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The campaign against the welfare state – know your enemy

The campaign against the welfare state is now in full flow in Scotland. As we gear up to fight it, this is a simple guide to who is in the campaign, how its strategy works and the lexicon through which it is delivered.

What is really going on with the campaign in Scotland to tear away at the fabric of the welfare state? Certainly we should not mistake the onslaught for the passing thoughts of a few individuals on the back of the announcement that Scottish Labour is to review what its leader calls ‘something for nothing’ benefits. This is a political programme actively supported by a number of groups. Right wing think tanks (and especially the David Hume Institute) has been gnawing away at the principle of the welfare state for ages, mainly using ‘public sector accounting’ as its method of attack. Likewise many parts of the Scottish media have been curating a story about ‘affordability’ and ‘maturity’ for ages, absolutely confident in their belief that accountants are the most valuable members of society when it comes to defining political ideology. What you don’t see is the use of the expensive lobbying budgets of organisations like SERCO or A4E or Atos Healthcare which are being used at all times to pressurise government to carry out more and more means testing (it’s one of their main sources of profit after all). The Tories of course exist primarily to push this philosophy and the increasingly unhinged comments from its inexperienced leader are perhaps least surprising. And then there is the mutuality – media outfits run conferences sponsored by ‘service providers’ which also fund the right wing think tanks as well as the Tories.

So let’s be clear, this is a coordinated campaign and Scottish Labour just joined. But what is its plan and how does its strategy work? Well, just as the right has a long track-record of using popular media to fatally damage crucial political ideals, so its trying again. The methodology is quite straightforward and has been used with stultifying effect in the US. The approach is to start by picking at any small corner of an ideal to find a contradiction, weakness or flaw. For a while this must be picked at in isolation, leaving the wider ideal intact (for now). Only once that corner of the ideal is thoroughly frayed do you start to move on to the wider ideal, transposing the language used to pick at the corner to then smear the larger whole. Then, once the whole is damaged by association with the exaggerated flaw you move from creating that small caricature to applying it to the larger entity to the final phase , referring to that larger entity only as caricature.

To explain this better, a quick case study. Bloody Britain by the late 1990s – coming to terms with multiculturalism and race largely off the agenda for all but the fringes. Can’t have that. So lets pick on one corner of immigration – asylum seekers and not general immigrants. They are generally weak and isolated. But they are associated with compassion, so take a corner of that and start picking. Never write ‘asylum seeker’ without the word ‘bogus’ in front of it. And then keep going for two years until people think all asylum seekers are ‘at it’. Now transfer that caricature upwards by taking the idea you’ve just manufactured (that immigrants are all taking us for a ride) and applying it more generally – ‘why can’t we talk about immigration’, ‘immigration is out of control’ and so on. And by that point, you can give up debate altogether and work in slogans only, confident that there isn’t a political party with enough backbone to stand up to your new narrative (because in your campaign is most of the tabloid media).

In the UK this approach has been used to undermine nationalisation, nuclear disarmament, progressive taxation, civil liberties and so on. But they’ve really struggled with the welfare state because the public is not susceptible to the cause – they like the welfare state. They have throw money at initiatives like the Taxpayer’s Alliance (an organisation the primary purpose of which is to undermine the welfare state). They own most of the media. They have worked hard to break in to the argument and in England at least they have made headway in making people angry at ‘benefit cheats’ (textbook caricature). But they just can’t get it to stick to the rest of the welfare state.

Then again, they don’t really have to. The major mistake which is made is that these campaigns are primarily about changing the opinions of the public. They’re not. The primary aim is to make political parties believe that the opinions of the public have changed. This is not about influencing democracy, it is about subverting it. This is a conversation among the elite. The anti-welfare campaigners know through bitter experience that if the public is given a choice between two parties, one advocating a welfare state and one opposing it, the welfare state wins. What is needed is for there to be little or no choice. At the UK level this has happened – there is no party not espousing the need to roll back the welfare state and both Labour and the Tories have been clear that greater outsourcing and ‘co-payment’ is the way forward.

The game has to confuse two elements of the welfare state – universal provision of services and benefits for those living in poverty. Here I take ‘universalism’ to mean anything open to all and ‘benefits’ to mean that which goes to means tested people at the bottom of the income scale. Hence benefit scroungers and so on. (And here a pause just to emphasise that care at home for the elderly, concessionary transport for pensioners,medicine for all with no payment, education with no payment and so on are universal welfare provision and not benefits). It has worked well enough to make Ed Milliband see merit in adopting the ideology of ‘One Nation’ which is an ideology of charity for those left behind, not entitlement of all.

But Scotland is different. The David Hume Institute has promoted speaker after speaker to try and put a dent in public support for the welfare state. It tried incredibly hard to prevent the SNP and Labour promising to abolish all charges for university students. And it has followed the classic route – pick one corner (higher education for example), create a caricature of ‘unaffordability’ and ‘benefit primarily to the wealthy’ and take it from there. At the time I could find not one member of the Scottish elite which did not believe fully in the inevitable success of that strategy. Of course, they failed miserably because they failed to close the debate inwards, making it only for the elite. But they tried awfully hard – in both the SNP and Labour senior figures were worked on relentlessly to stop their party offering this policy. And in both they won over their targets (I know who they are – senior members of those parties who were lobbying internally for university tuition fees) but their targets couldn’t win over the parties. So the public was offered a choice and the welfare state won. Again.

I realise this has been a bit lengthy, but it is the most important ideological battle in Scotland and the war is lopsided. It is important to get ready for a proper fight-back – remember, this is a simple war:

  • They want to capture political parties so the electorate does not have the choice of supporting a welfare state
  • They want to do this because it is the only way they can protect the tax system which is facilitating the mass transfer of wealth from us to them
  • They are well-funded and coordinated but never admit the campaign exists

The last point is important – check out the lexicon:

  • Affordability – its always about accounting for expenditure and it is never sustainable whether the ‘inevitable’ reality is demographic change, increased uptake of services, austerity, whatever. Nothing can ever be afforded, even as we’re successfully paying for it.
  • Bravery – attacking the welfare state is ‘credible’ and ‘brave’, but the bravery must never stray into talking about tax because everyone must be misdirected to look only at a balance sheet. ‘Brave’ is a sheen of protection for anyone who joins the anti-welfare campaign.
  • Free – you would never talk about ‘free healthcare’ instead of the NHS so why ‘free care for the elderly’? And why has Scottish Labour not started talking about ‘free school education’? You can identify the targets for the campaign by looking at what parts of the welfare state to which they tag on the word ‘free’, signifying largesse.
  • Populism – this is used by populists to attack non-populists. Populism has nothing to do with popularity but means setting one part of a population against another. It is crucial to divide society if you want to dismantle the welfare state and it doesn’t matter if it’s Cameron blaming the poor or Lamont blaming the rich, the impact is the same.
  • Perks – the inversion of populism also means converting democratically agreed priorities into ‘cheap perks used to buy-off the public’. This is all about cheapening the welfare state, destroying the ideal.
  • Benefits – this is used intentionally to conflate the welfare state with personal benefits for the poor (or in the Lamont case with benefits for the rich). The aim is to convert it from a social system to a series of products, removing the underlying principle and most of all the shared sense of commitment.
  • Something for nothing. Finally and ultimately, this is the most odious attack on welfare. It is almost explicitly saying ‘welfare is nothing to do with taxation and redistribution, it is only a give-away culture’. The welfare state is not something for nothing but something for something; pretending otherwise is the heart of the fight against the welfare state. Separating welfare from tax is the ultimate aim and this is its ultimate expression. It also takes it away from being a universal social provision to being a relationship of individual to individual. This is about casting the welfare state as a giant venal game of ‘what can I get out of it’.

So that is the shape of the fight. Over the last two weeks you will have heard this campaign on every TV programme and in every newspaper. They just can’t name their campaign because it opposes the democratic will. And it has one remaining major goal – to do to the SNP what it has just done to Scottish Labour so the Scottish public are denied the opportunity to vote for the principle of the welfare state.

That is the shape of the fight. It’s going to be exhausting but, this time, I’m confident we’re going to win.

Robin McAlpine