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Laurie Penny: The Paradox of the Welfare State

Aversion therapy for the poor.

Centuries ago, when ordinary men and women first began to dream of political suffrage, a radical theory surfaced whereby people without property or assets had as much right to a living as anybody else. Thomas Paine wrote in 1795 that every citizen should expect a minimum income as compensation for the "loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property." That notion has this week been utterly abandoned by the British administration.

Tomorrow, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will announce a new "contract" with the poor. Those receiving the miniscule and dwindling stipend that the government grants anyone without means to support themselves in these straitened times may be required to toil for the state, for free, or face being shoved off benefits.

This isn't just a Tory scheme. James Purnell, who tried to pull the same trick under Labour in 2009, has spoken of a "covert consensus" whereby, with true Vietnam war logic, it has become necessary to destroy the Welfare State in order to save it.

As strategies for tackling poverty go it's not subtle. In fact, it's roughly equivalent to a quack doctor plastering a typhoid sufferer with leeches or cutting a hole in a patient's head to cure a migraine. This trepanation of the welfare system is supposed to "get Britain working" by returning the poor to the "habit" of nine to five labour -- alongside savage cuts to housing benefit and Jobseeker's Allowance that will apparently "incentivise" them towards work that isn't there.

It's the Victorian aversion-therapy theory of poverty. Iain Duncan Smith, along with a sizeable chunk of the press, seems to have convinced himself that forcing low-paid or unpaid citizens to work for nothing or face homelessness and starvation will somehow snap them out of their beastly little "habit" of not having any money. It's a reimagining of poverty as a social disease that can be cured with shock treatment, rather than the inevitable result of years of profit-driven policymaking that have systematically neglected the needy and vulnerable.

The London Evening Standard's Matthew D'Ancona lovingly reports that Duncan Smith believes that work is "bigger than the idea of earning money." I'm sure that for him, with his personal assets of over £1m, work is less about the money than about the satisfaction and status of being one of the most powerful men in the country. For your average call centre or shop worker having to beg the boss every time they need to use the loo, though, paying the bills is precisely what it's about.

We keep being told that relentless work is good for us. The expectation that all people "of working age" should spend 45 hours a week performing pointless tasks in small cubicles for someone else's profit while cramming unpaid housework and childcare into the remaining time is only a very recent function of late capitalism, but conservative myopia would have us believe that this cruel and unusual process is somehow normal. If ordinary people begin to crack under the strain of trying to survive on ever-lower wages in an ever more insecure and debilitating job market, well, they're just not tough enough. They're layabouts and scroungers and they must be made to do more work for less pay to jolly well shake them out of it.

It's about control. It's always about control. When they say that work is good for us, what they mean is that work keeps us in line. Work makes us behave. Work makes us obedient and beaten and isolated and grateful. If that's the new definition of "the national interest", then we need to think harder about what sort of nation Britain is becoming.

How did this happen? How did we start tutting along when government spokespeople decry the fact that people on social security "expect money for nothing," rather than pointing out that this, in fact, is rather the purpose of a welfare state at a time of high unemployment? That the term for the phenomenon whereby people expect money in return for something is, in fact, employment? That if there's caring, cleaning and community work to be done, perhaps the state should be offering the people who do it a real living rather than barely-disguised contempt?

These welfare reforms are the next step in an ideological assault on ordinary workers being deployed by social conservatives of all parties and none who wish to protect the reputation of capital by blaming the financial failings of the rich on the moral failings of the poor. Believe me when I say that I really, truly wish it were going to work.

It's occasionally satisfying to see one's political enemies embark on the mother and father of all cock-ups, but not this time. Not when real lives are at stake. When these reforms inevitably fail, when the welfare system currently providing a rotten bandage for the old infected wounds to British industry, housing, wages and mental health care is finally ripped away, people I love are going to be left bleeding.

I don't want to watch this country become colder, crueller and more savage. I want to believe that Duncan Smith knows what he's doing. Unfortunately, what he is doing is approaching the problem of poverty with the same concerned brutality with which a Victorian doctor might approach a distressed patient: all she needs is a good hard slap and some ice water therapy and she'll pull herself together in no time. It might seem harsh, but a chap's got be cruel to be kind.
 

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

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Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from the club bar to chip shops to the office of the miners’ union itself.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. While the fuel still accounts for around 10 per cent of UK electricity generation on any given day, last year generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s. The need to decarbonise also looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt in Wales: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. 

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have also fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement looks set to speed up  coal's decline. But he also believes that British coal has its place in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a place that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining. The government has yet to act, but this may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.