‘As for the virtuous poor, one can pity them, of course, but one cannot possibly admire them. They have made private terms with the enemy, and sold their birth right for very bad pottage. They must also be extraordinarily stupid.’– Oscar Wilde
I suspect the chorus of ‘captains of industry’ gracing the news are perfectly aware that Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference yesterday was not a move to the left.
More than likely the attempt to define it as such has the purpose of encouraging the Labour leader, running scared of the media echo-chamber, to propose a set of capital-friendly policies more to their own liking.
Rather than the British people being intrinsically conservative, it has often been the ability of the right to get the Labour Party on to the back foot that has in the past allowed it to define the political landscape so effectively.
It is also why, when attacking the culture of greed at the top, Ed Miliband feels obliged to dedicate equal air-time to the denunciation of ‘benefit scroungers’, as if they and the bankers constituted a similar problem with comparable consequences.
On Monday morning I went down to my local Job Centre, ostensibly to look for jobs but also to examine the claim that many of those on benefits simply don’t share the same ‘values’ as the rest of us. This was never going to be an empirical study of course, and mainly involved a number of off-the-cuff conversations with claimants; but if there really are a significant number of people who are cheating the benefits system, it seemed reasonable to assume that a small proportion of them would be at the job centre on a Monday morning signing on.
I arrived at my local job centre branch in Bridgwater at about a quarter past nine. Walking past the row of tightly partitioned staff sat at their desks beckoning people over for their weekly sign-on, I noticed a young man having an argument with a female member of staff. The problem, as I understood it, was that he had signed on a day late several weeks ago for his benefit. The man was told at the time to do something called a rapid re-sign - which took two weeks - and was subsequently asked to repay the month’s Jobseekers Allowance he had claimed, due to the fact that he had been automatically signed off during the two week period and was therefore not eligible for it. He was now being pursued by debt collectors for the return of the money, which he said he no longer had.
After he had finished arguing with the female member of staff, we talked, and he told me that he had a baby at home and a girlfriend who is three months pregnant with their second child.
Looking over the people in the job centre you suddenly realise what different universes some people inhabit. My own job search (I am also unemployed) showed up a number of manual jobs and a few clerical positions, receptionist work mainly. I printed the more tolerable of these and made my way outside to smoke a cigarette, in the process starting a conversation with a man who had been claiming jobseekers allowance for the past two years.
He was non-committal in response to my questions at first, but began to talk more freely when I opened up my cigarette packet and pointed it in his direction:
‘I had a few interviews, ya’ know, factories and that, but ain’t got nuffin lately; they never calling me back. I did get a job for a couple a days last year, like, but the boss was a real prick, ya’know, and the work was boring as fuck, so I got myself fired’.
When I asked the man how he managed to get himself fired all he would say was that he ‘gave lip’ to the manager. This, he admitted, was an act of provocation to intentionally lose him his job. That way he could re-sign on for Job Seekers Allowance, something he could not have done had he simply left the position of his own accord.
The job was as a ‘Production Operative’ – a glorified term for repetitive unskilled work that involves packing food on a production line for around 10 hours a shift. The pay was £7.75 an hour and, as he pointed out to me several times, was a considerable improvement on the weekly £51.85 he was receiving on Jobseekers.
He informed me that the real problem was the nature of the work itself, rather than the fact that Jobseekers Allowance was, as the tabloids like to put it, ‘free money’: ‘Why should I do that sorta work, ya’know? I don’t wanna be stood in some factory packing yogurts all my life; I wanna be doin somefin worthwhile’. When I asked him what was wrong with the work he became somewhat aggressive: ‘It’s meaningless, you don’t get no respect doin that, ya know? No-one respects a fucking yogurt packer’.
The funny thing is that I also do not feel cut out, if I can put it like that, for repetitive, manual work. I don't know anyone who really does. On the other hand, most people appear to be automatically of the belief that there is an imaginary group of people who will be very happy with such work, and are baffled to learn that in most cases the so-called ‘underclass’ subscribe to exactly the same set of ‘aspirational’ values as they do.
When I asked some of the people I spoke with why they had not worked - for several years in many cases - they gave the impression that they were willing to do so only if the job was a relatively good one; good being defined by what they saw on television, in magazines and on the radio.
The long-term unemployed certainly appear to share the values and aspirations of modern Britain. The difference is that they grasp aspirational politics in the context of their own lives, which are filled only with the prospect of mundane and unglamorous drudgery.
Standing on a podium and trying to fool them into identifying their interests with those of their would-be exploiters, as Ed Miliband did yesterday, is more delusional than spiteful. Those who earn several hundred thousand pounds a year often sincerely believe that anyone can make it if only they exhaust enough sweat and work hard enough. Let's be clear though, those at the top only believe in aspirational politics up to the point when they have to send their own children off to the factory.