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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.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons and Getty
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“Rise like lions after slumber”: why do Jeremy Corbyn and co keep reciting a 19th century poem?

How a passage from Percy Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy became Labour’s battle cry.

“If I may, I’d like to quote one of my favourite poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley,” Jeremy Corbyn politely suggested to a huge Glastonbury audience. The crowd of nearly 120,000 – more accustomed to the boom of headline acts than elderly men reading out romantic poetry – roared its approval.

“Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number!” he rumbled. “Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you: ye are many – they are few!”

The Labour leader told the crowd that this was his favourite line. It’s the final stanza of Shelley’s 1819 poem, The Masque of Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo Massacre earlier that year, when a cavalry charged into a non-violent protest for the vote.

Though it was not published in Shelley’s lifetime – it was first released in 1832 – the poem has become a rallying cry for peaceful resistance. It has been recited at uprisings throughout history, from Tiananmen Square to Tahrir Square.

Corbyn’s turn on the Pyramid Stage was not the first time he’s used it. He recited the stanza during his closing speech on election night in Islington, and the audience began quoting along with him:


It was also used by comedian and celebrity Labour supporter Steve Coogan at a rally in Birmingham:


During Corbyn’s second leadership campaign, his ally Chris Williamson MP told a public meeting that this part of the poem should be “our battle cry” . He delivered on this the following year by reciting the poem to me in his Renault Clio while out on the campaign trail in England’s most marginal constituency (which he ended up winning).

You can hear it echoed in Labour’s campaign slogan: “For the many, not the few”.

Corbyn’s election guru, James Schneider, told the Standard at the time that “it would be a stretch” to say the slogan was taken directly from the poem, but that “Jeremy does know Shelley”. Yet even he took the time to recite the whole stanza down the phone to the journalist who was asking.

Corbyn is famously a fan of the novelist and author Ben Okri. The pair did a literary night at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank in July last year, in which the Shelley lines came up at the end of the event, as reported by Katy Balls over at the Spectator. Okri announced that he wanted to recite them, telling Corbyn and the audience:

“I want to read five lines of Shelley . . . I think there are some poems that ought to be, like you know those rock concerts, and the musician starts to sing and the whole audience knows the lines? And sings along with them? Well this ought to be one of those, and I’d like to propose that we somehow make it so that anytime someone starts with the word ‘Rise’, you know exactly what the lines are going to be.”

Which, of course, is exactly what Corbyn did at Glastonbury.

“We have this huge, abundant literature on the left and it’s hardly known”

The former left-wing Labour leader Michael Foot loved the poem and recited the lines at demos, and Stop the War – the campaign group Corbyn supports and chaired – took a line from it as the title of its 2014 film about anti-Iraq War action, We Are Many.

So why does the Labour left rally around some lines of poetry written nearly 200 years ago?

“It’s a really appropriate poem,” says Jacqueline Mulhallen, author of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary (Pluto, 2015). “Shelley wrote a poem about the fact that these people were protesting about a minority taking the wealth from the majority, and the majority shouldn’t allow it to happen.

“He was writing at the beginning of industrial capitalism, and protested then, and 200 years later, we’ve still got the same situation: food banks, homeless people, Grenfell Tower, more debts – that’s why it has great resonance when Corbyn quotes it.”

“Shelley said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now”

Michael Rosen, the poet and former Children’s Laureate, also describes the poignancy of Shelley’s words in Corbyn’s campaign. “You’ve got a sense of continuity,” he tells me. “Shelley was campaigning for freedom, for free thought, for free love. He was campaigning for a fairer society; it was a time of incredible oppression. He said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now.”

Rosen celebrates the poem’s place in the Labour movement. “When any of us from the left quote people from the past, we’re saying that we have traditions... We’re making a claim on our authenticity,” he says. “Just in the same way as the right and the establishment draw on the pageantry of the Queen, or talk about Parliament or quote Winston Churchill. These are our traditions, which are different. You hardly ever come across it, either in newspapers or history lessons or anything.”

Rosen, a friend of Corbyn’s, believes his speech brings a left-wing tradition alive that is often forgotten. “We have this huge, abundant literature on the left and it’s hardly known. What’s great about Jeremy calling on it is to remind us . . . This stuff sits in old museums and libraries, gathering dust until it’s made active and live again. It’s made active and live particularly when being used in an environment like that [Glastonbury]. He was making the words come alive.”

Read more: 7 things we learned from Jeremy Corbyn on The One Show

The Masque of Anarchy’s final stanza has been recited at high-profile protests throughout history – including at the 20,000 garment workers’ strike in 1909 in New York, the student-led demo in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, anti-Poll Tax protests, and at Tahrir Square in Egypt during the Arab Spring, according to Mulhallen. The way civilians were treated by the authorities in many of these protests echoes what happened at Peterloo.

So does Corbyn’s penchant for the verse mark a similar radical turning-point in our history? “It’s indicating a change in attitude that people should start thinking about redistributing the wealth again,” says Mulhallen. “People are becoming much more aware.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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