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Laurie Penny: Face the facts, Labour’s fingerprints were all over the Budget

Osborne may have smacked us in the face, but Harman, Darling and co stabbed us in the back.

Panto season came early this year. Watching George Gideon 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, 80 per cent of whose members are in private life 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 the 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 had already been done before Labour lost the election.

Uncomfortable as it may be for the left to recall, some of the most regressive changes in this Budget -- forcing lone parents with school-age children into work; sanctions for the mentally ill and the long-term jobless; elimination tests for sickness benefits -- were Labour policies a few short months ago.

Absurd incentives

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 election campaign, not one Labour MP 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 while 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 if New Labour had 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 have 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.

Delayed outrage

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 that held us down as 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 to remember that it is not the party of business, the party of corporate Britain, but the party of Nye Bevan, Clement Attlee 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.

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Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

All photos: India Bourke
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“They cut, we bleed”: activists Sisters Uncut protest closures of women's services

 “Our blood should not pay for our rape.”

Over 500 domestic violence survivors and support workers processed through central London this weekend. The protest, staged by the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut, mourned the women’s services that are losing out as a result of the government's austerity drive.

Since November 2014 the group has occupied streets, burned copies of the Daily Mail, and hijacked the Suffragette film premiere. But on Saturday the mood was somber. In Soho Square the group staged a symbolic funeral service. Attendees stood in a protective circle, fists raised, while members took turns to read out the names of the scores of women who’ve been killed by men in the past year:  “Anne Dunkley, 67; Nadia Khan, 24; Lisa Anthony, 47…”. The youngest was just 14 years old.

The service culminated in a promise “to never forget” the dead, and also to protect the living: “We must love and support one another; we have nothing to lose but our chains".

As the protestors passed St Martins in the Fields Church, dressed in black veils and funeral attire, the crowd of passers-by broke into spontaneous applause. “It gave me goosebumps”, Caroline, an activist and former victim of abuse told me. “You expect people on the march to be supportive but not the people on the street. I’ve been on other marches and people normally complain about you being selfish and blocking up the streets but this response makes you feel like people do  care.”

The show of public support is especially welcome in the aftermath of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Cuts to local authority budgets have already led to the closure of over 30 domestic violence services since 2010, including Eaves, a charity that provided services for single, low-income and vulnerable women.

Further erosions to local council budgets will only put more services and lives at risk, activists say. Also of concern is Osborne’s decision to devolve responsibility for raising a social care tax (of up to 2 per cent on council tax) to local authorities. This tips hostility to tax increases away from central government to local authorities, and could place greater pressure on women’s services to compete for funding.

The Chancellor offered a supposed silver lining to the cuts with the promise that VAT money raised from the EU’s compulsory tax on sanitary products will be ringfenced for women’s charities, such as the Eve Appeal and Women’s Aid.

The implication, however, that only women are to pay for helping the victims of domestic violence was met with derision from Sisters Uncut. As the marchers approached their final destination in Trafalgar Square, red dye turned the square’s famous fountains the colour of blood. “This blood won’t wash the blood from Osborne’s hands,” read one tampon-draped banner; “Our blood should not pay for our rape”, read another.

For those on the march, the cuts are an affront on many levels. All those I spoke to worked in some form of public service; everything from housing to foster care. But some have had to move out of the women’s services sector for the lack of funding.

Louisa used to work for a domestic violence service in London until it was forced to close last month. “I’m here because I’ve witnessed first hand what the cuts are doing to women and how much the organisations are having to squeeze what they can provide.”

All public services have legitimate claims to support - from the 14-strong police team that escorted the marchers, to the sweepers who were left to dredge the protesters’ roses out of the fountains and brush away the tampons that had fallen from their banners.

The danger, however, according to Caroline, is that the needs of domestic violence victims are all too easy to sideline: “This is by its nature something that goes on behind closed doors,” she says. As funding tightens, these voices musn’t be squeezed out.

Sisters Uncut is an intersectional group open to all who identify as women. The national domestic violence helpline offers help and support on 0808 2000 247. Members of the LGBT communities can also access tailored support from Broken Rainbow on 0800 9995428.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.