course, matters would be greatly helped is sometimes our UK Chancellor Osborne and his Coalition colleagues just stopped the nasty ‘dog whistle’ politics that so stigmatise so many of our most vulnerable subjects in the UK:

    Disability charities urge the Government to “change its rhetoric on benefits”

  • Robert Burns

    Here, here Edward,

    and, by the way, I really was NOT being sarcastic or attempting to be ironic in my comment about co-operatives.

    I actually do regret that you took offence.

    Regardless of your opinion of what I wrote best wishes for the season’s holidays and the new year.

  • Robert Burns


  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/edward-harkins/15/40/635 Edward Harkins

    Aye Robert… well… awe, rite then… ehh… well.. .hive a guid new year an awe rat… right!

  • Robert Burns

    To Paul Treloar,

    a very interesting idea and it probably has some mileage in it, but…..

    Chances are that such a campaign would only reach a tiny minority of the target audience.

    Those people are not pychologically and, therefore, morally or politically equipped to face up to the core explanation for why many people are ‘poor’ (and more are getting poorer by the day) while a minority seem to enjoy secure prosperity.

    It’s all too easy to fall back on the self complimenting rhetoric about ‘hard work’ and ‘moral fortitude’, etc., etc.

    But the truth is that their prosperity is an artifact of protectionist practices that flies in the face of democracy and currently avowed notions of general human equality and dignity.

    They enjoy the prosperity they do precisely because artificial social and economic barriers lock people – who are their equals in intelligence and industry – out of the opportunity to convert their potential and ability into personal economic and social benefit.

    No matter what was done the members of this nation-within-a-nation could not accept that they aren’t the natural winners in a Darwinian competition.

    Nor could they accept that abandoning such a self view would involve giving up their artificially protected advantages so that their fellow (second class) citizens could do what they’re capable of.

  • Benjamin

    In a low-growth, low-social mobility world – our entrenched inequalities are unlikely to change very soon. And the communication gap between the haves and have nots (the high rise v the gated mock tudors) is unlikely to be broken down by social media….we self-select who we interact with. Serendipity in the online world died in the late 90s in my view once the corporates muscled in.

    Governments will need to become more redistributive in my view, to counter-act the free market tendency of wealth to become concentrated in fewer hands over time.

    I’m not sure any ‘mainstream’ party, Greens and Respect excepted, are really going to grasp that mantle.

    It has been a long time since a politician of the 1960’s Roy Jenkins ilk has been able to tell us what is good for us and actually pursue it. We don’t like paternalism any more…