Laurie Penny on the coalition’s war on the disabled and destitute

Being sick and tired is no reason not to keep fighting - a growing number of people are refusing to accept this new, cruel reality.

Lucy Aldridge is on hunger strike. She is disabled, but her state benefits were suspended after she received a “death-in-service” payment for her 18-year-old son William, the youngest British soldier to be killed in Afghanistan. New, harsh welfare rules mean that Aldridge, from Herefordshire, is entitled to nothing.

Christos Palmer is on hunger strike. The 32-year-old Welshman is also disabled, and has spent the past month protesting outside the Cardiff offices of Atos Origin, the private firm charged with turfing thousands of sick people off the welfare rolls. “After a few days, due to a lack of nutrients, the hunger striker will feel dizzy and faint,” explains Palmer, whose bodyweight has plummeted following his protest. “Why do people like myself and Lucy take this form of action in protesting? We see it as a last resort. No-one seems to be listening to us. We are the invisible silent minority that everyone is happy to ignore.”

A hunger strike is a phenomenal act of willpower. It’s a final attempt to wrest back dignified control of your own body when your dignity and control have been confiscated. That’s why the hunger strike has historically been a strategy employed by political prisoners and peaceful civil rights protesters: it’s the last resort of proud, desperate people with nothing to lose. It is suicide as spectacle.

The hunger strikers have assumed – as most of us did, until very recently – that the government gives a damn about whether or not very poor, sick people die early and in pain. Given recent pronouncements by the Department of Work and Pensions, this may be a dangerous assumption. Over the past four years, an all-out assault has been underway against the disabled and unemployed in Britain. The attacks have come on all fronts, from the financial to the moral – rewriting the social script in this country so that the needy are no longer full human beings with just as much right to a life as anyone else, but parasites, scroungers, burdens on the state, barely even human.

Let’s step back for a moment. Let’s take a look at how far we’ve come.The modern welfare state was founded to liberate people from hunger, poverty and want. The document that laid those foundation, the Beveridge Report, was released 70 years ago this month and it makes for fascinating reading, not least because one so seldom encounters a government document which proposes to make life better for people, rather than burying planned abuses under shovelfuls of waffly obfuscation.

Beveridge, who was far from a radical, proposed that nobody should be left destitute by virtue of being unable to work. Bear in mind that this report was written in 1942, when the nation was at war. “A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching,” wrote Beveridge in the introduction, which recommends a minimum guaranteed income level for every citizen, leaving everyone the option to earn more and improve his or her circumstances.

When the welfare state was built, the world was changing. A working class which had been asked to put itself on the line to fight fascism and protect a faltering British Empire was growing restless. For the first time, the notion that being sick, widowed or unemployed might not have to mean living in the sort of hunger and filth described in Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier seemed like more than airy fantasy. In the early years of the Second World War there were still 100,000 people living in ghoulish, Victorian-era workhouses. There are no workhouses left today – they were closed after the modern welfare system was instituted, and the buildings turned into retirement homes and community centres – but the ability of those who would once have needed them to live free, independent lives is rapidly disappearing.

The Conservative front bench is keen to remind us that the world of work has changed since Beveridge’s day. One of the most important changes has been that a full salary can no longer be expected to provide any sort of decent standard of living, or indeed to cover basic rent in many cities where employment is to be found – which is why the majority of recipients of housing benefit, among other benefits, are in work. And yet the fantasy that removing benefits will “get Britain working” continues, because we allow it to.

In a time of soaring joblessness, encouraging an underpaid or unemployed person to seek work by removing their benefits is rather like encouraging a desert traveller to find an oasis by setting them on fire.You cannot simply bully people into jobs that aren’t there. Nor can you order a person to get on their bike and look for work, as Norman Tebbit did in 1981, if it is physically impossible for them to ride a bike, or, indeed, to stand.

You can, of course, bully them off the welfare rolls so that your figures for unemployment and incapacity aren’t quite so embarassing when election time rolls around. Indeed, up to 1.8 million needy new claimants may have been frightened away from applying for benefits to which they are entitled for that reason. This sort of figure-fiddling only works for so long. A dramatic increase in net national destitution tends to get noticed, after a while. If you’re going to accustom people to living smaller, meaner lives, you need to persuade them that it’s wrong to want more and always has been. You need to tell them they’re scroungers, spongers and shirkers. You need to get rid of other people’s empathy by blaming them for every possible social ill. You need to justify the degradation of the disabled.

And that’s just what’s been happening in Britain over the past decade, as the poisonous rhetoric of “shirking” and “scrounging” has come to dominate the mainstream debate about social security, the truth about benefits obscured by fairytales about welfare recipients living rent-free in mansions made of gingerbread in a magical land of full employment.

This week, a study by the Elizabeth Finn charity revealed that press attitudes towards benefit recipients have hardened considerably in recent years, and that many of the negative stories about benefit claimants parroted in the tabloid press have been instigated by a government determined not to let the facts get in the way of its philosophy of slashing state support for all but the extremely wealthy.

It's difficult to stay calm about this. I'm finding it difficult, as someone who has been writing and campaigning about the attack on welfare for four years and more, since I was a caregiver with a severely disabled boyfriend who went through the process of prostrating himself for incapacity benefits that came too late or not at all. Back then, it was the Labour Party attacking disabled people’s right to live with dignity. The Work and Pensions Minister whose offices we were picketing was James Purnell, not Iain Duncan Smith, who today mouths the same torturous rhetoric about getting people back to work by taking away their means of support.

In those four years, years in which the insanity of ripping enormous holes in the social safety net during a double-dip recession has only become starker, disability campaigners have made the arguments over and over again about why we need a welfare state. We’ve watched extremely sick people sacrifice what little health and energy they have fighting for their rights to live independently, coming back from welfare offices with stories of being made to walk until they fall over, being made to undress to show their self-harm scars, and still being turned away. We’re getting weary of explaining why blaming those who have almost nothing, not even their health, for the state of the economy is callous and evil.

It’s a struggle to come up with new ways to reiterate the facts behind the torrent of propaganda pouring out of the Conservative press office. It’s a struggle to remind people that welfare costs have risen because wages have failed to rise; that most welfare recipients are in work; that the rates of benefit fraud, far from being a drain on the state, are as low as they've ever been, at one per cent; that the cost of corporate tax avoidance to the exchequer (£25bn a year) is a hundred times higher than the cost of benefit fraud, and yet it is the poor and needy whom the government chooses to blame for the state of the economy.

Those who’ve been fighting this cause for years are sick and tired of repeating the arguments over and over again and watching the public conversation about disability slide backwards into hate and suspicion. We’re sick and tired of hearing about another disabled person dying or committing suicide days after being found “fit” for work that isn’t there, another terminal cancer patient sent to the job centre, another person afraid to leave the house on crutches because they might face harassment, another parent or caregiver watching helplessly as their loved ones sink into despair, as their health and hope are worn away.

Right now, reading over the government’s latest plans to take away benefits for everyone under 25 who isn’t earning money, I don’t want to lay out yet another reasonable case for why humans shouldn’t have to starve because they weren’t born rich. I want to put my fist through the computer screen until it comes back bloody. I’m sick and tired of the cruelty and the lies.

But being sick and tired is no reason not to keep fighting. Karen Sherlock, who died in June after a suspected heart attack, not long after having her benefits cut and being told to seek work by the DWP, was sick, and she was tired. She was just 44 years old, and severely disabled. In one of her last blog posts, she wrote: “We need to be passionate about standing up for our rights. If we can make enough noise, and get enough people to listen then we can overturn the inhumane changes this parasitic government have made.”

There is a growing phalanx of people in this country refusing, like Karen Sherlock, like Christos Palmer and Lucy Aldridge, to accept this new, cruel reality. Disabled people and their allies are refusing to lie down meekly and accept their new status as scapegoats and social parasites. They are angry, and desperate, and prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect their right, and others’ rights, to live with dignity. If the rest of us aren’t standing with them, we ought to be.

Laurie Penny is an NS contributing editor

Disabled protestors demonstrate at Parliament in May 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

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

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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Meet the hot, funny, carefree Cool Mums – the maternal version of the Cool Girl

As new film Bad Moms reveals, what the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy.

I suppose we should all be thankful. Time was when “mum’s night off” came in the form of a KFC value bucket. Now, with the advent of films such as Bad Moms – “from the gratefully married writers of The Hangover” – it looks as though mums are finally getting permission to cut loose and party hard.

This revelation could not come a moment too soon. Fellow mums, you know all those stupid rules we’ve been following? The ones where we think “god, I must do this, or it will ruin my precious child’s life”? Turns out we can say “sod it” and get pissed instead. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore said so.

I saw the trailer for Bad Moms in the cinema with my sons, waiting for Ghostbusters to start. Much as I appreciate a female-led comedy, particularly one that suggests there is virtue in shirking one’s maternal responsibilities, I have to say there was something about it that instantly made me uneasy. It seems the media is still set on making the Mommy Wars happen, pitching what one male reviewer describes as “the condescending harpies that run the PTA” against the nice, sexy mummies who just want to have fun (while also happening to look like Mila Kunis). It’s a set up we’ve seen before and will no doubt see again, and while I’m happy some attention is being paid to the pressures modern mothers are under, I sense that another is being created: the pressure to be a cool mum.

When I say “cool mum” I’m thinking of a maternal version of the cool girl, so brilliantly described in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl:

“Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.”

The cool girl isn’t like all the others. She isn’t weighed down by the pressures of femininity. She isn’t bothered about the rules because she knows how stupid they are (or at least, how stupid men think they are). She does what she likes, or at least gives the impression of doing so. No one has to feel guilty around the cool girl. She puts all other women, those uptight little princesses, to shame.

What the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy. The cool mum doesn’t bore everyone by banging on about organic food, sleeping habits or potty training. Neither hyper-controlling nor obsessively off-grid, she’s managed to combine reproducing with remaining a well-balanced person, with interests extending far beyond CBeebies and vaccination pros and cons. She laughs in the face of those anxious mummies ferrying their kids to and from a multitude of different clubs, in between making  cupcakes for the latest bake sale and sitting on the school board. The cool mum doesn’t give a damn about dirty clothes or additives. After all, isn’t the key to happy children a happy mum? Perfection is for narcissists.

It’s great spending time with the cool mum. She doesn’t make you feel guilty about all the unpaid drudgery about which other mothers complain. She’s not one to indulge in passive aggression, expecting gratitude for all those sacrifices that no one even asked her to make. She’s entertaining and funny. Instead of fretting about getting up in time to do the school run, she’ll stay up all night, drinking you under the table. Unlike the molly-coddled offspring of the helicopter mum or the stressed-out kids of the tiger mother, her children are perfectly content and well behaved, precisely because they’ve learned that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Mummy’s a person, too.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, just how well this works out. Just as the cool girl manages to meet all the standards for patriarchal fuckability without ever getting neurotic about diets, the cool mum raises healthy, happy children without ever appearing to be doing any actual motherwork. Because motherwork, like dieting, is dull. The only reason any woman would bother with either of them is out of some misplaced sense of having to compete with other women. But what women don’t realise – despite the best efforts of men such as the Bad Moms writers to educate us on this score – is that the kind of woman who openly obsesses over her children or her looks isn’t worth emulating. On the contrary, she’s a selfish bitch.

For what could be more selfish than revealing to the world that the performance of femininity doesn’t come for free? That our female bodies are not naturally hairless, odourless, fat-free playgrounds? That the love and devotion we give our children – the very care work that keeps them alive – is not something that just happens regardless of whether or not we’ve had to reimagine our entire selves to meet their needs? No one wants to know about the efforts women make to perform the roles which men have decided come naturally to us. It’s not that we’re not still expected to be perfect partners and mothers. It’s not as though someone else is on hand to pick up the slack if we go on strike. It’s just that we’re also required to pretend that our ideals of physical and maternal perfection are not imposed on us by our position in a social hierarchy. On the contrary, they’re meant to be things we’ve dreamed up amongst ourselves, wilfully, if only because each of us is a hyper-competitive, self-centred mean girl at heart.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be great if the biggest pressures mothers faced really did come from other mothers. Alas, this really isn’t true. Let’s look, for instance, at the situation in the US, where Bad Moms is set. I have to say, if I were living in a place where a woman could be locked up for drinking alcohol while pregnant, where she could be sentenced to decades behind bars for failing to prevent an abusive partner from harming her child, where she could be penalised in a custody case on account of being a working mother – if I were living there, I’d be more than a little paranoid about fucking up, too. It’s all very well to say “give yourself a break, it’s not as though the motherhood police are out to get you”. Actually, you might find that they are, especially if, unlike Kunis’s character in Bad Moms, you happen to be poor and/or a woman of colour.

Even when the stakes are not so high, there is another reason why mothers are stressed that has nothing to do with pressures of our own making. We are not in need of mindfulness, bubble baths nor even booze (although the latter would be gratefully received). We are stressed because we are raising children in a culture which strictly compartmentalises work, home and leisure. When one “infects” the other – when we miss work due to a child’s illness, or have to absent ourselves to express breastmilk at social gatherings, or end up bringing a toddler along to work events – this is seen as a failure on our part. We have taken on too much. Work is work and life is life, and the two should never meet.

No one ever says “the separation between these different spheres – indeed, the whole notion of work/life balance – is an arbitrary construct. It shouldn’t be down to mothers to maintain these boundaries on behalf of everyone else.” Throughout human history different cultures have combined work and childcare. Yet ours has decreed that when women do so they are foolishly trying to “have it all”, ignoring the fact that no one is offering mothers any other way of raising children while maintaining some degree of financial autonomy. These different spheres ought to be bleeding into one another.  If we are genuinely interested in destroying hierarchies by making boundaries more fluid, these are the kind of boundaries we should be looking at. The problem lies not with identities – good mother, bad mother, yummy mummy, MILF – but with the way in which we understand and carry out our day-to-day tasks.

But work is boring. Far easier to think that nice mothers are held back, not by actual exploitation, but by meanie alpha mummies making up arbitrary, pointless rules. And yes, I’d love to be a bad mummy, one who stands up and says no to all that. Wouldn’t we all? I’d be all for smashing the matriarchy, if that were the actual problem here, but it’s not.

It’s not that mummies aren’t allowing each other to get down and party. God knows, we need it. It’s just that it’s a lot less fun when you know the world will still be counting on you to clear up afterwards.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.