The collapse of workfare is testament to the power of the modern media elite and its slavish Twitter

“What could be worse than the government’s workfare programme?”, almost every columnist in the land is currently asking. I can think of one thing worse: the awesome and terrifying power of the commentariat and its slavish groupies amongst the Twitterati to strike down initiatives like workfare and almost any other government project that they don’t like. That’s the real story here. Forget the historically illiterate wailing about young people being forced into “slave labour” or the idea that getting yoof to work in return for money is the Worst Thing Ever. The ins and outs of workfare itself pale into insignificance when compared with the new power of tiny cliques of cut-off people to override public opinion and reshape modern Britain.

The speed with which first Tesco, that supposedly arrogant monolith of the high street, and then others withdrew from the workfare scheme was alarming. It was a testament both to the sheepishness of modern corporations (remember this next time someone starts banging on about “free-market fundamentalism”) and to the authority of the therapeutic, suspicious-of-wealth, pro-state, anti-big-business sections of the well-fed media classes, who can now put powerful institutions on the spot simply by penning a few ill-thought-through articles with the word “SLAVE” in them. As Damian Thompson pointed out in his Saturday Telegraph column, all it really took for Tesco to crumble on the workfare issue was “one tweet from Polly Toynbee describing it as slave labour”.

Indeed, the anti-workfare clique is upfront, even cocky about its elitist clout. In a piece largely devoted to patting herself on the back for blowing a hole in workfare, Toynbee said Tesco’s climbdown shows that “a small band of people can win the day”. Toynbee is cock-a-hoop about the fact that massive corporations have beat a “rapid retreat” in response to “a big noise [made by] a few people”. She self-consciously contrasts the relative uselessness of “traditional mass marches” to “the UK Uncut model of quick and clever hits”. Strip away the PC lingo and this is really an out-loud celebration of the power of infinitesimally small numbers of middle-class agitators to redraw the political map to their tastes, a cheering of the disproportionate impact that can be made by the media elite in our era of sheepish big business and declining mass protest.

And yet, poll after poll indicates that the general public (remember them?) wants to see serious welfare reform. The latest issue of Prospect magazine reports that 74 per cent of Brits think too much is spent on welfare and that certain benefits should be cut. Other polls show that a majority is in favour of the Coalition’s benefit cap and believes people should work for their money. This isn’t because the masses have had their brain cells deformed by tabloid stories about benefit scroungers, but rather because they believe, entirely reasonably, that able-bodied, able-minded people, especially the young, should do some work in return for money. Their views count for little, however, in the face of the fact that, as one columnist gleefully describes it, “Twitter and The Daily Mail are foaming with outrage” over workfare.

There you have it: the outrage of “a few people”, the mouth-foaming of” small, are all you need these days to rewrite the political narrative. Never mind trying to win over the public or seeking to change things through the parliamentary or other democratic routes – just get a few of your mates who have privileged platforms in the media or on Twitter to make “a big noise”, and, hey presto, the world will remould itself around your petty prejudices. It doesn’t matter one jot what you think of workfare, whether you think it is great or terrible; either way, you should be alarmed about the fact that tiny bands of middle-class miserabilists are now clambering over the carcasses of mass politics and free-market confidence to crown themselves the foaming dictators of the British political scene.

By: Brendon O’Neill