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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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The SNP retains power as Scottish Labour faces being beaten into third

Ruth Davidson’s Conservative Party looks on track to become the official opposition in Holyrood.

As expected, the SNP have performed well in the Scottish elections, with an increased vote share and some key gains – particularly from Labour in Glasgow, where Nicola Sturgeon’s party took all eight constituency seats. As it stands, they could be on course for a second successive majority in Holyrood, once the list members are fully counted.

The story of the night, though, is the demise of Scottish Labour, which put in its worst ever performance in Scotland (my stalwart liveblogging colleague Stephen Bush points out that it’s the party’s worst result since universal suffrage was introduced in 1928). The party’s vote share was done across Scotland, and the results are sufficiently poor that they could see them fall behind the Conservatives to become the third biggest party north of the border.

Losses for Labour include seat of Eastwood in Glasgow, where Scottish Conservatives deputy leader Jackson Carlaw defeated Ken Macintosh. Labour had held the seat for 17 years, though it had been Conservative beforehand.

Other key losses for Scottish Labour include Dumfriesshire, where they were beaten into third; Renfrewshire South (which went to the SNP); Cowdenbeath, where Gordon Brown's old constituency manager and protégé Alex Rowley also lost to the SNP; Glasgow Pollok, where former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont lost to the SNP’s Humza Yousaf. There was a close call for Labour’s Jackie Baillie in Dumbarton, where she held on by just 109 votes.

Rare successes came in Edinburgh Southern, where Daniel Johnson took the seat from the SNP’s Jim Eadie (although since the seat is effectively a four-way marginal, it’s not a particularly indicative gain), and East Lothian, where former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray managed to increase a previously slender majority.

Speaking to the BBC, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said:

“A very bad night for the Labour party… There’s no doubt that the constitution has dominated this election.”

She also confirmed that “no matter what, 100 per cent, I will remain leader of the Scottish Labour party”.

In a great night for her party, Ruth Davison won her seat in Edinburgh Central, making her the first Scottish Conservative leader not to need the list system to enter the Scottish Parliament  since 2005. The Tories also gained Aberdeen West from the SNP as well as their success in Dumfriesshire.

The Liberal Democrats also had a better-than-expected night. Their leader, Willie Rennie, took the Fife North East seat from the SNP, and his party also had comfortable holds in Orkney and Shetland.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.