Apparently, according to Osborne, those who commit benefit fraud are ‘muggers’. In a very gentlemanly manner, Osborne denounced a very small section of the population (and welfare population in fact), by doing what the Tories do best: generalising a very atypical example as representative of a systematic problem. Once again, there is a very specific and bias definition of ‘mugger’ – basically those who don’t work or something like that, and they have to be very poor – he doesn’t want to go calling his friends in the city ‘muggers’, does he?
This is precisely the problem; there was some talk at the LibDem conference regarding cutting down tax avoidance and tax evasion – but over and over again we have welfare debates framed within the perimeters of ‘welfare scroungers’. Consider Osborne’s comments on Andrew Marr this morning:
“This is a fight. We are really going to go after the welfare cheats. Frankly, a welfare cheat is no different from someone who comes up and robs you in the street. It’s your money. You’re leaving the house at seven in the morning or whatever to go to work and paying your taxes – and then the person down the street is defrauding the welfare system. This money is paid through our taxes which is meant to be going to the most vulnerable in our society, not into the pockets of criminals.”
This type of irresponsible characterisation, the atypical and generalised stereotype that New Labour perfected when it came to groups such as sex workers, is a major problem when it comes to governmental action. It stirs up hatred. It is the same type of irresponsible behaviour that promotes racist attitudes as it undermines consideration of the root problems; the sources for why people commit benefit crime. Granted, there will be the odd few who actually commit welfare crime as they feel like it. But, there are many who commit it for a means to an end. A living.
With £83bn cuts expected to be announced on Wednesday, Osborne cannot sit there and preach to people who are often acting in accordance to the inadequate benefit system and sometimes unsustainable poor wages, that they are somehow ‘muggers’. It illustrates how divorced from reality he is. This out of touch attitude, where people’s agency and concerns for livelihood are disregarded as criminal offences; without understanding why they would engage in such activity, is a major concern when it comes to public policy.
The government’s inability to use valid academic evidence, and their continual playing up to media propaganda and moral panics, is a major obstacle when it comes to achieving social justice. Consider Clegg’s recent complete misuse of figures. Or consider the last, and looks like current government’s, misuse of figures, resources and evidence regarding sex work. And now consider the ways in which Osborne is choosing to stigmatise a very small group of people, and scapegoat them so as there is someone else to take your frustrations out upon when the cuts start to bite.
It is very much like what Stuart Hall wrote about in regards to the ‘muggers’ crisis in the 1980s. Black young males were scapegoated in order to take attention away from fundamental economic , social and political problems – such as the oil crisis. The same thing is happening now. Much like when the Bulger case resulted in single mothers being scapegoated. Or like the way in which Baby P case was seen as a very ‘stereotypical’ example of the empirically flawed ‘underclass’ concept.
The stereotypes will continue to exist. It’s a major backbone for how UK government seems to work now. What we need to do is show Osborne that he is the mug, and that he should not underestimate the power of the people when it comes to the level of illogical decisions this government is making. Let’s show France they aren’t the only ones who know how to protest.