Thursday, 24 June 2010

Labour's fingerprints are all over this budget.

Panto season came early this year. Watching Gideon George Osborne take the floor on Tuesday to announce the execution of the welfare state was a bit like being in the audience at a raucous Christmas show, with booing and howling on cue from the Labour benches as the Chancellor tore successive chunks out of sickness benefit, housing benefit, lone parent support and the dole before setting out plans for a wildly regressive VAT hike, a freeze on public sector pay and a hefty tax break for businesses.
The sheer brazenness of it all felt farcical, almost unreal. You half expected Osborne to burst into a musical number about how fun it is to be the baddie, announce the closure of all orphanages and vanish from the Commons in a puff of green smoke. The response from Labour and the liberal press has been equally pantomimic. After all, when a new cabinet of whose members 80% are personally millionaires pulverises welfare and housing with a fistful of broken sums before declaring that 'we're all in this together', what can you really say except 'oh no, we're not’?
By far the most astute summary came from activist and comedian Mark Thomas, who tweeted: "that wasn't so much a budget as class war committed with a calculator." The controlled ferocity of the emergency budget was almost kinky, presuming you have a fetish for being kicked repeatedly in the soul by a man with a stack of papers and a glass of mineral water. Labour and the liberal press have condemned the proposals – but the fiery indignation of Harriet Harman and Alistair Darling rings hollow when one considers that the groundwork for many of the proposed welfare cuts was already in place before Labour lost the election.
Uncomfortable as it may be for the left to recall, some of the most regressive changes in this budget - from forcing lone parents with school-age children into work, to sanctions for the mentally ill and long-term jobless, to elimination tests for sickness benefits - were Labour policies just a few short months ago. As the liberal press laments the proposed rationing of disability living allowance, it seems to have forgotten that Labour has already cleaned up on every other benefit offered to the infirm.
In 2009, the Labour Representation Committee accused the government of ripping off Tory welfare reform proposals wholesale. They were right: Labour’s green paper on benefit reform and the then shadow cabinet’s proposals to downsize and privatise the welfare state were functionally identical. In January, John Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford explained in an essay for New Statesman how Labour had ‘lost its way’ on welfare, abandoning the long-term jobless and undermining state support for the most vulnerable, with tragic consequences.
Earlier this year, the BBC exposed the brutality of the new Employment and Support Allowance tests, which are designed to deny sick people benefit by any means necessary and which have required patients dying of cancer to prove their incapacity by walking until they fall over. Despite the absurdity of imposing punitive ‘incentives to work’ in a climate where there is simply no work to be had, outliers like John McDonnell who have spoken out against welfare reform were condemned as cranks, and during the general election campaign not one Labour member made the strong case for social justice and a protective welfare state that so many of us ached to hear.
Osborne’s emergency budget is class war and nothing else, unashamedly shoring up the private sector whilst stripping vital support from those who already have nothing. The bitter truth, however, is that Osborne would not have been able to get away with this had New Labour not already laid the ideological foundation for the destruction of welfare in Britain.
For those of us who have lived at the sharp edge of Labour’s welfare reforms, for those of us who lost homes, friends and partners to poverty and unemployment, for those of us who have organised, campaigned and fought to push stories about the savagery of benefit sanctions into the press, the centre-left’s sudden attack of conscience is colossally insulting. For the young, the sick and the poor, the energy of Labour’s outrage over welfare reform has come far too late.
The Guardian’s Jackie Ashley commented that these cuts represent “the absolute triumph” of the Tories’ “softening-up process” - but that process occurred under Labour. At some point over the past decade, it became acceptable to stereotype families and communities as ‘scroungers', to scapegoat lone parents and the long-term jobless, and to imply that the long-term sick are merely malingering. Somehow, it became admissible to speak of poverty and hopelessness as ‘incentives to work’. Somehow, it became conscionable for the left to refer to welfare provision as ‘a drain on the state’ rather than a central, vital function of the state.
For the millions of us who have relied on meagre welfare support to survive the first dip of this recession, it was New Labour who held us down whilst we waited for the inevitable punches from the right. And in one way, news of the Coalition's outright assault on the life chances and dignity of the poor hurts a little less, because we saw it coming. Being smacked in the face is less painful than being stabbed in the back.
In the weeks and months to come, Labour might just begin remember that it is not the party of business, the party of corporate Britain, but the party of Nye Bevan, Clement Atlee and Barbara Castle, the party of working people and the poor, the party of the NHS, of university grants, of chartists and levellers and diggers and dreamers, of trade unions and of the welfare state. Over the coming years of pain, Labour will serve the ordinary people of Britain best if it remembers its core values. For some of us, however, it may already be too late.

8 comments:

  1. So painful. So true. Thank you.

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  2. This is a magnificent, searing article, which deserves to be read by as many people as possible. The demolition job it performs on the disgusting, shameful, utterly uncivilised war on welfare which all three major parties are responsible for is the sort of thing so many other commentators should be saying; but for some reason, don't.

    I think the outgoing government's introduction of the ESA tests was one of the lowest moments of the entire post-war Labour movement. And what does the new government do? Persist with them. Throughout the election campaign, barely a single politician had the basic decency to argue that actually, most long-term unemployed are demoralised by being unemployed; that living on benefits is a miserable existence for most; and that long term illness disenfranchises its victims from simply living: taking things for granted as so many of us do. That the narrative instead became one of "scroungers", of people "feigning illness" (how would they know? Are politicians qualified doctors now?) shames us all. Thankyou for highlighting this.

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  3. A wonderful, heartfelt and memorable piece. When I contemplate the suffering so many of the helpless, vulnerable and innocent will now suffer it makes me feel sick, because I know, even if by some miracle the Labour Party were to form some future government, it would neither reverse or reduce any of the Tory sponsored laws designed to torture the poor, sick and the needy.

    Fuck James Purnell! Fuck John Hutton! Fuck Yvette Cooper! Fuck the Labour cabinet! Fuck Gordon Brown for not having the courage to do what was right rather than what was expedient! And fuck every one of those Labour MPs who voted for and failed to challenge New Labour's invidious Welfare Reform Act 2009. Because of this the Tories were able to move even further and faster to libertarianism and the right than they would otherwise have been able to do so.

    Why did the Labour Party do this?

    The fact they repeatedly promised and failed to build social housing was also disgraceful.

    Here's a recipe to cause a housing crises:

    (1) Sell off as much social housing to its tenants as possible at half the market value.

    (2) Build next to no replacements for council and other social housing sold.

    (2) Abolish all notion of rent control and "fair rents" in respect to private property (so that private landlords can charge the absolute maximum exorbitant rent they can get away with).

    (3) Make private tenancies almost completely insecure (so that private landlords can quickly evict tenants onto the street if they want to sell or somehow otherwise exploit their property).

    (4) With the only available rented accommodation in the private sector and with the poorest people - who cannot ever mortgage - only being able to live in privately rented accommodation, complain about the cost of Housing Benefit in order to justify capping it at too low a level to enable a tenant with limited means from being able to meet the inflated and unfair rents demanded by private landlords.

    (5) From 2013 onwards evict the men, women and families onto the street when, suddenly, they are unable to meet their inflated private rents in respect to the poor quality properties they are forced to live in.

    This is truly diabolical.

    I NEVER thought even the Tories would go as far as this. I really, really didn't. Even though the foundation for such cruelty had already been put in place, shamefully, by the Labour Party itself.

    Before I close I may mention that I finally saw the mild and well-groomed architect of all of this misery, David Freud, on Channel 4 news last week. Softly spoken and unruffled he sought to justify his heinous measures saying that plenty of cheap rented accommodation already existed and that the Conservatives were going to help the poor, unemployed, sick and disabled live better, happier and more productive lives. He sounded and looked like a paedophile trying to justify the abuse perpetrated on the helpless and the innocent by saying that really he only wanted to give them pleasure and to teach them how best to enjoy intimate relationships and sex. Ugh! Wholly sick and revolting. Awful.

    The face of ultimate evil is white-haired, well-groomed, bespectacled, smooth-skinned, mild-mannered and smiling.

    But absolutely hideous all the same!

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  4. I'm delighted to read a measured response to the budget/current political affairs. I've never voted Tory (and do not conceive of a time that I will vote Tory). However, I am very uncomfortable with the hatred directed at the Tories. Much of this is based on class-war rather than reasoned discussion and I do not know why it is acceptable to talk of 'accidents of birth' with regards to the super wealthy when we are *all* accidents of birth in one way or another.

    Despite the awfulness of the budget, I am fairly optimistic about the future -- despite being extremely unlikely to get a job in my chosen profession for at least five years, being directly affected by the budget cuts and not having a country pile to support me while I am waiting for a job. My one disappointment is that the Lib Dems seem content for now in propping up the Tory government and I would like to see more Lib Dem policies implemented (though this is hardly surprising as I have always voted Lib Dem).

    The global recession means that, whether we like it or not, governments are having to retrench. The worst thing about the decline of heavy industry in the UK is that *nothing* replaced it, besides the industry of the welfare state. Unfortunately, there are generations of people who have lived in socially starved areas and are dependent upon benefits for income. I worry that no government has attempted to address this: the last government talked about an aspirational society, but did not give people the tools to achieve what their aspirations. For many, the only way they know to get out of the poverty trap is to appear on reality TV and so perpetuate the cult of vacuous celebrity. The current government is content to cut the welfare state, without seeming to encourage other sources of income for the people who will be directly affected. I sympathise with the notion that people should not be dependent on the welfare state as I don't think this dependency is conducive to people achieving their full potential. However, the importance of the welfare state as a way to support the most disadvantaged in society, and to ease the financial stress of those in need by subsidising the incomes of the poorest should not be underestimated. The cost of living far exceeds most salaries, and the wealthiest should understand that it is their philanthropic duty to pay taxes to support those in desperate states and not pay their accountants a princely sum for creatively finding loopholes through which they can maximise their incomes.

    Despite all this, I am surprisingly optimistic. I want the coalition government to work. New Labour managed to outdo Thatcher by cutting back the welfare state and taking us into an illegal war and be implicated in human rights atrocities (despite bringing in the Human Rights Act), yet somehow the memory of Thatcher eclipses Labour's misdemeanours. The erosion of the welfare state has a long history, but even more worrying, it seems to be paralleled by a shift to the far right in European politics -- the right-wing Flemish nationalists getting a majority of the vote in Flemish Belgium is an example of this.

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  5. I thought that the Conservatives were pledged to take benefits away from claimants who repeatedly refused work offered to them not from the helpless and the innocent.

    So what is the 10% cut in Housing Benefit levied against all men and women unlucky enough to have been unemployed for 12 months or more about?

    This cut is completely non-discriminatory and will affect both the "feckless" and formerly hard-working innocent people like the sixty-year-old manual worker who worked for forty years continuously before being made redundant; who has done his very best to find alternative employment, e.g., frequently visited his local Jobcentre, applied for many positions, attended interviews and has done his (or her) best to secure employment, but due to his (or her) advanced age coupled with bad luck will need more than a year to re-enter the working population.

    The latter individual is a completely innocent victim of circumstance and should be supported for however long it takes to find a new job. To condemn such an upright person, cut their Housing Benefit and possibly make them actually and physically homeless is despicable and evil.

    It seems now that every welfare claimant will be judged guilty of being a "scrounger" if they are unemployed for twelve months no matter how hard they try to find a job! This is a very, very bad policy and very, very unjust. Truly, truly awful. To be honest it is so bad I find it difficult to understand it or take it in.

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  6. Anonymous - the class-based anger is not at their accidents of birth but at that instead of using their position of strength to fight to help those weaker than they are, the Tories fight to advance their interests at the expense of those below them.

    Laurie - I think we have to think about what New Labour was as a project in the beginning. It aimed to introduce some social democratic policies by publicly and vocally accepting the post-Thatcher consensus amongst the ruling class about the role of the state in the economy, and holding the broader movement in line as regards challenging neo-liberal orthodoxy. Obviously, the ruling class fears a Labour government that has an active and empowered membership - so the involvement of the members in policymaking had to be limited.

    Now, all this is often phrased in terms of electability - but given that to get elected, you have to communicate with a great number of people, media hostility has to be reduced. And that means ditching policies which are liable to be misrepresented in media outlets owned by people threatened by socialist policies.

    All of this changes with social networking and the ability to crowd-source policies to advance the interests of ordinary people. What Labour will have to do in terms of party organisation is to replicate the model of success - independently-minded and locally-focused campaigns which draw in trade union affiliates and supporters. This needs to be done most especially in the south, outside of London, where Labour is weakest electorally.

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  7. Is it only me that thinks so or do other people also find the Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, to be a complete and utter cunt?

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