Time for the 'comfortable' to rise up

By Bernadette Meaden
November 17, 2012

This week, when a desperate Spanish woman Amaia Egana committed suicide as her home was about to be repossessed, her outraged neighbours took to the streets, and the Spanish government is now going to change the law to try to prevent a repeat of this tragedy.

One suspects that in the UK, Amaia’s story would have been relegated to local news, and the majority of those who heard about her death would have felt sad, seen it as an individual personal tragedy, but given little thought to the big picture, or contemplated taking any action themselves.

In his 1992 book The Culture of Contentment, American economist JK Galbraith argued that the US government had concluded that as long as they kept a majority of the population who voted content, then what happened to the growing underclass was irrelevant, because electorally they did not pose any threat. Galbraith, a very humane economist, was pointing this out as regrettable. I sometimes wonder if our Coalition government took the idea as their inspiration.

At the 2010 General Election, the turnout was just over 65 per cent of the electorate. That means that if the government can keep 30 per cent of the electorate happy (you don't need to get a majority of the vote to win an election and form a Government) they really don’t need to worry about the remainder. Indeed, even among those, because of our electoral system, it is only those voters in a couple of hundred marginal seats that they actually need to appease. They certainly act as if the fate of the least fortunate is of no importance to them.

The government certainly seems to be cynically manipulating the country, abandoning some areas or demographics, and channelling public money into those areas where they believe they can gain or hold seats.

With Local Authorities facing a crippling 28 per cent cut in total funding over the course of this Parliament, the axe is not falling in a fair manner. This week it was reported "Councils in northern, urban cities and London boroughs with high levels of deprivation predominantly run by Labour have seen their budgets cut by almost 10 times the amount lost by mostly Tory-administered authorities in rural southern England during the government's first spending round, according to official analysis."

Time after time, in decision after decision, the Coalition acts in ways that deprive and punish those who have least, and protect those who are comfortable. Benefit claimants on miserably low incomes are demonised, but when the rich find ways to avoid paying the top rate of tax, they are not punished or prevented: the top rate of tax is reduced, to maintain their contentment.

Perhaps this is why amidst all the cuts, benefits for older people appear to be sacrosanct: older people tend to vote.

This has depressing implications for those who are most disadvantaged, those who are sick, disabled, or unemployed. Electorally, they may never be strong enough to make any progress. If they are not to become completely hopeless, two things need to happen. Firstly, they need to make sure they all use their vote. Secondly, and this is the more difficult part, those who are part of the comfortable classes need to show they care about their less fortunate neighbours, making their welfare an issue which is high up the political agenda, with politicians believing that votes depend on it.

In the UK, there should be a public outcry over the people dying and committing suicide due to Work Capability Assessments, but there isn’t. As a society we are failing in our duty of care to our most vulnerable citizens. Activists can comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, but until the comfortable rise up in numbers and say "enough", the poor and disadvantaged will continue to be crushed by this government.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.

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