Complex Causes: The Dog-Whistle Politics of Austerity

Complex Causes: The Dog-Whistle Politics of Austerity

Alan Connolly

Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, James Brokenshire, recently denied that UK government policies are linked to the annual increases in homelessness which have occurred since the Conservatives took power in 2010. The causes of homelessness, he said, are “multi-layered and complex”. He was responding, in an interview with The Guardian, to assertions from charities that government social security policy is a primary driver of the rise in homelessness.

Brokenshire’s alternative explanation was that the rise is due to the interaction of issues such as addiction, family breakdown and immigration. A key factor, he claimed, concerns young LGBT people being forced to leave home by their families. He also referred to growing numbers of immigrants (of unspecified nationalities) sleeping rough in London as part of the problem. The only evidence provided for this analysis was an anecdotal reference to conversations with unnamed LGBT charities. Regarding addiction, Brokenshire spoke about how difficult it was to help those affected, and in relation to immigrants sleeping rough he said that he was working with the Home Office to tackle this.

The timing of these comments proved problematic for Brokenshire as on the day that his interview was reported Gyula Remes, who was homeless, died outside Parliament. Remes was the second person in a year to die while sleeping rough outside government buildings in Westminster, and his death resulted in an intense media focus on homelessness. This highlighted the distressing fact that deaths of people without homes have increased by 24% in five years, with 597 people dying across the UK in 2017 alone. It also likely led to Brokenshire’s second statement six days later where he accepts that policy changes by government are needed and, significantly, doesn’t deny that social security cuts are playing a role in rising levels of homelessness as he had done in the initial interview.

His retraction notwithstanding, Brokenshire’s original use of the term ‘complex’ to describe the causes of homelessness and his subsequent itemisation of a list of possible causes reveals much about his political views. Over the course of my current ESRC funded research on food bank use I have become familiar with the use of this term in media articles about increasing food bank use, where a UK government source (usually a Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson) has been asked for a comment. The following line has been used so much, almost verbatim, in this context, that it can be safely described as the UK government’s stock response to criticism of its policies in relation to rising food bank use. It reads: “The reasons why people use food banks are complex, so it’s wrong to link a rise to any one cause.”

MPs, senior ministers, as well as the Prime Minister herself, have all used this answer when questioned about food banks. The use of the line achieves several things. First it explicitly denies that government policies are solely (or at all) responsible for the social problem in question. Secondly ‘complex’ implies difficult to solve, and necessitating complex solutions that government couldn’t reasonably be expected to implement in the short term. Finally, while the causes of any social problem are indeed invariably complex, the systematic deployment of the phrase by the current UK government is linked to their ideological stance on the causes of poverty and other social problems. In this context ‘complex causes’ is a dog-whistle phrase to be understood as individual, as opposed to structural, factors, and – taken in conjunction with Conservative views on the role and obligations of the state – places blame and responsibility on the people affected.

Dog-whistle politics involves the use of coded messages meant to be understood by a particular group or target audience, chiming with their beliefs while simultaneously seeming to have a more general or innocuous meaning. In this case the target audience is arguably existing and potential Conservative party supporters, and the message Brokenshire conveys in his original interview is that responsibility for homelessness lies primarily not with the government but with addiction, intolerant families and immigrants who (it is implied) perhaps shouldn’t be in the country if they are homeless. His use of the phrase as a reference to individual responsibility is particularly transparent because he makes a clear connection between denying government culpability and a specific list of the supposed real key drivers of the rise in homelessness.

Brokenshire’s reference to the difficulty of assisting those with addiction problems is part of this denial as it implies that the UK government is already doing its best on this issue. Similarly his reference to the Home Office in relation to immigrants who are sleeping rough attempts to take this group of people out of the equation in terms of links between social security policy and homelessness. It places them in a category to be dealt with by the security (as opposed to social) services, casts doubt on their right to expect any assistance from the state, and hints at deportation as a solution (despite Brokenshire having given no indication as to the actual immigration status of the people concerned).

In contrast to Brokenshire’s interview, the periodic deployment of the term ‘complex’ by government representatives on rising food bank use is more subtle in that they usually don’t explicitly itemise alternative reasons for the increases in the same statement. However, there is little doubt as to the current Conservative government’s views on food bank use. Senior government figures have frequently made statements placing the responsibility on the individual accessing charitable assistance, rather than the government, and listing personal or individual reasons that they claim are driving rising food bank use in the UK.

The view that the root causes of poverty are individual in nature recurs throughout Coalition and Conservative government policy documents since 2010. One such paper opens with reference to the “complex problems” underlying poverty, emphasising drug use and “troubled families” and depicting work as the only solution. Presenting work as a universal answer to various social problems serves to alienate those who do not work without any consideration of the possible reasons for this. Similarly it does not account for the vast differences in pay between different kinds of employment. It’s also worth pointing out that 13.4% of those with jobs in the UK (4 million) are living below the poverty line, an increase of 0.5 million since 2013.

The declaration “work is the best route out of poverty” is another favourite stock phrase of the Conservative government, usually used to counter criticism of their responses to poverty. In a similar way to ‘complex causes’, this phrase could be read as suggesting that people simply need to choose to work in order to improve their lives, as well as implying that some people are choosing poverty. The view that poverty is a choice has also been regularly promoted by government figures since 2010.

Then Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2012 Conservative Party conference speech, where he asserts that unemployment is a matter of choice for young people, is an attempt to justify extreme levels of social security cuts and conditionality being implemented at the time: “Choice one: Work hard. Go to college. Get a job. Live at home. Save up for a flat… Or: Don’t get a job. Sign on… Get housing benefit. Get a flat. And then don’t ever get a job or you’ll lose a load of housing benefit.”

Current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Amber Rudd claimed in 2013 that people in receipt of social security payments were moving to her seaside constituency, Hastings and Rye, to take drugs and socialise rather than to seek work. Cardiff councillor Kathryn Kelloway insisted recently that people who are homeless are choosing to live in tents rather than accessing emergency accommodation, and that the council ought to therefore “tear down” their tents. Made a month after the death of Gyula Remes, these comments led to Kelloway’s suspension from the Cardiff Conservative Council group. However three days later the suspension was lifted and Kelloway publically reaffirmed her views.

The UK government has been on the defensive about these issues lately in the wake of the fact finding visit to the UK of United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston. Alston’s report concluded that “poverty [in the UK] is a political choice”.  The government’s approach, he said, is “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” and their “driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering”.

The reaction to this has tellingly centred on tone rather than content. So while Amber Rudd was “disappointed” by the language of the report and Prime Minister Theresa May disagreed with Alston’s analysis, neither disputed the facts in his report for example that 14 million people, or 20% of the UK population, live in poverty and 1.5 million are considered ‘destitute’. The government’s response to Alston’s findings is unsurprising if we consider that four previous UN reports on the UK in the areas of healthcare, housing and disability – published since 2011 – have also been ignored.

Why does the UK government feel secure in employing these tactics? Have they decided that enough of the public are sympathetic to their individual understanding of poverty to justify the strategy? Unfortunately there are indications that this is the case. For example, UK public opinion is deeply sceptical of any increases in the levels of social security payments for unemployment, with only 20% supporting such a move. To put this in context, 56% of people also believe that unemployed people don’t really want to work. More generally, a majority approve of austerity measures to date, despite 64% of people not knowing what a ‘government deficit’ is. What is needed then is for the Opposition, as well as other political parties who oppose these attitudes and policies, to urgently engage with these daunting levels of antipathy and scepticism and to try to change them.

Public support for the government’s position may be also challenged by a growing body of research in the UK indicating that current government policies are exacerbating poverty. To highlight just three recent examples, research projects from Child Poverty Action Group, The University of Salford and The British Medical Journal have linked government policies with worsening poverty, mental health and mortality rates respectively. In the face of such findings, it’s not credible for the government to categorically state that their policies aren’t having a detrimental effect in these areas without providing reliable data or coherent arguments beyond politicised rhetoric. A positive case for reversing austerity policies and strengthening the social security system in the UK needs to be made in order to shift public opinion. Until that happens, the current government will continue to rely on stock phrases (coded with varying degrees of subtlety), refusing to engage with research findings, and disregarding the personal experiences of people affected by their policies.


Alan Connolly is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University with research interests in the areas of social policy, political philosophy and economic inequality. His Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded PhD research examines the growth of food banking in England in the period from 2010 to 2019, utilising the Liverpool City Region, the city with the highest use of food banks in the UK, as a case study. He tweets at @connolla.

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