Yesterday I talked about how the media, and the right wing tabloid press in particular, plays a major role in determining not only government policy on immigration and the EU, but also determining the policy of the Labour opposition (on austerity, immigration and the EU). Yesterday also saw the introduction of a reduced benefit cap in the UK, which is another issue where both government and opposition policy has its origins in the tabloid press.
The benefit cap imposes a maximum figure you can receive in benefits (where benefits include child benefit). The previous cap hit around 20,000 households, mainly those with large numbers of children or paying very high London rents. (This and subsequent figures come from here.) The new lower cap will hit nearly 90,000, and its impact will be felt throughout the country. Those already capped will lose a further £3,000 per year (in London) or £6,000 per year (elsewhere). The government expects those households newly affected by the cap to lose an average of £2,000 a year.
The origin of this cap come from countless stories like this in the tabloid newspapers. Such stories, which are hardly ever contextualised in terms of how typical they might be, understandably annoy many people. As a result, the policy of a benefit cap has proved very popular. The government formalised motivation for the original cap with the idea that no one on benefits should receive more than they could by working. But as Declan Gaffney explained in this superb post:
“people are not generally better off on benefits than working: that’s the effect of having a minimum wage to which levels of in-work support (tax credits and housing benefit) are calibrated. As long as someone is working 16 hours a week at the legal minimum hourly wage, they are better off in work. So the principle that the public approves – the one they are in fact approving when they give their support to the cap- is already built into the social security system. But as the public is not generally familiar with the workings of the system (why should they be?), they are not necessarily aware of this.”
However the cap was quantified by comparing all the income of those out of work with just some of the income of those in work.
“So child benefit, child tax credit and housing benefit are included on one side of the comparison (out of work) and excluded on the other (working). You can demonstrate anything if you’re prepared to rig the comparison in this way, and that is precisely what the government has been doing.”
It is difficult to imagine any other motivation beside garnering popularity or appeasing the press for why the government introduced the benefit cap. The original cap raised relatively small amounts, but had a large negative impact on already poor children. The evidence suggests that only a very small percentage of those hit by the cap were encouraged to find work or move. But such was the popularity of the cap, that both the LibDems and Labour accepted it ‘in principle’. Gaffney’s post contains this very revealing quote from the LibDem Lord Kirkwood
“I want to make it clear that I am implacably opposed to a household benefit cap in principle. People's eyes glaze over when I try to explain my main reasons. I tried it in Grand Committee and by the end people looked at me as though I was possessed..... What I should really like to do with Clause 94 is vote against the whole thing. However, my noble friend Lord German and one or two others took me into a dark room, sat me down and said, "That wouldn't be sensible because the great British public know the square root of next to nothing at all about the detail of the technicalities". He has persuaded me that I should mitigate Clause 94, and I am prepared to do that.”
The benefit cap is also an example of where an opposition tactic of ‘accepting in principle’ but tinkering at the edges just becomes failed appeasement. Gaffney ends by saying: “there are costs attached to this strategy, in terms of the quality of political debate and more generally in the endorsement it gives to a big untruth about the social security system and those who are relying on it.” His post was written about the initial cap in 2012, and yesterday’s intensification of the policy suggests he was absolutely right. (Contrast with the bedroom tax, which Labour did oppose.) 
In 1966, Ken Loach made the television play Cathy Come Home about homelessness. In a small way it shocked the nation, by making many people aware of something that was otherwise unreported. Today what we have on television is Benefit Street. Ken Loach recently made the film I, Daniel Blake about the victims of the government’s benefit system which has helped create the huge expansion of food banks. But if the film was shown on TV today, I doubt whether it would have the same impact as Cathy Come Home. The idea that most benefit claimants are in some sense fake remains embedded in the public consciousness, and the belief is supported by the same media that initially helped create it. It is another politicised truth: a falsehood that politicians and the political media pretend is true.
 The danger of conceding the principle can also be illustrated by austerity. Once you accept that the deficit is a problem that requires an immediate solution, there are no limits on how much austerity you have, as public credit will always go to those to try and solve the deficit problem quickly.