Benefits Street has proved a winner for Channel 4.
The controversial series of programmes, about the lives of the residents of James Turner Street in Birmingham, has generated more debate about the social security system than any conventional political event. Opinions range from accusations of ‘poverty porn’ through to praise for revealing the damaging effects of the welfare system.
It would be impossible to watch the series without concluding something was badly wrong. The problem is that Britain’s national political class no longer has the power or self-confidence to address the kinds of issues raised by Benefits Street.
Between 2000 and 2008, there was a period of economic and public expenditure growth, yet it is hard to see how many of the residents of James Turner Street had their lives substantially improved under Labour. Similarly, we will have to wait years to find out if the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition’s welfare reforms can make any difference – if they are ever fully implemented.
At about the time Benefits Street was first aired, former US defense secretary Robert Gates published a book claiming that defence cuts meany Britain was no longer a key full military partner to the US. The prime minister disagreed, but there can be no doubt that the UK’s military budget has had to be reduced substantially over the past 60 years, largely to pay for rapidly rising welfare and health spending.
Gates, accidentally, pointed to a longer-term change in the shape of the British state. Defence, business support, foreign affairs, capital investment and local government are all subject to an inevitable longer-term squeeze in order to pay for hard-to-control welfare, health and schools budgets. The public prefers hospitals to aircraft-carriers and nurses to social workers. The £200bn social security budget is something everyone wants to cut, but without affecting pensioners.
The left versus right response to Benefits Street can be caricatured as the left saying ‘give people more’ and the right ‘give them less’. In truth, public provision needs to work together to improve the lives of those trapped on welfare. Community budgets, if only Whitehall would allow them to work, would be a key solution.
Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics