‘Brexit’ has replaced ‘Benefits’ on our Government’s agenda

By Holly Bancroft

With Trump and Brexit in the headlines, real life as we knew it two years ago seems to have been forgotten. The Government’s housing white paper, which outlined an attempt to reform the housing market, reminded a few people recently that the promises of the 2015 general election still needed to be acted upon. Yet all in all ‘austerity,’ the buzz-word of 2015, has long faded into the distance, to be replaced by ‘post-truth,’ ‘fake news’ and ‘populism’.

The political whirlwind of the past year has left behind the day-to-day concerns of austerity, leaving us instead with an opposition party, which is in the worst state it has arguably ever been in. The unmoving spotlight on Brexit negotiations means the day-to-day concerns of the people, as reported to us by the media, have changed very quickly over the past year. Where unemployment, benefit fraud, housing shortages and NHS standards were on the agenda, there is now focus on immigration policy and the EU.

Of course, some of these issues are still in the limelight; the NHS has been getting a fresh grilling from MPs over mental health and Jeremy Hunt conceded last month that the NHS in England is facing ‘completely unacceptable’ problems. The housing white paper promised more affordable houses and more council power to pressurise developers who are hoarding land. However these stories, although they flare up, are simply put on the back burner whilst the narratives that have defined 2017 take centre stage. Problems which seemed so central in 2015 have all but faded into the background. However, this does not mean that they do not still exist.

The movie, I, Daniel Blake brought the benefit system back into the limelight with an undeniable force. Despite dividing opinion, it is hard to watch the film without accepting that Daniel Blake’s reality is true for hundreds in our country. It has by no means gone unnoticed by the media and politicians that the number of people turning to food banks for provision has risen significantly over the past few years according to The Trussell Trust. Having almost tripled between 2013-2014 the numbers have been increasing since, be it marginally, with a 2% increase in 2016 from the previous year. But when statistics translate into human realities, surely a 2% increase is appalling?

UK food poverty is still prominent in reality even if it may not be in politics. There may be good reasons why it no longer features in media and political discourse. The UK economy is doing better. The number of people out of work fell by 60, 000 between October and December 2016, according to the Office of National Statistics. The UK economy has not had as much of a bumpy ride since the effects of Brexit settled down. The IMF and the Bank of England have both raised their growth forecasts from this year, following better than expected performance. Perhaps political rhetoric has left behind concerns for austerity because we are fairing better?

Any look at what political language has in fact focussed on will show that this cannot be the full picture. Political analysts have shown us that the Brexit vote came in part from a dissatisfaction with the status-quo. Not simply an EU-ruled status-quo, but from a day-to-day that involved poverty, food banks, council funding cuts and withdrawn benefits.  The people who inspired and informed the writing of I, Daniel Blake, are real people in a real reality. Although this reality may seemingly be very detached from our own, it is still there. Anti-immigration and protectionist politics are driven by an economic concern. A real concern that the jobs, that are already hard to find, are being stripped away by migrants. Whether that view is well founded or not, the worry it springs from is seen as a fact that many have to live with. Even concern for benefit fraud has disappeared from the public psyche.

What was a hot topic in 2011-2013 has now been replaced by concerns over migration. This is not to say that this is a wrong move; pressing concerns and worries do change. People are reacting to record levels of migration to the UK and so it makes sense for immigration policy to be at the forefront of political discussion. 2015 after all saw an all-time high for net migration with 330, 000 people staying in the UK  10, 000 more than the last migration peak in 2005. However just because worries and complaints have shifted, this does not mean that the problem has been solved.

It is telling that the impacts of food poverty and benefit cuts are now left to the film directors and poetry writers to spotlight, rather than the policy makers. Ultimately words do not equal action. It will be interesting to see how much is buried under Brexit negotiation headlines, especially with three key European elections only months away. We have an obligation not to forget that the government has a duty to its current citizens, not just citizens in a future EU-free Britain.

Photograph: Say bye bye via Flickr

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