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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Labour can be populist and English without copying Donald Trump

There's nothing deplorable about discussing the common interests of the people.

As Labour’s new populism gears up for Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent, it will be tested on voters who are, by a significant measure, more likely to see themselves as English. In the 2011 census, both constituencies scored "English" identity nearly 10 per cent higher than the English average and still 5 per cent higher than England outside of London.

It’s no surprise that both Ukip and the Tories have polled well in these places. In the 2015 general election there was strong correlation between feeling "English", or feeling "more English than British", and voting Ukip and Conservative. Indeed, amongst the "English not British" Ukip took about a third of the votes across England, and the Tories a fifth. Labour lagged below 15 per cent.

Labour’s problems may be getting worse. A recent YouGov poll, commissioned by the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, showed "Englishness" gaining at the expense of "Britishness" in the year of Brexit. At the extremes, "English not British" rose by 5 per cent (from 14 per cent to 19 per cent), with ‘British not English’ falling by a similar amount. If past relationships hold, these voters will become harder for Labour to reach.

Although most people in England would favour an English Parliament, or English MPs alone voting on English issues, these have not yet become the political demands of an explicit nationalism as we might find in Wales, Scotland or Catalonia. Indeed, there’s no actual evidence of a direct link between feeling English and the way people vote. It well be that the underlying factors that make someone feel English are also those that incline them, overwhelmingly, to vote Brexit or to support Ukip.

We may identify the drivers of English identity - the declining power of the idea of Britain, the assertiveness of devolution, rapid migration and the EU - but we know little about the idea of England than lies behind these polls. There’s almost certainly more than one: the England of Stoke Central imaginations may not be identical to the Twickenham RFU car park on international day.

One of the most persistent and perceptive observers of alienated working class voters sheds some light on why these voters are turning towards their English roots. According to The Guardian’s John Harris:

"When a lot of people said ‘I’m English’, they often meant something like, ‘I’m not middle class, and I don’t want to be…. I’m also white, and coupled with the fact that I’m working class, I feel that somehow that puts me at the bottom of the heap, not least in the context of immigration. But I am who I am, and I’m not apologising for it.'" People who said "I’m English" seemed to be saying, 'I’m from somewhere' in a ways that politicians and the media did not."

Given Labour’s history in seats where support is ebbing away, it’s reasonable to think that the party’s target must be the voters who Martin Baxter of Electoral Calculus describes as "left-wing nationalists". In this definition, "left-wing" attitudes tend to be be anti-capitalist, hostile to business, generous on benefits, support the welfare state and redistributive taxation. "Nationalist" attitudes are seen as isolationist, against immigration, disliking EU freedom of movement, thinking British means "born here" and that Britons should be put first.

For many in Labour, those nationalist attitudes might bring "a basket of deplorables" to mind.  In recent days both the Corbyn left, and centrist MPs like Alison McGovern and Wes Streeting, have warned against meeting these voters’ concerns. Progressive Labour populists must also calm those fears. But Labour will be doomed as a party of government it it can’t reach these voters (even if it does hang on in the forthcoming by-elections). The obstacles are formidable, but with the right language and framing, Labour may find an appeal that could cut through without alienating the party's more liberal support.

Just acknowledging that England, and the English, exist would be a start. The reaction to Birmingham mayoral candidate Sion Simon’s appeal to England in a campaign tweet simply emphasised how much of Labour prefers to say Britain, even when they mean England. We don’t need a swirl of St George crosses at every event; we just need to use the word in normal everyday conversation. At least we would sound like we live in the same country.

The defiant cry to be recognised and heard should trigger another Labour instinct. The demand that the nation should be run in the common interests of the people runs deep through radical history. Jeremy Corbyn reached for this with his talk of "elites rigging the system". But no ordinary English conversation ever talks about elites. Instead of "mini-me Trumpism", English Labour populism needs careful framing in the language of day-to-day talk. Labour's target should be not be the wealthy per se, but those powerful people whose behaviour undermines the national interest and by doing so undermines the rest of us.

This language of national interest, both conservatively patriotic and politically radical, meets the mood of the moment. The select committee challenges to Amazon, Google, Philip Green and Mike Ashley struck a chord precisely because they revealed something deeply true and unpleasant about this land. We can defend the national interest without invoking a racist response. Why are our railways sold to other governments, and our companies sold abroad for quick profit? Why should it be easier for a foreign gangster to buy a house in Surrey, and hide their ownership overseas, than for an English family to get their own home?

By asking what any change means to the people of England, we might bridge the divide on immigration. If the impact of migration is exacerbated by the pressure on housing and service, let Labour make it clear that the rate of immigration should not exceed the pace we can build homes for those already here, as well as any newcomers. The government must be able to expand services to meet additional needs. If every policy should work in the interests of the people of England, migration which improves our services, creates jobs and grows the economy is to be welcomed. It is hard to see a genuine liberal objection to posing the migration challenge in that way. With the exception of refugees, immigration policy cannot be designed to benefit the migrant more than the resident.

Let the test of every policy be whether it works in the interests of the people of England, or works only for a few. That’s a simple test that would appeal to widely shared values. It could be the foundation of a genuine Labour populism that speaks to England.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University