The cuts are beginning to hurt.
It seems months now since Lilith (a member of my local facebook group) drew attention to the bullying and cuts that were happening to those on JSA at the Job Centres. Then it all went quiet for a bit; then we were fully occupied with the pensions strike.
But recently there has been a dribble of articles highlighting various cuts – time-limiting of disability benefits, cuts to children's DLAs, a planned shake-up of widows’ benefits, the effect of limiting housing benefits, the difficulty of getting Disability Living Allowance. And there are more – for example, the cuts to Family Tax Credit.
Now the cuts seem to be flooding in thick and fast – as I’ve said before, too fast to respond.
Anger at these cuts has been limited until yesterday, when the case of @suey2y, who runs the blog Diary of a Benefits Scrounger, ‘went viral’ on twitter.
Hopefully, it marks the first stirrings of concerted resistance to this wicked government’s assault on welfare benefit?
In all this, three things strike me.
The Critical Battle-ground
Firstly, we need to keep uppermost in our minds the sheer devastation which these cuts in benefits are beginning to cause. Forget for the moment whether the cuts are ‘necessary’ or not. We need to focus on the hardship and the terror that losing hundreds of pounds a month from an already limited income will be causing, in family after family, this Christmas.
We need to be aware of the damage that these cuts are doing to people’s lives, and keep their needs at the forefront of the debate. This is a matter about right and wrong, care and cruelty, and we need to make sure that we do not reduce it simply to a strategic opportunity to attack the Tories.
Because – for all the nonsense about the EU, and all the intricate debate about the economy and tax havens, and even the battle over the reorganisation of the NHS – benefits is the battle-ground on which Labour OUGHT to fight the Tories … and CAN fight the Tories … and can win!
Recently Beverley Clack and Mags Newsome, in a seminal article for the Green Benches, hit the nail absolutely on the head. The Tories and their right-wing journalists have hijacked the debate about benefits, and redefined its focus into an argument about the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor.
This is something which speaks to a degree to everyone, but – surely people realise – it is a throwback to a bygone age. It was the Victorians who lumped the poor into ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’, and treated them accordingly, and it needed a number of ground-breaking reports (not least by Seebohm Rowntree) to make people realise that poverty has generally nothing to do which character, and that it is a more function of situation. The Liberal Party realised this as long ago as the start of the 20th century, and their ‘Liberal Reforms’ marked the move to the ‘personal principle’ of state welfare. By seeking to re-establish the concept of ‘undeserving poor’ the Tories are trying to take us, not just back to before the Welfare State, but way back to the New Poor Law of 1834 and the principle of ‘less eligibility’.
Perhaps it is not coincidence that 2011 saw increased publicity for the Rowntree Foundation’s annual report on poverty and social exclusion, which placed the emphasis for poverty, yet again, not on the faults of the individual, but on issues that the individual has little control over – unemployment, ill-health and educational opportunity.
Labour needs to fight these people’s corner, not simply because they might vote for us in 2015, but because – as Beverley and Mags write – ‘it’s time for Labour to enter the fight for Britain’s soul’.
Labour’s Inexplicable Silence
So secondly, where IS the Labour Party in all this?
Now, I have here to admit to the possibility that I may simply be ignorant.
As I understand it (admits in terror of lack of expertise) these matters have not gone through Parliament because they do not need new laws passing to make them. They are regarded simply as changes in regulations which can be implemented by decree by the different departments. (Could someone please correct me if I am wrong here?)
Nevertheless – whether I am right or wrong – we have a vast number of very damaging benefit decisions, being taken randomly and implemented viciously, popping up here, there and everywhere, as department sections seeks ways to reduce their spending.
Why is the Labour Party machine not collecting and publicising them?
I think someone needs to explain them as well; if you have never claimed a particular benefit, you are often unaware of it, and you are certainly unaware of the problems that will be caused by obscure changes to the detail of individual regulations … yet it is often in those apparently minor details that the worst hardships and the greatest injustices lie.
I am unaware of any co-ordinated Labour Party campaign on the issue. Neither have I noticed Ed Miliband taking the Prime Minister to task about them.
Today, as comment about Suey2y continues to rumble on – even making the Guardian – LabourList tweets ‘Ed Miliband's Christmas message to the armed forces’ and ‘Why people are still talking about Ed’s conference speech in Liverpool’.
About the benefits outrage, I have not seen anything from the Labour Party.
Now, as I say, this might be a function of my ignorance. I might simply have missed these things.
But if I have, I bet there are millions of people out there who have missed them too.
And lots of them will be on benefits.
A while ago, Labour entered the economic debate with the now-forgotten ‘five-points for growth and jobs’ campaign. When the Unions tried to make a stand for promised pensions, the message from the Labour Party leadership was equivocal in the extreme.
For the benefits scandal, this kind of lukewarm response will not do. With benefits, we need a MUCH bigger campaign. We need to be ripping Cameron apart on individual cases of injustice – there are hundreds, so why aren’t we calling him personally to account. Let’s ruin his Christmas like he has ruined the Christmases of thousands upon thousands of families. We need to state boldly what we would be doing about benefits. And we need to convince the people on Welfare benefit that a Labour government would treat them justly.
Avoiding the Tory Trap
‘Justice’ in welfare – now there’s a concept.
For having said that we need a campaign, I do not think for a moment that the Tories are not ready for such an attack.
The moment Labour mounts any criticism of welfare cuts, all the Tory big guns will come out trying to label Labour as the ‘spendthrift’ party which lumbered Britain with the deficit in the first place and now wants to ruin us further!
At the same time, the Labour leadership have to realise that the Tories – partly as a result of a constant stream of stories about benefit cheats in the newspapers – hold a sort of propaganda high ground on benefits. Anger at 'benefit scrounging' (whatever that might be) is not just a middle class matter - working class people are outraged about it too, and not just because they have been brainwashed by the Tory press, but because they can see examples living in their street.
That is why Cameron's policy towards the so-called 'problem families' has resonated so well ... because such families exist!
The problem for Labour is how to set a campaign for benefits alongside the undeniable truth that nobody in society has the right to sit back and do nothing, allowing the other members of society to feed and clothe them. (And the equally undeniable truth that a few individuals have made a career choice to do so.)
This is not a right-wing thing to say, by the way – I am reminded of the Communist dictum: ‘from each according to his ability, [as well as] to each according to their needs’.
We all have a duty to contribute what we can to society – there is nothing wrong with Labour boldly asserting that no one is entitled to a free ride.
So how can Labour campaign against the benefit cuts without conveying the impression that it is somehow 'soft on scrounging'?
I think the answer perhaps may lie in focussing on the criteria for welfare support.
We need to set out clearly where the new Tory criteria are heartless and damaging. And we need to define realistic and caring criteria about WHO should merit benefits, and WHAT they ought to receive. Doing so would make the distinction, not between 'deserving' and 'undeserving', but rather between criminal and legal. The Labour pitch has to be that we as a party would be properly hard on the criminals, but generously caring where there is need.
So, to be fair, I don't have all the answers - if I were running a debate, I would suggest that this rant was a 'discussion-starter' rather than the 'last word'.
But of one thing I am sure - we MUST as a Party be seen to enter boldly and decisively into the benefits cuts debate.
It is by portraying the Tories as a bullying government, which is taking advantages of the weakness of the weak, that we will rouse the outrage of middle-class Britain, and hopefully persuade working-class Britain that its safety can only lie in Labour’s hands.