Everybody in the country should read this piece by Sue Marsh and get angry. What’s happening to Sue and many, many other DLA claimants is a depressing and disgraceful example of how this government are attempting to reduce the deficit by breaking the backs of the very poorest in our society.
But that’s not the whole story. It would be remiss of me not to mention that ATOS, welfare reform and Lord Freud were all originally brought in by James Purnell and Liam Byrne as Labour ministers. We didn’t go as far and our ideology is different (of which more later) but our hands are not clean on welfare reform.
That’s the admission that cleanses my lefty soul; that goes some way to placating the increasingly loud and well organised disabled lobby. It’s the answer that speaks to the part of our Socialism that is about protecting the weakest and most vulnerable in our society.
But that’s not the whole story either. The whole story is about how we got to that point while in government and where we go now in opposition. The whole story is how we support a system that works. The whole story is how we provide a social contract that those who fund it and those who benefit from it will can both agree with.
These are not questions that simply exist on the issue of disability benefits. On employment and unemployment related welfare, on housing and housing related welfare and on societal attitudes to child poverty and parental welfare Labour faced questions from all sides while in Government and face a louder clamour still in opposition.
The Tories have a strong and firm stall on all issues of welfare. It may (indeed does) have evil consequences, but it would be a mistake to believe it comes from a place of evil. It comes from a flawed, misguided, mistaken belief that looking after people infantilises them and that tough love is the best – indeed only real – love there is. Call it wrong because it is. Decry the effects loudly, because they are terrible. But if we simply revert to name calling without understanding, we won’t be able to change minds. When the majority of the public agree with their attitude, rhetoric and most of the measures, we simply cannot expect a democratic party of opposition to ignore that simply to pick a fight they’ll lose anyway.
There was a fair amount of angst among Labour supporters about the recent speech by Liam Byrne about making unemployment benefit recipients work harder for the money they receive. Measure might include weekly rather than fortnightly attendance at the Job Centre and compulsory work training for the long-term unemployed. It was all too easy for the left – Labour and otherwise – to believe that these announcements were tantamount to the demonisation of the unemployed. Despite Liam Byrne making other speeches calling levels of unemployment a disgrace.
We cannot forget that currently there is a prevalent belief in disability fraud – despite fraud being relatively low incidence and extremely low cost. But those who are struggling the most live closest to those who are defrauding the system, because the poorly paid live in close quarters with those on benefits, including the small percentage who may not deserve them. Those who are working hard, unsatisfying low paid jobs deserve as much as anyone to feel their taxes are being well spent, and it is them as much as anyone who a new social contract will have to be made.
This being the case, I would urge disability campaigners like Sue to engage even more fully on the issue of fraud (I know this is done to an extent). Not because it is as real or prevalent as the Daily Mail believes, but precisely because it is not. If we can lay the myths firmly to rest, we can stop basing our policies on the demands they create from ordinary people. But until we engage with that narrative head on and change it, we will never lose the term scrounger (one of the reasons I love Sue’s blog is her taking that word and challenging it in it’s very title. More of that!).
In my previous writing on welfare I was fumbling towards a time when Labour and the left could agree that the simple statement “as a society we should encourage as few people as possible to be on benefits” was not an attack on those who do need and deserve societal support, but an acknowledgement that most who do would prefer – if possible – to live by other means. Getting people off benefits should be equal in our minds to reducing unemployment, to raising standards of living. Not – as it is in Iain Duncan Smith’s philosophy as a way of testing the mettle of the unemployed in the hope they will rise to the challenge. Too often, both sides of this debate on the Left have allowed what should and could mean the former to mean the latter.
That’s the fault of our politicians for failing in and out of government to challenge perceptions rather than pander to them. But equally, it’s the fault of the left for falling into the trap of playing an eternal and losing defensive game. What we currently have in terms of welfare isn’t working. It’s barely enough to keep those who rely on it off the breadline and yet still seen as wasted by those who don’t. The left, campaigners like Sue and Labour should come together in all our long term interests – and those of the UK – to make welfare reform a thing that excites rather than frightens us. We should be talking to experts, health practitioners and patient groups to make assessment work; we should work with charities, employers and claimants to make long term unemployment a thing of the past; we should work with strong hearts and loud public voices to proclaim the birth of a new welfare contract in the long term interests of everyone. We should never again let our fear stymie our ambitions. Because every time we do, every time we fight on the defensive not the offensive, we lose a little more ground. And soon we will have none left.