Show Hide image

Laurie Penny on the battle against benefit cuts and “poverty pimps”

Disabled people and their allies are fighting back against cuts – shame on the rest of us if we do not fight with them.

Of all the obdurate lies peddled by the Conservative Party in the run-up to the last general election, perhaps the most callous was when the Tory disability spokesperson Mark Harmer told key representatives of Britain's millions of disabled and mentally unwell citizens: "I don't think disabled people have anything to fear from a Conservative government." It turns out that disabled people have a great deal to fear.

Despite a fraud rate of just 1 per cent, the government is determined to toss 500,000 people who currently rely on sickness benefits into the open arms of the bleakest labour market in a generation, to cut already meagre disability stipends to starvation levels, to confiscate mobility scooters and community groups from the most needy, and to remove key services that make life bearable for thousands of families with vulnerable relatives. The party assures us that someone's got to pick up the tab for the recklessness of millionaire financiers. So, naturally, they're going to start with the disabled and the mentally ill.

Disabled people, their friends, family members and allies, have much to fear – and much to fight. Today has been designated a national day of action against benefit cuts, and resistance groups across the country will be staging protests and spreading the word about how the government's plans to dismantle most of the welfare state and privatise the rest will affect them. "Housing benefit cuts mean I'm probably going to lose my home," says Carole, 32, "but the removal of the Incapacity Benefit safety net means that I'm terrified of looking for work. If I'm made to do a job I'm not well enough for and have to leave, I'll be left penniless. I don't know what to do."

Many of the demonstrations will target private companies like Atos Origin, which have been given government tender to impose punitive and – studies have shown – largely unreliable medical testing of welfare claimants before forcing the sick to seek work that even the healthy can't get. Campaigns like Benefit Claimants Fight Back are quite clear what they think about these companies – they are "poverty pimps".

As Britain's welfare claimants who are well enough to do so take to the streets, the beleaguered workers responsible for administrating the ersatz and vituperative benefits system have just finished a 48-hour strike over the way their jobs are being restructured to meet increasingly high targets of claimant turnover. "The system is driven towards saving money at the expense of vulnerable people. We want to help people but they're not letting us," says William, a 22-year-old worker in a call centre that deals with Incapacity Benefit claims. "You get old people phoning up in floods of tears when their relatives have died."

"I hate them calls. We're so limited in what we can say because all our calls are recorded and they watch us all the time. You're chained to your desk. It's hell working here," he says.

"We have people off sick with stress all the time – I've had to take medication for anxiety and I normally consider myself quite a strong, down-to earth person," Davies adds. "People come to work in tears, but they're terrified of saying they can't cope, because they know just what happens if they have to go on the sick.

"Nobody wants to have to deal with our system from the other end."

The withering of the welfare state is not just a party game. The gradual erosion of the principle, formalised in the Attlee settlement, that people who are unable to work and support themselves should not be left with nothing to live on, did not start with this government. Labour formalised the process in 2008, mounting grandiose campaigns against "welfare cheats" and flogging off support services to private companies whose express purpose was to deny benefits to as many people as possible – including, in several cases, terminal cancer patients. The argument, put forward by many commentators, that punitive welfare reform can't be that bad because "Labour started it", is the political equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and humming to block out the angry cries of a million human beings deprived of their dignity.

This is more than a party game. For New Labour, the financial intimidation of the sick and vulnerable was, in part, a desperate appeal to the prejudices of voters in marginal seats, a strategy tried and tested by PR professionals in Clinton's second term who later came to work for the Blair/Brown administration. Bullying people off benefits, however, is about more than just votes. It's part of a creeping cultural shift towards a public consensus that there is no room in this society for the weak.

In this country and across the developed world, labour is precarious, competition for jobs and adequate pay is fierce, workers are under terrific pressure and anyone who cannot keep up with the rat race, whether through sickness, mental ill health or physical disability, is mistrusted and shamed. "My clients frequently express more shame that they are not able to work than over the perceived inferiority of their bodies," comments an anonymous disability worker. "In a materialist society, apparently, the ultimate failure of the disabled is that we don't make money."

We like to think of ourselves as a nation where, if anything, 'political correctness' has gone too far, but our attitude towards people with disabilities and mental health problems has barely improved in 20 years. A recent survey revealed that four out of five employers would prefer not to take on anyone with a history of mental health problems. Meanwhile, rather than question the terms of a target-driven labour market whose precariousness routinely drives workers to the edge of mental and physical breakdown, ordinary people are taught to kick down savagely at any fellow citizen who can't keep up.

This is not just about a culture that puts profit before people. This is about a culture that has begun to believe, on some deep and terrifying stratum, that if one cannot turn a profit, one is not really a person at all. Disabled people and their allies are fighting back in whatever way they can. Shame on the rest of us if we do not fight with them.

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.