The phrase ‘jumping the shark’ describes the moment when a popular TV show overstretches its founding concept and begins the process of decline. I am starting to wonder whether George Osborne jumped the shark last week.
As I wrote in my last post, it has become commonplace in political communication to distinguish between the worthy (working) and unworthy (unemployed) poor. It was this that lay behind a skirmish last week between the Chancellor and Shadow Chancellor, with Ed Balls claiming that the Coalition’s cuts in the real value of benefits would predominantly fall on working households.
The backdrop to this debate is opinion polls which show a steady hardening of opinion against welfare recipients, especially the unemployed. But the world is complicated; public opinion is both reflexive and subject to substantial shifts in mood. I suspect that three things may be coinciding to produce just such a shift.
First, there have always been ebbs and flows in public opinion when it comes to a general spectrum of values relating to social justice and collective provision. While the swing against state help for the poor (which is to simplify the issue) has been long and deep, there is no reason to believe the pendulum won’t in time swing back.
Second, the longer economic problems and accompanying austerity continue, the more people there are who will be directly or indirectly affected by some combination of poverty, benefits cuts and unemployment. The number who find the striver/ shirker distinction uncomfortable may be increasing.
Thirdly – and this is where political analysts may have committed the classic error of linear thinking a complex world - it may be that the gradual build-up of social concern about the poor was just waiting for a catalyst. By seeming to be making a point of moralising the cut in welfare, rather than simply saying it was necessary for reasons of austerity, Government ministers may have inadvertently provided just that catalyst.
I have this afternoon been chairing an event on child poverty in London, being hosted by the Peabody Trust and held at John Adam Street. A question I posed the audience concerned how the poverty lobby might take advantage if there is a shift in public opinion. I can’t say the ideas were flowing thick and fast. Probably, the London Living Wage and universal free school meals for primary children - a measure already implemented by Southwark and some other London councils – were the most popular ‘transitional demands’.
My own thought centred on connection. I was very taken by a story told to me by a friend who had spent time on websites for parents of new born children. Amidst the normal lively conversation about illnesses, sleep patterns, diet, equipment and child care, some parents let slip how hard they found life on benefits. The better off parents started asking questions and pretty soon the chat rooms were full of people saying things like ‘until I had a child I never really thought about how hard life must be if you are poor’. Subsequently a great deal of charitable giving started flowing through the site – so much so that it had to be regulated by the site’s moderators.
Regardless of anyone’s political leanings and economic analysis, it is surely a good thing if more people who are fortunate in their circumstances understand more fully the lives of those who rely on state help, whether in or out of work. My hunch is that some clever way of providing such insight and of connecting people across the social divide could go viral at this moment of inflection in public opinion, especially with Christmas almost upon us.
The Autumn Statement and the unappealing politics around it may have marked the beginning of the end of one long running narrative;the opportunity may now be there for some campaigning brilliance to provoke a very different and more unifying public discourse.