Facile arguments about benefits create the very culture of dependency those making them claim to hate

A Tory candidate looking to replace Chris Pincher as MP for Tamworth has (I hope) killed off any chance of winning his by-election. The Guardian report he ‘defended sharing a Facebook post telling jobless parents who cannot feed their children to “f*** off” if they still pay a £30 phone bill.’ Which is lovely, isn’t it.

Now, let’s be real for a second. If you do find yourself in the invidious position to literally having to choose between feeding your children or getting rid of your mobile phone, then yes, people should choose to not let their children starve. But it doesn’t take very much probing to see how facile the comment really is.

For a start, we might want to ask why it is deemed acceptable to force people into a choice between having some means of contact and feeding their children. In a world in which you cannot get a job without having a phone, and one in which you cannot stick in an application for a job without access to the internet, three things bear saying.

One, it seems eminently possible a £30 per month phone contract is likely to be one’s means of getting on the internet. That phone contract is likely to be instead of a wifi connection. It is a means of getting yourself internet access by which you can apply for jobs and a phone number by which you can be contacted by those pleased to offer you one. It seems strange that Tories, so vocal about getting people back into work, would be the very people to make it harder to actually apply for jobs and accept one because a phone is deemed a luxury item.

Two, £30 to cover a family of four’s entire food shop for a month seems painfully tight. If Andrew Cooper is adamant that £30 per month on a phone contract is a luxury item that can be dispensed with to pay for food, he might want to also explain in some detail how he expects a family of four to subsist on a food budget of £1 per day. It is specious to suggest that getting rid of a £30 phone will allow you to live adequately as a family. It will also have the knock on effect of, as I mentioned above, stopping you being able to access the internet and receive job offers by phone.

Three, even if you think £1 per day for an family food shop is reasonable (and I don’t), it ignores the fact that people’s circumstances change. What is a family who were in work and took out a phone contract meant to do when they suddenly lose their job? You can’t just cancel phone contracts without paying significant cancellation fees. It is all very well insisting that people should just give up their mobile phone, but if they have lost their job and money is tight, it isn’t clear how they are going to cancel it and find the money to cover that and be expected to pay for their food. Contracts, by their very nature, are notoriously difficult to get out of without incurring significant costs. The position is fatuous.

The issue, of course, goes beyond mobile phones at any rate. Of all the things to land on as a “luxury item”, this seems a particularly poor choice in the modern world. One can make a more compelling case for TVs and streaming subscriptions being luxuries. But then we get into some wider issues. Speaking some time ago now, George Orwell had this to say about the working classes in The Road To Wigan Pier:

They don’t necessarily lower their standards by cutting out luxuries and concentrating on necessities; more often it is the other way about – the more natural way, if you come to think of it. Hence the fact that in a decade of unparalleled depression, the consumption of all cheap luxuries has increased. The two things that have probably made the greatest difference of all are the movies and the mass-production of cheap smart clothes since the war. The youth who leaves school at fourteen and gets a blind-alley job is out of work at twenty, probably for life; but for two pounds ten on the hire-purchase he can buy himself a suit which, for a little while and at a little distance, looks as though it had been tailored in Savile Row. The girl can look like a fashion plate at an even lower price. You may have three halfpence in your pocket and not a prospect in the world, and only the corner of a leaky bedroom to go home to; but in your new clothes you can stand on the street corner, indulging in a private daydream of yourself as dark Gable or Greta Garbo, which compensates you for a great deal. And even at home there is generally a cup of tea going –a ‘nice cup of tea’ – and Father, who has been out of work since 1929, is temporarily happy because he has a sure tip for the Cesarewitch.

Trade since the war has had to adjust itself to meet the demands of underpaid, underfed people, with the result that a luxury is nowadays almost always cheaper than a necessity. One pair of plain solid shoes costs as much as two ultra-smart pairs. For the price of one square meal you can get two pounds of cheap sweets. You can’t get much meat for threepence, but you can get a lot of fish-and-chips. Milk costs threepence a pint and even ‘mild’ beer costs fourpence, but aspirins are seven a penny and you can wring forty cups of tea out of a quarter-pound packet. And above all there is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of starvation can buy a few days’ hope (‘Something to live for’, as they call it) by having a penny on a sweepstake. Organized gambling has now risen almost to the status of a major industry. Consider, for instance, a phenomenon like the Football Pools, with a turnover of about six million pounds a year, almost all of it from the pockets of working-class people. I happened to be in Yorkshire when Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland. Hitler, Locarno, Fascism, and the threat of war aroused hardly a flicker of
interest locally, but the decision of the Football Association to stop publishing their fixtures in advance (this was an attempt to quell the Football Pools) flung all Yorkshire into a storm of fury. And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. You may shiver all night for lack of bedclothes, but in the morning you can go to the public library and read the news that has been telegraphed for your benefit from San Francisco and Singapore. Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.

Do you consider all this desirable? No, I don’t. But it may be that the psychological adjustment which the working class are visibly making is the best they could make in the circumstances. They have neither turned revolutionary nor lost their self-respect; merely they have kept their tempers and settled down to make the best of things on a fish-and-chip standard. The alternative would be God knows what continued agonies of despair; or it might be attempted insurrections which, in a strongly governed country like England, could only lead to futile massacres and a regime of savage repression.

Of course the post-war development of cheap luxuries has been a very fortunate thing for our rulers. It is quite likely that fish-and-chips, art-silk stockings, tinned salmon, cut-price chocolate (five two-ounce bars for sixpence), the movies, the radio, strong tea, and the Football Pools have between them averted revolution. Therefore we are sometimes told that the whole thing is an astute manoeuvre by the governing class – a sort of ‘bread and circuses’ business – to hold the unemployed down. What I have seen of our governing class does not convince me that they have that much intelligence. The thing has happened, but by an unconscious process – the quite natural interaction between the manufacturer’s need for a market and the need of half-starved people for cheap palliatives.

Here, Orwell makes two points that still ring true. First, that so-called luxuries are often much cheaper than necessities. The soaring cost of gas and electric compared to that phone contract or a Netflix subscription could hardly make a more stark point. The cost of cheap processed food which can also often be frozen and stored versus buying and cooking everything from fresh is substantial. The list could go on.

The other point Orwell makes – and more forcefully so elsewhere – why on earth shouldn’t the working-class be allowed to do more than merely subsist? As he notes, ‘What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.’

In another portion of the same book, Orwell goes on to compare the weekly budget of a mining family he stayed with compared with those offered during debates over Means Testing:

When the dispute over the Means Test was in progress there was a disgusting public wrangle about the minimum weekly sum on which a human being could keep alive. So far as I remember, one school of dietitians worked it out at five and ninepence, while another
school, more generous, put it at five and ninepence halfpenny. After this there were letters to the papers from a number of people who claimed to be feeding themselves on four shillings a week.

He goes on:

Now compare this list with the unemployed miner’s budget that I gave earlier. The miner’s family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials
for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes — an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you
to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.

It seems many haven’t moved on. As Orwell notes:

In some districts efforts are now being made to teach the unemployed more about food-values and more about the intelligent spending of money… I have heard a Communist speaker on the platform grow very angry about it. In London, he said, parties of Society
dames now have the cheek to walk into East End houses and give shopping- lessons to the wives of the unemployed. He gave this as an instance of the mentality of the English governing class. First you condemn a family to live on thirty shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend their money. He was quite right–I agree heartily.

It seems the Tories so often want to insist they will make work pay, but then put barriers in the way to people getting into work. They claim to want to help the poor but then wish to deny the poor basic means that would help them better their situation. They end up engaging in a ‘disgusting public wrangle about the minimum weekly sum on which a human being could keep alive’ as if that is, indeed, all any of us might expect from society. We give people money on which to subsist and then have the cheek to tell them exactly what it is they must spend the money on. As if we aren’t bad enough with those means tested on Universal Credit, consider that we do worse to the asylum seeker who we insist can subsist on half that amount for no discernible reason (that I can see at least) beyond the fact that they are foreign.

Such bin-off-your-mobile arguments show a person deeply out of touch with the struggles of ordinary people. It shows a mindset that cannot conceive of how ordinary people might think and act. It shows a mindset that is happy to treat people as less than animals; even pet owners consider toys for the dog among the basics. It ignores the fact that many of those struggling are in work and seeking to do their level best. It ignores many of the circumstances beyond people’s control. It overlooks the reality that some “luxuries” are not really luxuries at all in the modern world. It just shows no insight into the mindset, lifestyle and struggles of ordinary people in the modern world. I suspect it belies a total lack of care for them either, being as it often comes from those who know full well they are unlikely to ever be in the same situation.

In the past, Tories like Norman Tebbit told people to get on their bike – suggesting they weren’t trying hard enough to look for work where there was none – and he was rightly criticised for it. Today, those like Andrew Cooper want to take their bike away, insisting it is a luxury they should sell to pay for food, and then wonder why people can’t get to work. That is what the ditch-your-mobile mindset is. It is selling the bike you are telling people to get on, it is breaking the legs of those you would tell to walk to work. It is, for all the talk of being the party of getting people into work, the very means of stopping them doing exactly that. For all the talk of dependency, it is an approach unlikely to do anything other than ensure people remain in exactly that state.


  1. It was reading Orwell …and I have read all of him including his splendid essays…that has informed my Socialist philosophy. He writes with such insight . His words about the need for the poor to eat brown bread and raw carrots could have been written in todays Guardian!
    I’m not sure there are any easy answers on how to change what is in some parts of the country a dependency culture . As Labour gets nearer to power it is less and less clear what they stand for or what they will in turn do. Or indeed what Keir Starmer believes in rather than as a brief to secure a victory in court, or in this case an election.

    1. Yes, like you, I went through a period of devouring everything Orwell wrote. I agree his essays are brilliant but I think Wigan pier is just outstanding (far better than down and out). Though some bits are out of date, so much is still relevant and he makes certain issues just so clear and straightforward.

      As for dependency, I agree it is a tricky issue. My point was simply that the tories are the ones who bang on most about it and yet say things like this that will inevitably stop people getting out of their current situation and, worse, make it less bearable as they’re in it.

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