It's great to see bookies handing over wedges of tenners - but they never come my way

We don't have many Christmas traditions in my family. When my mother was alive she did her best to create one by consistently cooking a dinner of such awfulness that everyone around the table felt sacramentally united by the formidable task of making polite remarks as they simultaneously fought back the nausea induced by the strange gruel-like compound that stood in as Christmas pudding. (My sister once explained to me that the extraordinary viscosity of this dish was achieved by mother's failure to grasp the concept of steaming. Instead of leaving the pudding in its bowl and allowing it to warm in a saucepan half-full of boiling water, she preferred to tip the pudding into the actual water and then serve it up with a soup ladle while complaining loudly that it had once again failed "to set".)

But now we have Kempton Park. For five consecutive Boxing Days I've been found standing half-frozen in the middle of a waterlogged field, staring up at the large television screen which, in the gathering gloom, provides the only hard evidence that, somewhere in the far distance, a horse race is taking place. What keeps me going year after year is the hope of winning vast sums of hard cash.

When much of one's life is spent harrying the finance departments of precarious small magazines in the hope of extracting small cheques for services rendered in the distant past, there is something unusually exciting about watching turf accountants hand over great wedges of tenners to punters who only ten minutes before were still lining up to place their winning bets. I must, however, now face the dull truth that I am not only incapable of selecting a winning horse, but have an almost supernatural gift for selecting out-and-out losers.

My main problem is that I'm overcome by the claims of every single horse. Take the 12.40 at Kempton last Saturday. According to my paper, Grecian Dart was likely to start as favourite, which clearly meant that many people with more knowledge than me had decided that it must stand a chance. But then there was the news that Jungli had been a good third to Hidebound at Newbury and that "the Irish raider" Follow the Leader "boasts the best public form". I then had to consider the information that "Lawahik is well regarded by Charlie Mann" and that "Running Water is an interesting hurdling newcomer for Peter Hedger". (Let's face it; who am I to argue with Charlie Mann or Peter Hedger?) By the time I arrived at the Tote window I was in such a state of indecision that I found myself opting for Alhosaam on the simple grounds that it enjoyed alphabetical precedence over all its rivals. It was not a precedence that it continued to enjoy when the results were announced.

It was halfway through the big race - at about the precise point when my own selection, See More Business, abandoned the will to live - that I accidentally found myself sheltering from the rain in a small tent which housed five enormously enthusiastic musicians. Although their audience was made up of six rain-soaked punters who spent most of their time looking away from the band towards the racetrack, they were still managing to make very exciting Latin music. Their card told me that they were called Merengada. If you're looking for a band for a party, then I'd say that you couldn't go far wrong with this group. But, given my overall record of success at Kempton, I'd quite understand if you didn't want to go ahead without first checking with either Charlie Mann or Peter Hedger.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour

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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.

For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.

IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.

Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.

Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.

Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.

The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.

His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.

He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.

I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.