If a Community Speaks and Nobody Hears It, Does It Make a Sound?

richpennyBy Richard Penny, Teaching Fellow in Political Theory and PhD student at the University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can read more posts by Richard here.

I was fortunate to attend a public meeting last week, called to discuss residents’ fears over the sequel to ‘Benefits Street’ (creatively titled ‘Immigration Street’) which is to be set in the Derby Road area of Southampton. Around 200 local people, charity workers and community leaders lined up to explain their opposition to the filming of the series to its director, Kieran Smith, of Love Productions.

The residents’ anger was both palpable and wide ranging. Speakers wanted to know why Derby Road was chosen as an ‘Immigration Street’ when most residents were British citizens, born and raised in the UK. “We’re all as British as each other,” one resident shouted, “you’re here because of the way we look!”. Smith replied merely that they wanted to find an area that had been ‘influenced by immigration’. In this case then, another resident asked, why were they not filming in her community – built on generations of Irish-Catholic immigrants?  In fact, as others pointed out – which parts of Britain haven’t been influenced by immigration? Smith didn’t answer, and it was hard to escape the conclusion that – intentionally or accidentally – Love Productions had failed to grasp the difference between ethnicity, and nationality. Either way – as one colleague noted – it raises doubts about their ability to make a ‘nuanced’, ‘careful’ documentary about immigration.

Many residents also pointed to the impacts on the residents of James Turner Street, aka Benefits Street. Local councillor (and PAIR graduate) Satvir Kaur asked Smith if he really cared about the community on Derby Road – and if so, why he was happy to expose them to death threats, intimidation, media intrusion, and a stigma that could last for generations. Smith argued that he wanted to portray the community positively, and would offer residents influence over the final output. If this were the case then, Smith was asked, why were the residents of James Turner Street so unhappy with the way they were portrayed? Had Love Productions failed to inform them of the framing they were putting on the series, or had they failed to listen to their objections?

From the outset the degree of trust in the room was low – and it declined from thereon as residents presented a list of revelations about the conduct of Love Productions. The first of these was that prior to this ‘consultation meeting’ Love Productions had already been filming for between 10-12 weeks. Some consultation. Further, many participants had been told only that they were taking part in a ‘documentary about immigration’ with no mention of the show’s title, or its connection to ‘Benefits Street’ – a fact that for many, was very significant.

Perhaps most worrying of all were the testimonies from a number of care workers, regarding how Love Productions had operated thus far. In particular, it was alleged that crew from the series had entered, and loitered outside a day centre in the area, looking to speak to residents with a range of vulnerabilities including substance abuse problems, learning difficulties and mental health issues. Did Smith understand the notion of ‘informed consent’ it was asked? Another care worker asked why Love Productions had been speaking to members of the National Front in Southampton (and not resident in the area) if they didn’t wish to spark ethnic division. Another case was raised in which it was alleged that Love Productions had sent cameras to record a resident being sectioned under the mental health act.

By this point Smith had all but given up justifying the filming. He responded incredulously to the allegations regarding targeting vulnerable people (including the line of the night: Smith: “Are you really questioning our ethics as TV producers?” Whole room: “YES!”), before refusing to comment on specific allegations regarding who they had spoken to. Increasingly he fell back on the argument that if residents didn’t want to be filmed, they didn’t have to consent – but that Love Productions had the right to film consenting individuals. What Smith didn’t seem to be able to grasp was that the community itself might have rights of its own. It is, after all, the community that his show is seeking to represent, and yet the community seemed utterly united in its opposition to the programme.

It was this impasse that underscored much of the bad feeling during and after the discussion. In a sense the meeting was heartening. The residents of Derby Road had a keen sense of their identity – of how to reconcile what it means to be British, and what it means to be an immigrant – and of how they needed to speak and act together to protect the proud and diverse community they had built (in what is historically one of the most troubled areas of the city). And yet, at the same time, there was no obvious idea of what they could do to stop the production of ‘Immigration Street’. One community leader urged attendees to write to OFCOM, but this suggestion was met with utter derision from most – who were acutely aware that the regulator dismissed all complaints about Benefits Street.

Indeed, the question was put to Smith (by Alan Whitehead MP) as to what it would take for his team to stop the filming. Smith’s couldn’t provide an answer. And why should he? Contracts have been signed with Channel 4. Money had been paid. Filming has started, and they will have no trouble finding a pool of participants for whom the lure of being on television, and a potential route to stardom is too much to refuse. There are Bafta’s at stake, and nothing that either the law, or regulators can (or will) do to prevent the filming. Indeed, to the extent that the authorities are involved in the filming of ‘Immigrant Street’, it’s likely that it will be in the role of protecting the film crew as they do their work – at least if the threats of interference from some community members are realised.

The overriding sense at the end of the meeting then was one of powerlessness, and frustration. And in this sense it was hard to escape the conclusion that the meeting in question was also something of a microcosm for British society more generally. Smith will make his show, he will make money, he will advance his career, and he will do so unhindered by regulatory bodies and unaffected by its consequences. Smith, of course, is part of a strata of British society for whom the law, the economy, the media and the regulators work perfectly well.

On the other hand there is a community for whom – despite its obvious strength – none of these facts are true. They are not organising from a position of wealth, resources or power. They do not have the luxury of choosing how they are presented to the nation, and nor can they call upon the law or the political system to protect them. One of the most telling parts of the evening was the meetings’ reluctance to let the BBC and ITV news crews report on the discussion. Almost no-one trusted them to do so impartially. And who can blame them?

For the most part these differences bubble under the surface. Both the advantaged and disadvantaged in Britain have priced their status into their worldview to a large extent. But increasingly these two worlds are unable to ignore one another – and when they do collide – when privilege and power comes face to face those who lack it – the result is toxic. The show will doubtless be made. The economic and political interests behind it are simply too strong. Yet, with no alternatives there will doubtless be confrontations – legal and otherwise – as residents try to stop it. But this controversy will only feed the fire further, until it moves on, to quench its insatiable appetite for outrage elsewhere. And the community will be left to pick up the pieces by itself. It feels chillingly like as there goes Derby Road, there goes Britain. What is to be done?

We all Live on Benefits Street

richpennyBy Richard Penny, Teaching Fellow in Political Theory and PhD student at the University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can read more posts by Richard here.

You may have heard that there’s a television show called Benefits Street, which promises to reveal “the reality of life on benefits”, neatly wrapped in episodic, half-hour, commercial-interspersed packages. The show – like all good things – has earned the right to be called “polarising” by the media.  But it also throws up (in both senses) a number of questions with which political theorists of justice frequently grapple.

Many have already questioned whether ‘benefits claimants’ are portrayed fairly, accurately or ethically in the show. But there is surely something more deeply questionable about the concept of Benefits Street. What is it, we might ask, that makes the residents of Benefits Street different from the rest of ‘us’[1]? Is it fair, in other words, to set apart (let alone demonise) a person, or a community in terms of the benefits they receive?

This, after all, is one of the unsaid premises of the show, and why it has generated the discussion that it has. ‘We’ are looking at how ‘they’ live, and having ‘our’ say on it. But what makes the ‘us’ and the ‘them’? One response might be to emphasise that it is not the benefits that really matter at all, but rather the fact that many of the residents are out of work. What makes them different, some might (and do) say is that they (unlike ‘us’) are ‘non-contributors’[2]. Those of us in work are giving back to society somehow, by way of income taxes – and perhaps – by way of the labour we expend.

However, whilst contribution is clearly part of the story of Benefits Street, it doesn’t fully explain the focus of the show, and the benefits panic on which it draws (and feeds). After all, many of the residents of Benefits Street do work – as do many millions of benefits claimants nationally. And indeed, the common vernacular doesn’t talk of ‘non-contributors’ but rather ‘benefits claimants’, ‘people on benefits’ and worse, ‘benefits scroungers’. It is illustrative, I would suggest, that the show is called Benefits Street, and not ‘Non-contributors Street’.

In contemporary terms then, it is increasingly the receipt of benefits that operates as the primary frame for the issue of welfare, rather than one’s level of contribution. In the emerging ‘makers’ vs ‘takers’ narrative – the successful mark themselves out as different not only in terms of their contribution, but also in terms of their not taking from the state. In this world-view, the very act of claiming benefits is seen as deplorable in itself – as one’s being ‘on the take’ somehow, or worse ‘dependent’ or ‘reliant’ on the state.

This view seems problematic in many ways, but even if we do it the courtesy of taking it seriously, does it really allow us to mark the residents of Benefits Street as different from the rest of society? This seems doubtful. Take an apparently unrelated example: The Coalition’s flagship ‘Help to Buy Policy’. This loan scheme enables middle income citizens to purchase houses, and drives national home values up in the process. Putting aside the questions of whether inflating another housing bubble is good economics, it’s worth noting that this policy can itself be seen as a kind of hand-out. Being debt funded, the Government is essentially borrowing from future taxpayers. This money is then transferred to purchasers of homes, and indirectly to existing owners of property through rising prices. Thus thanks to Help to Buy the owner of a £1,000,000 property in London might see its value rise by 10% (a year!) as a result. This is to say they will receive, in effect, a bonus of £100,000 paid for by tomorrow’s taxpayer (including, of course, the residents of Benefits Street). A financial benefit from the state, we might say.

Now this is not to say that this is necessarily problematic. It might well be good to support the housing market, and encourage home ownership. But what it does illustrate is the way in which redistributive benefits – by many other names – are claimed by all strata of society. Indeed, almost every economic policy worth writing is redistributive in some degree. When Royal Mail was privatised, for example, a public asset – owned by all citizens – was sold off cheaply to predominantly wealthy investors, or the pensions funds they invest in. Here too is the redistribution of wealth from one section of society to another. However, we see rather less moral panic when the recipients of these transfers are wealthy individuals and (perversely?) when the quantities of money involved run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds, rather than, say, the £56 a week the unemployed residents Benefits Street receive in JSA[3].

And once we think about it, these kinds of redistributive benefits are surely only the tip of the iceberg. Isn’t the point of society that everyone benefits? This at least is what most political theorists from Hobbes to Rawls have argued. Even those at the top of society benefit greatly from the state, to the extent that they are arguably just as dependent on it. Many business owners object loudly at this kind of sentiment. They, after all, built their firms with their own hard work and initiative, earning the wealth and security that goes with it. But surely in a very real sense they are just as dependent as the residents of Benefits Street. Would their business exist without the infrastructure they use for deliveries? Would their business exist without someone educating the staff that they employ, or healing them when they fall ill? Would their business exist without someone regulating their competitors and supplies, such that neither can cripple them through foul-play or error? Would their business exist without, for that matter, without someone managing a growing stable economy in which they can sell their goods? If such business-people are to blame the state when it mishandles the economy, then they must surely accept that it enables their industry when it manages it properly.

Of course, none of this is to say that we might not question whether the state ought to be providing these goods, benefits and security. As Robert Nozick famously argued – the fact that an individual benefits from something might not justify our providing it to them without their consent. Perhaps free markets can provide all of the above, as effectively and with less coercion?

But note that this is a totally different question. What we are interested in is whether the residents of Benefits Street are unique in their relationship with the state. And it seems difficult to see how they are. Instead, what we see is how the receipt of a particular kind of benefit is being marked out as controversial, or deplorable. And how convenient that it be that which is received by the most vulnerable in society.

Of course, we ought not to conclude from this that no-one has the right to believe or act as if ‘benefits claiming’ is condemnable somehow. But what it does imply is that we had better be prepared to take our own snouts out of the trough when we do so. Otherwise the sound we make is likely to be rather revolting.

[1] Declaration of interest: Like most young(ish) scholars, the author has received a range of welfare benefits at different points in time.

[2] Of course, talk of ‘contribution’ in this fashion is horribly problematic. First, of course, not all individuals or communities have equal ability to contribute. For starters, most developed economies choose to maintain mass unemployment as a policy tool to fight inflation. Secondly though, society’s notion of what contribution means seems far too reliant on what it is that the market applies a price to. Thus on conventional measures a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother would be ‘contributing’ to society quite handsomely, whereas a mother (or father) who spent a day raising a child, supporting a working spouse and caring for an elderly relative would be seen to contribute nothing.

[3] This phenomenon mirrors that of our focus on the frantic chasing down of ‘benefits cheats’, and our relatively relaxed attitudes towards tax evasion by the super-rich.

Old Questions about Young People

richpennyBy Richard Penny, Teaching Fellow in Political Theory and PhD student at the University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can read more posts by Richard here.


If commentary is to be believed, Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference set out a frightening picture of Britain in 2020 – riven by power outages and the confiscation of private property. But these two nightmarish visions pale into comparison with Miliband’s third major announcement – the dystopian pledge to give young people more of a say over how society is run.

In proposing to lower the voting age to 16, Miliband raised an issue which had laid largely dormant in mainstream politics since the voting age was lowered to 18 (from 21) in The Representation of the People Act in 1969. Nonetheless, the question of who should be able to vote, and why, remains of great normative (or moral) importance and interest.

However, whilst the question Miliband raised may have been interesting, the same could not be said for much of the immediate reaction. ‘No representation without taxation’ thundered some – ignoring the fact that young people pay many taxes (particularly VAT, taxes on savings, and taxes relating to work), and that linking the right to vote to a citizen’s taxable contribution seems morally troubling (not least in a society in which receiving taxable income is still a strongly male privilege). Other commentators argued that we ought to let children be children, without ‘corrupting’ them with politics (and presumably leaving them free to pursue innocent childish activities like climbing trees and playing the latest instalment of Grand Theft Auto). Other arguments took on a more practical hue, claiming variously that young people won’t bother to vote (in which case it’s not clear what the problem would be), or that lowering the voting age will result in mass manipulation of young people by radical parties. Some commentators, confusingly, made both arguments at the same time.

The more serious and thoughtful responses to Miliband’s proposals tended to focus on the idea that young people simply aren’t capable of making the kinds of informed decision which are necessary to vote effectively. This claim seems harder to dismiss. After all, it seems clear enough that there are many young people who we might not want making important decisions on our behalf (you probably walk past a lot of them on the way to campus each morning).

But how far can this thought actually take us? If we are brutally honest, we’d surely have to admit that there are also plenty of over 18s who we might not want making important decisions on our behalves (you probably walk past a lot of them on campus each morning). And this serves to illustrate a problem for the ‘competency’ argument for restricting young people from voting. Namely that whatever we mean when we say that young people are “incapable of making an informed decision”, the same will surely apply to some adults too. Or conversely, on whichever metric we choose (‘life-experience’, ‘maturity’, ‘intelligence’, ‘political knowledge’) there will almost certainly be some people under 18 who perform better than some over 18.

One solution would be to adopt a competency test across all members of society. However, this looks objectionable for a lot of reasons. But if so, then what the competency argument is really saying is that ‘since some young people aren’t competent to vote, all young people should be barred from voting’. This looks considerably shakier. Even if we grant that some young people might not be ‘competent’ to vote[1] it would seem rather unfair to use this as a basis to restrict others who were competent. To take a parallel, there are many elderly voters who – given the remorseless passage of time – might fairly have their competency to vote questioned. But even if we were willing to say this (and good luck to the politician who tries), it would seem patently wrong to remove the vote from other elderly voters who retained the competency we were identifying.

At this point a defender of the competency argument might claim that the issue is simply one of practicality. ‘Yes’, they may concede, ‘some young people might be capable of informed voting – but in general, most aren’t, and it’s simply not practical to work out who is and who isn’t’. But this idea also seems difficult to defend. The right to vote is surely not something that ought to be conditional on its being easy to administer. Keeping an electoral roll of over 44 million people is difficult to administer. So are elections! And yet we not only do both, but we even send ballot papers around the world to expatriates, and set up polling stations in isolated communities so that citizens can not only vote, but vote conveniently. In all these cases it seems evident that the right to vote is far more important than the cost to society of enabling this right. But if this is the case then it seems that the very most the defender of the competency argument can demand is that we set up some kind of test for those under 18.

Is this a satisfactory compromise? There are reasons to suppose it is not. Would it have been a satisfactory compromise for the suffragettes to accept a competency test in order to ‘prove’ that women were competent voters? Even if every woman were to pass such a test, and have her vote, the existence of the test itself would surely signify a kind of second-class status for women that should trouble a society committed to equal citizenship. To withhold from all members of a social group such an important right such as voting, on the basis that some – supposedly – may not be able to use it properly is not a standard we would accept with regards to race, gender, educational achievement or income. It is not clear what makes age different. Just as we would not accept a competency test for the elderly, it seems that we should reject one for young people too.

[1] Note too that defining what ‘competency’ to vote means is far from simple. What is competency? And worse, who gets to decide?