Politics

Tory by-election candidate blasted over post telling jobless, struggling parents to 'f**k off'

Andrew Cooper is standing as the Tory candidate in tomorrow's Tamworth byelection. In an old social media post, he told jobless parents to 'f**k off'

Andrew Cooper, the Conservative candidate in the Tamworth by-election, has been criticised for a social media post about jobless parents. Credit: The Conservative Party

Campaigners and voters have slammed an “out-of-touch” Tory by-election candidate who urged jobless parents to “f**k off” if they struggle to feed their kids.

Andrew Cooper is standing to replace the former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher as MP for Tamworth in a by-election on Thursday (19 October).

Nearly one-in-five children in the constituency (19.5%) live in relative poverty, government data suggests. But Cooper doesn’t seem very sympathetic to their parents.

In 2020, the then-councillor posted a diagram on Facebook asking the question “can you feed your kids?” If you pay for TV services like Sky, get your nails or hair done, or spend more than £30 on a phone contract each month, the flow chart directs you to “f**k off”. If you don’t work, you get the same answer. Cooper posted a picture of the hand-drawn diagram – revealed by a Daily Mirror investigation – on social media in October 2020, the height of the pandemic.

The comments are “stigmatising, offensive, and short-sighted”, warned Dr Kayleigh Garthwaite, a social policy researcher at the University of Birmingham – and misrepresent the root causes of poverty.

“The reason families are unable to afford essentials is because they simply do not have enough money to live on as a result of inadequate social security payments,” she said.

“These sorts of derogatory comments only seek to demonise people living on a low income even further,  perpetuating the idea that we should view people receiving benefits as ‘them’ and not ‘us’.”

From the soaring cost of essentials to the unavailability of suitable work, people can find themselves in financial hardship for many reasons. Owning a phone, Garthwaite noted, is not one of them.

“People need a mobile phone to perform basic activities like access the internet and to stay in touch with their children’s school, and friends and family,” she said.

Negative language like the would-be Tory MP’s can “misrepresent” how people experience poverty, said Claire Atchia McMaster, from Turn2us.

“Many people are trapped in a cycle of going in and out of insecure work, and better opportunities locally are often limited, if they exist at all,” she warned.

“The day-to-day cost of living is stubbornly high, coupled with inflation. This means poverty is an unavoidable reality for many at the moment and this is not right.”

Seeking a job is almost impossible without a phone, added Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts – a group campaigning for the rights of disabled people.

“[Cooper] has obviously never had to claim Universal Credit or he’d know people need their phones to keep in touch with job coaches,” she said.

“If they fail to do [it] leads to them being sanctioned and left to starve.”

Poverty is driven by the cost-of-living crisis, said Burnip said, not ‘luxury’ spending – and things are likely to get worse this winter. More than 600,000 people are likely to need the support of food banks between December and February, forecasts from the Trussell Trust suggest. This will mean around one million food parcels – one every eight seconds ­– need to be distributed, the highest number on record.

Tory candidate Cooper has defended his comments, insisting that people need to be incentivised into work.

“Both the prime minister and chancellor have spoken about the need to get people off welfare and into jobs,” the would-be-MP said in a statement.

But not everyone is able to enter employment, due to limiting disabilities, lack of education and training, childcare costs or lack of transportation. Disabled people “already struggle to exist on meagre social security payments,” Burnip warned.

Negative portrayals of benefit recipients are nothing new in British politics. Earlier this year, the government launched a campaign promising to “crack down on benefit fraudsters”. At the same time, deputy Conservative Party chairman Lee Anderson accused people of treating foodbanks as “the weekly shop” then going to McDonald’s “two or three times a week”. Yet this pervasive “scrounger” myth isn’t backed up by reality. In 2020-21, fraud amounted to less than 3% of welfare payments.

This morning, Cooper apologised “if [he] has offended anyone”. But Tamworth constituents have blasted his comments as “brutal” and “out-of-touch”.

“He doesn’t seem to understand that without a mobile phone or some other form of internet access, job searches and access to vital services is very difficult,” Facebook user Vince Edwards said.

“Wants to starve children, he won’t get my vote,” fumed an anonymous poster on local forum Spotted Tamworth. “To [Tories], poverty is a moral failing, not a systemic one,” wrote another.

The winner of the Tamworth by-election will replace former Tory deputy chief whip Chris Pincher. Pincher resigned after he was found to have groped two men last year. Labour candidate Sarah Edwards will need to overturn a 19,634 majority to win.

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