It’s sometimes said that the left concentrates too heavily on statistics, and that we should use more individual stories in our arguments. The right does this by wheeling out caricatures of families who supposedly milk the benefits system and have iPhones or whatever other luxury at the expense of the taxpayer. There are obvious problems with the political logic implicit in these stories. We might begin with the fact that benefit fraud costs the country 1.6 billion per year – a figure utterly dwarfed by the 16 billion of benefits that people are eligible for but do not claim each year. We could go on to add that there are issues which cost the taxpayer far more than benefit fraud – principally tax evasion, which the PCS union estimates to stand at 120 billion a year. There is also the sense of an assumption behind these stories that benefit recipients should not be living well – much of the ire in the articles which present these stories is reserved for the ‘luxuries’ which the fraudsters are enjoying, like holidays or high quality televisions. It is as if there is something obscene about benefit claimants actually enjoying themselves, as if their proper place in life is miserable economising and drudgery. If the problem was simply with people living well on money that they have not directly earned, then there would be comparable rage from the press against those who live off unearned inheritance – but in reality, these writers find something specifically wrong with poor people enjoying their lives.
But I digress. The fact remains that these stories are actually very effective. My co-workers in my last job held many ideas which were politically astute. They recognised that parliament, with its cabinet of millionaires, was wholly disconnected from the needs of ordinary people. They were sharply sceptical about the media and the potential for spin and distortion in the news they watched and read. But at the same time, at least once a week, one of them would make a comment about the apparently vast numbers of people who had ‘never worked a day in their lives’, had been sponging benefits off the state for years and were simply inherently lazy in their character. Every time it happened I would try to make some of the above points, but it was an almost completely futile exercise – I would present an argument involving some facts and figures, and they would give me a worldly smile and simply reiterate whichever story they had most recently come across as if it settled the argument. After a few weeks of this cycle, I eventually managed to get one of them to hesitate and then ask me where I got my information from, so I printed off some documents showing where I’d got the data and brought them in the next day. He nodded, said it was interesting, and by the next week he was repeating the same rubbish as he always had. So clearly, the stories work. With that in mind, here is a story which many others have raised recently, and which ought to utterly discredit the coalition government. It’s the story of Brian Mcardle.
57-year-old Brian Mcardle, a man who was paralysed down one side of his body, blind in one eye and unable to speak was declared several weeks ago to be fit for work by Atos . Brian died the next day. Mcardle’s 13-year-old son, Kieran, wrote a letter to Iain Duncan Smith, saying that his father had been ‘hounded to death’ by the sham assessments. He pleaded with IDS to recognise that Atos was killing people like his father. IDS sent a cold, cut and paste response telling the boy he could discuss his father’s claim with the local job centre. The letter can be seen here at political scrapbook. The silence from the right on the story is deafening. Right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes appeared on the political scrapbook comments thread and could only offer the mediocre (and incorrect) criticism that the story was three weeks old. Mcardle’s death happened several weeks ago, the letters between his son and IDS only came out recently.
The heartlessness of IDS’s response to Kieran Mcardle should not come as a surprise. In his recent appearance on question time, he was absolutely rattled when Owen Jones tried to raise the issue of disabled people dying shortly after fit to work verdicts from Atos. Jones included Mcardle’s case. Losing his temper completely, he exploded into an incoherent finger wagging tirade at Jones, which can be seen on the YouTube clip below. Iain didn’t even try to address the content of the point about Atos, instead ranting vaguely about the need to get people off benefits, which he seemed to imply Jones + the left had no interest in. In the Britain of mass unemployment and workfare, belligerently repeating the ‘get people off benefits’ mantra amounts to little more than a threat – but this is all par for the course for the Tories. His response shows that he doesn’t give a shit about the people who die because of his policies, or about the grieving relatives left behind. It also shows the vulnerability of the Tories on this issue, with a senior minister having to resort to substanceless ranting in front of millions of viewers. We should push and keep pushing on the issue of Atos and the attacks on disabled people. 32 people a week die after being found fit for work by Atos. Lives are at stake.