Workers or shirkers

There was a BBC2 programme on ‘workers or shirkers’ last night, exploring a division which dates back to Victorian times (and earlier), to notions of the deserving and undeserving poor.

Ian Hislop (and it came over very much as his programme) provided some interesting background detail, taking us back to the 1830s and Edwin Chadwick and the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), which established the Victorian workhouse. We had Chadwick’s categorisation of the population from worker to able-bodied vagabond (I don’t have access here to the exact categories), all very utilitarian, but it was often brutal in its effects, and stigmatised poverty. Hislop of course doesn’t stigmatise but he fails in his programme to get to grips with what being an outsider in society entails. A wiser programme might have used that word – those destined to be ‘outside’ the mainstream – the unemployed, the handicapped, the uneducated, the illiterate – people from broken homes, with no parental role models, in reduced circumstances, people losing jobs in towns where there are no jobs available or only the most menial. The poor – and, too often, the elderly.

The very use of the word ‘shirkers’ is playing the tabloid’s game. Likewise using George Osborne’s 2012 Conservative Party conference speech: Osborne’s imaginary worker, setting off to work seeing the ‘closed blinds of [his] next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits’. The polarity is totally wrong. Yes, there is a category of able-bodied worker who chooses not to work when there are good opportunities for them to do so – the press parades them when it can find them.

My own experience (not least of education) suggests that it’s de-industrialisation, the switch from industry to services, available jobs now being of a fundamentally different kind, and in different locations, which lies at the heart of the problem. In Victorian times the surge to the cities brought problems of poverty on a massive scale. Today it’s the re-location of industry away from existing cities and towns, not least in the north of England, and the growth of new industries, especially service industries, in very different areas, which has brought new problems. Urban poverty has always been with us, and too easily becomes institutionalised. What we’re not faced with, contrary to what some would have us believe, is a wild and wilful recalcitrance.

If you’re ‘working class’, probably with a rented home, little by way of savings, limited education – when you’re world goes wrong you have nothing to fall back on. Maybe there’s a job sweeping streets, or loading shelves, paying little – much less than in a previous job. If you’re ‘middle class’, educated, home-owner, with friends and relations who may be able to help – you’re sheltered from the worst. And – if you’re lazy, don’t feel inclined to work too hard, or to get on too far in life,  it doesn’t really matter. Your circumstances will be reduced, but there will be no-one out there pointing a finger at you.

We’re back – and I’ve argued this many times – to compassion, and at the heart of compassion lies understanding. Hislop never once mentioned compassion, and never once tried to understand, to get inside the mind, the reality, of being an outsider.

That simple polarity – you’re a worker, or you’re a shirker. Hislop ended his programme by repeating it and pronouncing, ‘I’m with the workers.’ As he claimed most people are when presented with that false division. And that division has of course become the stock-in-trade of the press. Forty years ago we accepted and were proud of the welfare state and we had moved a long way from that Victorian divide. But it’s now back, and it’s pretty brutal, and where once the BBC might have been expected to show some neutrality – and indeed recognise the plight of society’s outsiders, it’s no longer fashionable to do – or maybe, and simply, the BBC no longer dares to show a heart of its sleeves.

And finally – Hislop made no mention at all of the extraordinary population growth in the early 19th century, consequent upon the industrial revolution, and the major problems faced by cities such as Manchester. See Alison Light’s Common Ground for the situation in Cheltenham. The Poor Law Amendment Act was a response to a perceived and real emergency. We have no such excuse in our own times.

Yes, there is a continuing discussion to be had about whether or not austerity has gone too far, and payments of some benefits have increased to an extraordinary degree in recent years. There are issues to be addressed but the worker-shirker divide is entirely the wrong context.

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