Seeking to show the common touch ahead of the May 6 British election, Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited the working class northern town of Rochdale for informal chats with voters and came off appearing dismissive and aloof.
The aftermath of Mr. Brown's encounter with pensioner Gillian Duffy, a self-described former Labour voter, led to the sort of unguarded moment on which general elections often turn. Ms. Duffy said she's angry that her taxes pay for benefits for fellow Britons she believes refuse to work, worries about the national debt her grandchildren are going to inherit, and is upset about immigration which appears to be taking English jobs.
Brown soon retreated to his waiting Jaguar, with parting questions about her grandchildren's school performance and a "very nice to meet you." But he forgot that he was still wearing a live mic, and began berating his staff as they drove off just seconds later.
He complained they "never should have put me with that woman." Asked by a staffer what upset him, Brown said: "She's just a sort of bigoted woman that said she used to be Labour. I mean it's just ridiculous."
Pundits in Britain almost immediately described the gaffe as a death knell for Labour's chances of retaining power, a moment in which the party leader went into a traditional hotbed of party support, and responded to the fairly mild – and widely held – concerns of a voter with insults. "We have just witnessed the biggest moment of the 2010 election campaign," Fraser Nelson wrote in The Spectator.
But the location of Brown's mistake – he later said he was "mortified" by his own words and apologized – was a reminder of sharp voter concerns over both unemployment and welfare benefits. Not far from where Ms. Duffy met the Prime Minister is the Lower Falinge housing estate, which has the highest percentage of people collecting welfare in the country.
The surging Conservative Party, and its leader David Cameron, have made welfare reform a central part of their campaign, something that has resonated with voters like Duffy but also concerned the large numbers of Britons who live on the dole. “Lets cut benefit for those who refuse to work!” reads a recent Conservative campaign billboard, featuring Mr. Cameron addressing a rally with his sleeves rolled up.
The issue is expected to a be a theme in Britain's final party leaders debate Thursday night, which will focus on the economy at a time when domestic inflation is far outpacing economic growth. Mr. Cameron and his party are currently leading the polls and he'll be seeking to close the deal Thursday night.
No more free rides?
If elected prime minister, Cameron has promised to reassess unemployment benefits and withhold money from those deemed fit to work. “The free ride is over,” he likes to say. That call has resonated with many British voters, and what it amounts to is a call to fundamentally overhaul the UK's post-war welfare system at a time when economic opportunity is scant.
“You tell me, how would I survive without benefits?” asks Johnnie Davis, a 30-year-old father of seven who is, like almost 8 out of ten working age residents in Lower Falinge, is unemployed.
In public housing estates like Lower Falinge, unemployment has become a a way of life passed from generation to generation, spawning communities plagued by poverty, family breakup, and crime. Successive government initiatives and billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money have so far proved largely unable to touch the problem.
With national unemployment at a 16 year high of eight percent, roughly 4.5 million people are claiming unemployment, incapacity, or single-parent benefits in the UK. That number has almost doubled in some constituencies since the economic downtown began two years ago.
View from Lower Falinge
The main street in Lower Falinge features a few chip shops, a pizza joint, a fast food kebab house, a barber, a Halal butcher, and a “fresh fruit market” with nothing fresh on offer but with a sale on large-size coca-cola. There are about a dozen boarded up store fronts.
At the Coral betting house on Spotland Road, clusters of men spend whole days placing wagers on football matches. Bowling Green, the pub across the road, is full most afternoons, as customers watch sports on TV, drink afternoon pints of beer, and complain about Asian immigrants in the community.
A focal point of the estate is the housing office, where friendly clerks help residents navigate the welfare benefits bureaucracy. Cheerful yellow pamphlets given out here explain “how to claim housing benefit and council tax benefit,” and “how to claim free school meals and get school uniform grants.” Outside, empty energy drink cans lay amongst the daffodils.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” a group of children are asked. “An American pop singer,” “A movie star,” “a footballer,” come the answers. “On the dole,” laughs one.
It’s here, at the housing office, that Mr. Davis picks up weekly checks from the government – basic employment and support allowance of about 65 pounds ($99) a week, an additional 13-20 pounds for each of his seven kids, along with child tax credits and money for food, transportation, and housing.
All told, together with the benefits he collects for his wife, the family gets about 185 pounds ($281) a week, he says.
One of nine children himself, Davis says he was problem child who was thrown out of high school. He had a job once, as a driver at JD Sports shop, where he was making 274 pounds a week - but he was fired. Even if he could find a job again today, he says, repeating an argument commonly heard here, he might not be able to take it, because he would lose many of his benefits and end up with possibly even less money than he has now.
Is there work?
Diana Rushton, lives right around the block from Davis and has little patience for such stories -- an example of the sort of voter that Cameron and the Tories are hoping to pick up in constituencies that generally vote for Labour, the current ruling party.
“Look, I worked all my life. It was the thing to do,” she says from her front porch, where she is tending to her gladioli. “I cleaned toilets when I was younger and I was not ashamed of it. But I would be ashamed to just mill around all day like they do.”
Her own two children work and study at night. “That is what I brought them up to do.” She calls her neighbors “lazy,” and alleges they are manipulating the system and picking up more in benefits than they will admit. “Why should I be paying for them and their TVs?” she asks. “All these people on the dole, lying around all day getting benefits, its just not right.”
Cameron has said that within six months of taking power, he would move to end what he calls the “dependency culture” of Labour’s myriad of benefit schemes and replace them with a single program offering support for the unemployed. Under his plan, anyone refusing to join apprenticeship programs or work clubs aimed at getting them off the dole will see their benefits slashed.
Citing statistics showing that benefit fraud has cost the government 30 billion pounds since Labour came to power 1997, the Conservatives threatened that, under their leadership, anyone abusing the system would risk losing their benefits for up to three years.
Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown counters that in the time Labour has been in power “revolutionary” action to crack down on cheats has been taken, reducing fraud by half. Labour has also tightened benefits and made them harder to qualify for – but, as Brown often points out, cutting benefits any further at a time of recession would only plunge more families into poverty.
“Now is not the time to experiment with the needy,” says Surinder Biant, Labour’s candidate for the local council here. The Conservatives, he says “…are a party of rich people who don’t understand the poor.”
The Liberal Democrats, currently running third the in the polls, have called unemployment “the most serious social crisis” facing Britain but offer few original solutions, making do with calling on Labour and Conservatives to stop grandstanding and get to work fixing the problem.