Post-truth and the Politics of Austerity: the impact on the left behind places and people in older industrial Britain

Professor Christina Beatty
Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research

Post-truth is defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.  It was therefore not entirely surprising when Oxford Dictionaries announced it as their word of the year in the wake of the EU referendum and Donald Trump’s campaign for President of the United States.  Ignoring the existing evidence base and selectively deploying poor quality examples or partial truths as ‘facts’ to undermine the recognised evidence base has become a defining feature of political debate on both sides of the Atlantic.

Dominant political or policy rhetoric which repeats a given number of statements often enough for these to be reiterated as fact by commentators, media and the public is not new.  However, in the persistent climate of austerity since 2010 it has been amplified by the 24 hour news cycle and social media.

In Britain, welfare reform is promoted by successive governments as a necessity for a successful deficit reduction plan.  This has been consistently premised on a narrative of over generosity in the welfare system which promotes dependency and an individual deficit model which blames those who need support from the welfare system. The structural reasons which underpin the geography of the ‘left behind’ and high expenditure on the welfare system are overwhelmingly ignored. These structural factors include job loss from de-industrialisation, globalisation, and technological advances as well as persistently low pay. Often, wholesale reductions to eligibility and entitlement to for the majority of welfare recipients are justified by deploying examples of a small minority of extreme cases of those perceived to take advantage of the system.

This rhetoric frequently ignores the reality for many of those who struggle to get a foothold in the workforce or maintain a regular job in an increasingly precarious labour market. The labour market outcomes of those facing multiple disadvantage in the workforce are largely shaped by factors outside their control; yet policy makers often blame these individuals for their situation.  Indeed, the policy discourse also ignores the fact that many working age families receiving support from the welfare system are already in work or that amongst those who aren’t many have recognised levels of long-term health and disability which impedes their ability to work. Labour market disadvantage is magnified for those with poor relevant skills or qualifications or limited recent labour market experience as well as poor health. Most significantly, the underpinning geography of how these individual factors are compounded by the strength of the local labour market, the availability of job opportunities and the competition for jobs in an area are also ignored.

The older industrial areas of Britain which suffered major job loss in manufacturing and industry since the 1980s are the same areas which suffer from higher numbers of incapacity-related and unemployment-related benefit claimants today. Our research shows they are also the same communities which bear the brunt of welfare reform and a concentration of the subsequent consequences of falling household incomes amongst some of Britain’s poorest families. Instead of blaming the individual for losing their job or being unable to find a job, the long-term structural issues need to be addressed with an active regional policy and industrial strategy.

The Brexit vote fired a warning shot across the bow of the British Government to take note of the plight of the ‘left behind’ places and people, as did the rust-belt of America with the election of Trump.  Politicians and policy makers ignore the long-term consequences and geography of de-industrialisation at their peril.

Christina Beatty is a Professor at the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) and co-author with Steve Fothergill of Jobs, Welfare and Austerity: How the destruction of industrial Britain casts a shadow over present-day public finances a paper released to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of CRESR at Sheffield Hallam University.