Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Liam Byrne’s Welfare Statement – It’s Not What You Say It’s The Way That You Say It

When I was a teacher, occasionally the cry would go up that there was a crisis – usually at the furthest point of the playground – and pupils and teachers would rush there to see what had happened. In all my 36 years of teaching, I never once arrived to find a real crisis. Sometimes it was a total rumour and there was no crisis at all.

I feel much the same about Liam Byrne’s Welfare Policy statement.

The Story of the ‘Crisis’
Yesterday, the Daily Mail leaked the alleged content of a comment, on welfare benefits, due to be given by Liam Byrne.

Before they had even had chance to read the real thing, the Left exploded. #LiamByrne trended on twitter. Despite the fact that Mr Byrne’s proposals did not concern disability benefits (and that in fact he explicitly condemned the Tory cuts in disability benefits) the disability lobby condemned him vigorously and out of hand.

All the serial resigners resigned (again).

There were screeching calls for Mr Byrne’s resignation – he has, apparently, been planning to stick the knife into welfare clients for a considerable time. He was accused of pandering to the Tories’ lies about welfare and reinforcing ‘the scrounger narrative’. There was a good deal of outrage about tangential issues – how can people get jobs when there are no jobs to get, and why are we picking on the weakest in society when the REAL culprits are getting ever bigger bonuses?

Meanwhile, @OwenJones84 and @DPJHodges engaged in an utterly futile slanging match about the extent to which Ed Miliband was to blame, and thus treated the rank-and-file of the Party to the spectacle of two of their most senior gurus bitching at each other in public.

Demeaning and divisive.

The Statement
Today the Guardian published Mr Byrne’s statement in full.
As George Eaton has said in the New Statesman, what a let-down.
We rushed to the crisis, and found nothing there.

There was a fairly meaningless call to return to the Beveridge principles of the Welfare State. Nothing to take objection to there – as you perhaps know, coming from Newton Aycliffe, Beveridge is my total hero. Indeed, it makes a very welcome change to find someone wanting to go BACK to the Welfare State, instead of wanting to dismantle it.

There was some huff and bluff about cutting down the huge cost of the benefits system, and about ending ‘benefit dependency’ … but what did it all amount to?

There ARE criminals. People DO break the rules, and those people need catching and punishing. Surely everybody agrees to that? If you are a taxpayer, you will agree because such people are stealing your money. But even if you are on benefits yourself, you must be able to see that these people are blackening your name, and that they are stealing money from the community ‘pot’. Surely we can get 100% agreement that benefit fraud is immoral as well as illegal?

And as for ‘reinforcing the scrounger narrative’? There are no such things as ‘scroungers’ – they do not exist and I would ban the word altogether. There are only on the one hand criminals who are taking benefits illegally, and – on the other –genuine claimants who are receiving the benefits their circumstances merit. There is no intermediate category of ‘scroungers’, who are somehow genuinely claiming but stealing at the same time.

At the end of the day – after all the outrage and posturing – state welfare is not about principles or rhetoric.
Welfare is a set of criteria.
If you meet those criteria, you get the benefit. It is not something to feel embarrassed or guilty about. It is your statutory right, because Parliament set the criteria and you met them.

Mr Byrne can talk till he is blue in the face about cutting the benefit bill and reducing welfare dependency. But ultimately things will boil down to how Parliament defines the criteria for eligibility. Mr Byrne may well have some pretty draconian ideas about how and where we should set the criteria, and we will no doubt quarrel about the details later. But until he begins to define those criteria, his statement amounts to nothing more than ‘fine words and fair promises’.

Flim-flam for the media.

Mr Byrnes’ Principles
To be fair to Mr Byrne, and to the individuals who are today hotly debating what he said, he did enunciate some principles, and one is bound to worry about how those principles would play out in the future.

One such was an apparent acceptance of the principle of Workfare, which I intend to treat in a future rant. The other key principle was ‘conditionality’ – the principle that no recipient of benefits should get ‘something for nothing’ (an issue linked to contributions).

But, again, is any of this worth all the fuss? Whether we can live with a Workfare State will depend wholly, I would suggest, on the system of workfare entailed. And whether or not you agree with any ‘conditionality’ terms will be dependent, surely, on just what the conditions are. And since Mr Byrne has not given ANY details on either principle, only the most entrenched bigot can say anything other than they will have to wait and see the details before they pass judgement on the scheme.

Mr Byrne’s Failure
Thus we have – launched with inappropriate éclat – something that is no more than a ‘starter for ten’. And whether your initial reaction was to welcome it, or hate it, you would do well to wait before you make up your mind, until the ideas have been discussed and hammered out, and Mr Byrne gives us the details of the scheme the Party is actually proposing.

So where I take issue with Mr Byrne is not so much over the policy, as the way it was released.

Mr Byrne MUST have known that his statement would cause a storm.
Why did he not run it through the Party first, instead of releasing it as a ‘policy’ in an ‘accept-it-or-resign’ sort of way?

It is THIS that fills me with anger. Not so much the policy itself necessarily, but the scorn evidenced by Mr Byrne towards the Party members that not only did he fail to discuss the policy at Party level first, but that the first thing the rank-and-file knew about it was when he leaked it to the Daily Mail; which is the political equivalent of those poor people who find out about a personal disaster from twitter or facebook, not from the police.

Until the leadership learn that policies must grow upwards from the membership, and cannot be imposed downwards upon them, policy statements will always be things that lose members not win them.

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