by Kevin Meagher
For every minute that Skint was on last night, defending the welfare state became that little bit harder.
Channel Four says its new show tells ‘provocative and revealing documentary stories of how people survive without work’. It does no such thing. We are back in Big Fat Gypsy Wedding territory here: gawping at the mores and behaviours of a part of society many wouldn’t want to live near, definitely wouldn’t mix with, but who we don’t mind sniggering at. This is Little Britain without the canned laughter.
Skint could also have been an extended party political broadcast directed by Lynton Crosby. It was all there on display: the fecklessness, violence, drug-taking, gambling, shoplifting, vandalism and casual thuggery of what at one time we used to call our underclass. The obligatory bull mastiffs, silly caps and tracksuits were on display for good measure.
Dean and Claire were bringing up seven kids on benefits. “All I have to do is spunk on a hanky” he charmlessly explained. He later treated viewers to a full frontal showing of his vasectomy scar. He had previously worked but thought he now deserved a break.
Then there was Conor, a gormless young lad who wouldn’t get out of bed for school and whose only form of communication with his mother was to repeatedly tell her to “fuck off” (I gave up counting after the 20th time). He hadn’t been to school for “months”. Yet he was depicted as a relative innocent; all his friends had served custodial sentences.
“They say that crime doesn’t pay but it does. It pays a lot fucking better than a job”, reckoned Jay, his friend and habitual shoplifter who had now graduated to burglary.
For both right and left the reasons why communities like the one depicted in Skint have drifted so far from the mainstream are deceptively simple.
The right thinks their condition is simply a question of poor behaviour: bad things happen to bad people. But their ‘tough love’ approach in restricting benefits is all about making a harsh gesture, not addressing a root cause. In contrast, the Left thinks these people are victims and the problem of improving their lot is solely about piling-in sufficient resources.
Obviously the truth is more complex. Yes, the problem of poverty, ingrained unemployment and having no tradable skills is a drag-anchor on communities like these; but it’s a problem of dysfunctional families too, with ineffective parents bringing up kids with behavioural problems. This then collides with a complete lack of ambition or respectable role models. Frankly, it’s also a product of the natives having too much guile and time to misuse.
But underpinning their condition is a decline in objective codes of behaviour as the left has abandoned the concept of absolute morality in favour of the faux personal freedom of “informed choices”.
So how do we respond when people make bad and destructive choices then?
Conor’s mother who appeared to be the moral centre of the programme explained her plight as she struggled to keep her son on the straight and narrow: “You try and give them a better life than yourself” she said. “I feel like I’ve failed.”
Her son’s excuse for his fecklessness? “There’s nothing to do, its shit. It’s not an excuse, but…there’s nothing to do. “
Well he could try going to school.
In turn, his school could try motivating and educating him – and addressing the learning difficulties he seemed to suffer from. His local authority could send school inspectors round and make him attend. The lesson for the left is that even when communities like this rely on the state, the state usually fails.
Meanwhile the benefits system is up there with the NHS as Labour’s greatest achievement. But it relies on a simple golden rule: that the vast majority of working age adults pay in more than they draw out during their lives.
One of Labour’s biggest political and economic challenges is to find a credible response to this increasingly broken model. The party’s core supporters are often the angriest at the failure to reform not only welfare, but the social and moral condition of those depicted in Skint.
Indeed, this morning’s Guardian cites a new report by the Joseph Rowntree Trust which shows the percentage of Labour voters who think social injustice is main cause of poverty is ‘down from 41% during the height of Thatcherism back in 1986. During the same time Labour supporters blaming the individual rose from 13% to 22%.’
But Conor’s not bothered. Hanging out of his bedroom window watching his mates on motorbikes being chased by the police he shouted out: “Fucking look at ‘em, the mugs.”
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut