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Why we cannot dismiss Francesca O'Brien's jibe about ‘putting down’ benefit claimants

CONSERVATIVE hopeful Francesca O’Brien’s social media rant about people on Benefits Street needing “putting down” cannot be removed from the context of the war on the poor waged by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition from 2010 to 2015 and by the Conservatives alone since then.

Ms O’Brien says her comments were “off the cuff.” They illustrate the dangerous nature of “poverty porn” shows like Benefits Street that promote demeaning stereotypes. 

Like the Victorian concept of the “undeserving poor,” which was used to smash parochial poor relief funds and force the destitute into the workhouse, the narrative of “shirkers and strivers” promoted by Tory chancellor George Osborne was designed to justify institutional cruelty. 

As the Ken Loach films I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You show, this divide-and-rule approach is in practice not much kinder to the “strivers” (like Sorry We Missed You’s gig economy courier Ricky) than it is to victims of the Tory benefits regime in the former film. And like 1834’s Poor Law, the insistence on “making work pay” by subjecting anyone unable to secure a job to a punitive and humiliating regime actually does the opposite, with chronic insecurity allowing employers to drive down wages, impose unreasonable hours and attack people’s rights and conditions in the workplace.

Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn pointed to the political role of programmes like Benefits Street years ago when agreeing with documentary maker Paul Sng that poverty porn shows should be confined to history: “The demonisation of communities makes it easier for politicians to make decisions that are damaging to those communities … look at the way the Grenfell Action Group were not listened to.”

The reference to Grenfell was important, because Ms O’Brien’s jibe was made in the midst of a brutal “fit for work” regime that was killing people. 

In 2014, then DWP chief Iain Duncan Smith was still fighting a rearguard action to prevent publication of data on how many people had died shortly after being found fit for work in the notorious tests policed by French private firm Atos, but the next year the figures were revealed: 2,380 people died between December 2011 and February 2014 after they were denied employment support allowance following a declaration that they were fit for work. (Atos CEO Thierry Breton has never been sanctioned for his company’s appalling record; in fact last month he was proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron as that country’s next EU commissioner).

Large numbers of people died as a direct result of benefit sanctions — there were some, such as diabetic David Clapson or Asperger’s sufferer Mark Wood, who starved to death, others, like Elaine Lowe, Tim Salter or Jacqueline Harris, who killed themselves, and others, including David Groves and Karen Sherlock, who died from heart attacks while fighting desperately for lifeline social security payments.

But the consequences of the Tory “shirker” rhetoric were wider than that. All forms of hate crime have risen under the Tories, and the majority of hate crimes are still motivated by racism — itself connected to the normalisation by mostly Tory politicians of racist language. But there has been a shocking rise in crimes against disabled people — violent disability hate crime is up 41 per cent on last year, and that’s after several consecutive years of increases.

This brutality is the outcome of a brutalising society, one presided over by a Tory Party sowing division and hatred to disempower working-class people and remove all barriers to their exploitation. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been ruined by it and thousands have been lost. That’s why talk of “putting down” benefits claimants is no joke, and Ms O’Brien’s nasty Facebook posts are all too typical of the party she belongs to.

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