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2014 will be a crucial year for the people of Britain. The country stands at a crossroads, and the path we choose to take may define our country for many years to come. It will be very difficult to turn back, if we take the wrong path.
The NHS, the Welfare State, access to justice, and even democracy itself is under threat, and values and institutions many hold dear are at risk of being lost. In 2015 we will have a General Election, but by then it may be too late. We must use the coming year to shift the public debate, to force at least some politicians to represent decent values, and turn away from their current scapegoating of the poor and the powerless.
Throughout 2013 Ekklesia helped to promote the WOW petition, established by sick and disabled people to resist the government’s war on welfare. Some people probably thought that claiming there was a war on welfare was something of a hyperbole, a bit over the top. But the year provided enough evidence to show that this was simply a statement of fact.
Benefit sanctions were imposed for often ludicrous reasons, leaving people destitute. Rent arrears and homelessness rose. The Prime Minister proposed virtually cutting young people under 25 out of the welfare state altogether, and Iain Duncan Smith floated the idea that if you’re poor, two children should be your limit. We learned that the Work Capability Assessment, called "mechanistic and inhumane" by the government’s own adviser, had been rolled out to affect all sick and disabled people against his advice causing great distress to people already struggling with difficult lives.
These and numerous other changes comprised a wholesale attack on the welfare state. And now we have charges for treatment introduced in the NHS. At the moment they’re for certain migrants, but many believe it is just a start, from a party which has long contemplated the demise of the NHS.
And let’s be under no illusions: this is an attack on the poor. If you come from a family like the Osbornes or the Camerons, or even if your family isn’t rich like theirs, but just ‘comfortable’, these changes don’t affect you in the slightest. To be unemployed, sick or disabled in a prosperous family is a world away from being in the same position but with no money.
Putting people reliant on benefits under the microscope and picking their lives apart has become a horrible entertainment genre, ‘poverty porn’. Almost every day you can find, somewhere in the TV schedules, an invitation to look at a person in poverty and judge how far they deserve to be in that position, or to become angry about a fraudster cheating the taxpayer. Tax fraud is actually a much bigger problem but when did you last see a TV camera in a tax dodger’s home?
But, say the politicians, welfare reform has public support. This may be true, but only when the public is misinformed. The misinformation that has accompanied the war on welfare has been unrelenting and highly successful. Research shows that the public’s understanding of the facts surrounding the welfare debate is grossly skewed, and when they are given correct information they often change their opinions.
In 2014, the propaganda will be stepped up a gear as we will have new scapegoats to blame, European immigrants. Politicians from the Prime Minister down are fuelling the hysteria and pretending to be dreadfully concerned about the potential influx, but I can’t help feeling they are secretly pleased.
For three years public services have been downgraded and Council budgets slashed. Just as the consequences of austerity really begin to bite, we have a ready made excuse to hand. Can’t get your child a place in the local school? Blame the immigrants, not Michael Gove. Waiting too long for a doctor’s appointment? Blame the immigrants, not Jeremy Hunt. The Council’s cut a service you depended on? Blame the immigrants, not George Osborne…..
So for all who believe in the Welfare State, the NHS, and a fair an inclusive society, 2014 is going to be a crucial year. The last three years have taught us that we cannot rely on the mainstream media to present the facts, or on Opposition politicians to provide a positive alternative to the government stream of negativity. The Green Party and other minor parties are honourable exceptions, but sadly it’s difficult to imagine them swinging the next General Election. I envy the Scots’ option of striding off into a bright new dawn, but in the rest of the UK we face a very hard slog.
It is up to each and every one of us to start challenging the narrative, confronting the lies that have been used to wage a war on the poor and on all we hold dear. Every time a false assertion is made in the media, challenge it. Many TV and radio programmes seek audience interaction, so let’s do that. Make it clear to politicians that if they do not offer a positive, compassionate, hopeful alternative, they will not get your vote.
Here are a few resources to help in the task:
* In Actual Fact provides bite-sized pieces of information which counter anti-welfare propaganda, and can easily be shared on Twitter or Facebook with a few clicks.
* The Joint Public Issues Team report, also available through Ekklesia, Truth and Lies About Poverty is excellent.
* Church Action on Poverty runs effective campaigns which you can join, the latest of which, ‘Britain Isn’t Eating’ has apparently caused much annoyance to Iain Duncan Smith.
* Last but not least, our own briefing and research on a wide range of topicsa wide range of topics.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeadenTweet