Hi team. Let’s talk Maria Miller, bingo, beer and The Working Classes – because it’s high time that we did.
So, at the moment the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, is clinging to her job (although several newspapers are gleefully reporting that she’s going to be sent to Wales in the next reshuffle, which is clearly a fate worse than sacking). Mrs Miller has been caught fiddling her expenses – in particular, she failed to inform the authorities that the interest rate on her taxpayer-mortgaged second home had dropped, and carried on pocketing the difference. When she got caught, she threatened newspapers reporting on the story (as Culture Secretary, she is responsible for implementing a large proportion of the Leveson reforms), and generally used her position to be obnoxious and vile to everyone involved.
So far, so familiar. Post expenses-scandal, we’ re used to cheating and embezzling MPs. It’s par for the course, and it’s particularly ironic that one of the MPs who got done himself for fiddling his expenses- Sir Paul Beresford- is on the committee who adjudicated Mrs Miller’s claim. As it was, these MPs ignored the recommendation of the independent civil servant- for Mrs Miller to repay over £40,000 she had stolen from the taxpayer- and instead determined she should pay only £5800.
It almost seems pointless to get worked up about these things any more, to write about them or protest. Because, when you look at it objectively, our political system is defined along one abiding principle: them and us.
But I did get angry about Mrs Miller, who gets to keep her job as a government minister, when I remembered an episode of Benefits Street that I watched recently. In it, a young couple are put on “sanctions”, meaning the vast majority of their benefits are stopped, as punishment after they get caught lying to the local authority. In their case, they claimed to be living separately and were claiming double housing allowance, when in fact they were living together.
Of course, I’m not condoning any benefit fraud, and in fact, benefit fraud makes me really angry – we’re privileged to have a safety net in this country, but each case of someone taking the piss is a little victory for the right-wing lunatics who’d want to take it away from us. But when I looked at Mrs Miller’s smug, self-righteous face, delivering her 31-second apology speech from the backbenches (rather than the front-benches, which would have given it the prominence it deserves) – well, all I could think of was that poor, emaciated couple, with their two kids, forced to survive on £30 a week for food as punishment for doing exactly the same thing Mrs Miller did: stealing from the taxpayer for personal gain.
If you don’t believe me when I say that we exist in a country sharply divided along tribal lines: the ruling tribe, and the rest of us- forced to get along as best we can, and play by the rules- well, you’re not seeing it the way that they see it. Because, actually, the Tories are getting pretty hot under the collar about the issue of the ‘them’ versus the ‘us’, and as we’re in the run-up to a general election, this is something that more of us should be talking about.
Like a gradual, creeping stain in the periphery of the Conservative consciousness, the Tories have got themselves all worked up about the issue of how to get ‘them’ ie. poor people, to vote for them come May 2015. In fact, at the moment there’s a mild panic in Westminster about What’s To Be Done About The Working Classes.
The rising cost of living has, to be brutally honest, fucked over ordinary working people. Inexorably rising food costs (you know three cans of tuna are a fiver now in Tesco?) along with spiralling house prices, public sector pay freezes, benefits cuts, energy prices (ONS winter death figures peaked at 33,000 last year- that’s 31,000 people who died because they couldn’t afford to heat their home), youth unemployment at 7.2%…I mean, it’s really bleak out there, and I’m not just talking about people having to lay off their cash-in-hand cleaners or take fewer skiing holidays.
Of course, because the average Conservative Cabinet minister has had precisely zero experience of what it is actually like to survive on JSA (and neither do I, to be fair), they rely on poverty porn TV shows where the offspring of political dynasties stand in front of fridges packed with Charlie Bigham lasagnes and admit they’ve never actually known hunger or despair.
The problem is, when you do your research on 40D, rather than actually getting out there and talking to people- well, you start to develop a bit of a distorted world view. Take the recent ‘Bingo’ ad- where the government patronised essentially every person, ever, by telling us that we were ‘hard-working people’ who enjoyed ‘bingo and beer’- like some lazy 1970s characterisation of a northern mining village at a weekend.
I mean, you can literally imagine the Tory brainstorm that came up with that rat-arsed policy…
Policy wonk #1: Right, so the Budget’s tomorrow, and we’ve just realised we’ve left out a bit for the poor vote
Policy wonk #2: Shit! How did we forget that? Lynton’s gonna be so mad…
Policy wonk #3: Ok, look, let’s not sweat it guys. Does anyone know anyone working class we can call?
Policy wonk #2: Do they have phones?!
Policy wonk #1: Shut up you fool. Of course. Look, does anyone know anybody?
Intern [tentatively] Well, my grandma’s working class, I think…
Policy wonk #1: [Strained voice] Well, that’s marvellous. So, tell me…what does your grandma like to do, Kenny?
Intern: Erm, it’s Kevin actually. Well, I dunno…she likes to go down to the bingo hall I guess…but only when ‘pa is down the pub
Policy wonk # 1 [Exultant] Marvellous!! We’ve got it. Bingo and beer! Genius! Fantastic stuff Kenny!
And so lo and behold: this poster.
Even Sarah Vine criticised it, for God’s sake. But what it really points to is the fundamental problem at the heart of the Tory party.
When the Tories say ‘helping hard-working people do more of the things they enjoy’ – what they’re really saying is ‘We don’t understand you. You are Other. You are They.’ And that’s why we need to start giving more of a shit about politics. Because, in a week where Cabinet Ministers get to cheat the taxpayer and get away with it, and in a society where the government thinks they can knock a penny off the price of beer, and we’ll all be happy with it and not ask for meaningful change, like rent control or reintroducing the EMA – well, if none of us have a problem with it, then it becomes okay. And it’s not okay, m’kay? Peace out, politically engaged pals.