Of the numerous initiatives spearheaded by the coalition government since they took office, few have been as controversial as the Welfare Reform Bill, currently making its way through Parliament with Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith at the helm.
We all know the story. Duncan Smith, during his ill-fated tenure as Conservative Party leader, visited the notorious Easterhouse estate in Glasgow. Seeing the scars of unemployment, addiction and crime littered across the area, Duncan Smith decided he didn’t like poor people very much and vowed to spend the rest of his political career making their lives even more miserable.
That’s not exactly how Duncan Smith tells it, of course. In his version, his crusade is a moral one, determined to rid society of the scourge of “welfare dependency” and other buzzwords designed to entrench the prejudice that poverty and deprivation are entirely the fault of the poor and deprived. But, when the unemployed are forced to stack shelves in Poundland for free, and cancer patients told that they will be means-tested for their benefits – despite opposition from the House of Lords, the government has vowed to maintain this policy – it is difficult to ascribe the realignment of the British welfare state to such noble-sounding motives.
The welfare state is one of the minefields of British politics, largely because of the prejudice whipped up by the tabloid media about “benefit scroungers,” aided and abetted by the government. It has been suggested that this is increasingly being coupled to the Victorian rhetoric of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor – but when even the disabled are being treated as though they are responsible for their inability to work, one wonders whether anyone qualifies as “deserving” in the eyes of this government any more.
Shamefully, Labour has so far failed to stand up effectively to the assault on the welfare state. Part of this seems to be due to Liam Byrne, the party’s work and pensions spokesman, not liking the poor very much either. Writing for the Guardian on the anniversary of the Beveridge Report, which paved the way for the modern welfare system, Byrne argued for a “something for something” welfare culture in which those who displayed “for the kind of behaviour that is the bedrock of a decent society,” were rewarded, whereas the “idle” were ostracised and dismissed.
The major flaw in Byrne’s argument, apart from being a standard Blairite diatribe of promising “radical reform” which tends to be neither particularly reforming nor particularly radical, is that he misunderstands the nature of the welfare state. The welfare state is not, and has never been, about getting out what you put in – you get out what you need. We do not pay allowances to support the poor, the unemployed, the sick and the disabled because they have somehow “earned” it. We do so because it is right.
Labour is terrified of arguing from this corner, of course, because it’s much easier to appear “tough” on benefit claimants than it is to actually be tough on the people and media outlets who peddle the hateful misinformation that causes the welfare state to bear such a stigma in the first place. Even when such misinformation has saddening real-world consequences – such as the shocking recent rise in disability hate crime – it is too difficult, it seems, for Labour to stand up and fight prejudice.
Without the heroic efforts of campaigners like The Broken of Britain, the attack on Britain’s welfare state would be practically unopposed. It was Internet activists and bloggers, not any political party, who came together to produce the Spartacus Report, which revealed the extent of opposition to reform of the Disability Living Allowance. While they can be justifiably proud of their achievements, it should be a matter of sincere regret for every Labour member that our party was not fighting alongside them.
And while those behind the Spartacus Report can point to great successes, such as the government’s defeat in the House of Lords over three critical aspects of the Welfare Reform Bill in recent weeks, they cannot oppose every aspect of this brutal and regressive legislation. That should be Labour’s job, and these campaigners should be able to rely on the Official Opposition in Parliament to listen, to support and to act. I implore the party leadership, and Liam Byrne in particular, to forget chasing swing voters for once – just do what’s right.