An open letter to Rachel Reeves: being "tough" on welfare won't work for Labour

Rather than trying to outflank the Tories, the party needs to think harder about how to create a greater sense of collective identity and solidarity.

Dear Rachel Reeves,

As the new shadow secretary for work and pensions, you are now the face of Labour's policies on social security and benefits, and will likely stay there until the 2015 election. So you have a unique opportunity to rethink the failed approach of the past and offer voters something bolder at the next election.

The conventional wisdom within Labour is that the party is seen as 'soft' on people who claim social security and too forgiving of people who abuse the system. You will know that poorer people are usually harsher towards others on benefits and want tough sanctions on abusers of the system. You will have seen polling that suggests Labour needs to neutralise that image or else people may be tempted to vote for the Conservatives in 2015. Hence you wanted to sound tough in your interview with the Observer on Sunday.

This is a safe approach and has been part of Labour's vocabulary since Tony Blair said he was "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". It has also stopped working; all the evidence shows it just takes Labour further into a cul-de-sac without a way out. Here's why:

1) It stopped working for New Labour
You couldn't accuse the last Labour government of being soft on people on welfare benefits. Successive ministers were trotted out repeatedly to deliver harsh language on "scroungers" and "fraudsters" who ripped off the system. Labour even unveiled billboard ads calling on people to report benefit fraudsters. And yet, a 2010 poll found that 66% of people thought Labour "was close to" benefit claimants. If being 'tough' on claimants is a good strategy, why didn't it work for New Labour?

Last week the American cognitive linguist and writer George Lakoff (the author of Don't Think of an Elephant) toured London and made a point that some campaigners have been making here for years: adopting your political opponent's language doesn't neutralise your disadvantage, it cements their advantage as the centre of gravity shifts in their direction (just ask your colleague Stella Creasy, she was there too). New Labour helped create a harsher climate for people on social security without reaping any political benefits, despite silly gimmicks such as lie-detector tests.

Most people don't pay attention to policy details. Labour would have to do something very drastic, perhaps beheading a welfare claimant live on TV, to cut through to voters and convince them that it is 'tough'. Otherwise they just think you're pandering for votes and dislike you even more.

2) Look at immigration as a warning sign
New Labour adopted the same strategy on the issue of immigration. Phil Woolas was regularly wheeled out to deliver sanctions and he didn't mince his words. The Conservatives didn't give Labour any breathing space of course - they shifted even further to the right and kept attacking Labour. Once again there was no political benefit for Labour. In fact, it created a monster for the Tories, as they now face public disillusionment over their absurd promises.

As in the case of social security, by feeding a war of words on immigration, New Labour ended up alienating some of its own voters while convincing almost no one. Even uber-Blairite John McTernan admitted this failure. Reports show that tough rhetoric only shifts attitudes even further away from where Labour needs them to be. As Emma Burnell recently pointed out, "If all we intend to do is ape the Tories in a macho punishment contest we will fail. Because the public refuse to see us like that however hard we tried."

3) Labour should appeal to voters but think broader
How about this for a message: "Labour is absolutely committed to reducing the welfare bill, but without the divisive and demonising language of the Tories. To do that we need to get people into well-paying jobs, and Labour will offer not just a jobs guarantee to the long-term unemployed, but refocus our economy to create better jobs. That is about creating a different kind of an economy that isn't reliant on property bubbles and the City, and one where we pay vastly less on housing benefit and unemployment." Tough on the costs of social security without the demonisation.

But there is a broader problem here. Britons are less appreciative of some welfare payments because our society has become more individualistic and atomised, with a breakdown of traditional social links with neighbours. Labour has to think harder about how to increase a sense of collective identity and solidarity within Britain if it wants to preserve the welfare state. We have to reverse government policies that increase loneliness and kill communities.

As Labour's policy review co-ordinator Jon Cruddas once said : "An ex minister wrote last week of how we needed to 'crack down on the welfare underclass'. Others argue for us to become the 'anti immigration party'. A new kiss up, kick down politics that blames the victim. There lies political death for labour. No language, no warmth no kindness; no generosity, vitality nor optimism. No compassion. If you seek to outflank the coalition from the right, you will turn Labour into a byword for intolerance."

This talk of Labour 'walking into a welfare trap' set by the Tories has itself become a problem: we keep returning to the safe ground of 'tough' rhetoric, without convincing messages or policies that favour Labour in the long term. It is time to bring some fresh thinking to this debate and I hope you won't shy away from doing so.

Shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves.

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

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The Femicide Census honours the victims of gender violence

The survey shows that the majority of women who are killed by men suffer their fate at the hands of a current or former partner.

 

The phrase “isolated incident” often turns up in media reports when a man kills a woman. The police use it at press conferences. It’s a code: it means the story ends here, no one else is in danger, the rest of the world can sleep safe because this particular killer does not have his sights on anyone else.

Thanks to the Femicide Census – a collaboration between Women’s Aid and nia, two specialist services dealing with violence against women – we now know how many of those “isolated incidents” there are, in England and Wales at least. Between 1 January 2009 and 31 December 2015, it was nearly a thousand: 936 women (aged 14 and over) were killed by men in seven years.

As the census reveals, the killing of women follows a very different pattern to the killing of men, although there is one thing both groups of victims have in common: their killers are almost always men.

But female victims are more likely to know their killer than male victims. In fact, they usually know him very well: 598 (64%) of the women were killed by a current or former partner, 75 (8%) by their son, 45 (4.8%) by another male family member. Killing is often what the census describes as “the final act of control”: not an “isolated incident”, but the culmination of a long campaign of coercion and violence.

This means that trends in femicide – the killing of a woman by a man – don’t match the overall homicide trend, as a 2011 UN study found when it noted that the overall rate of homicide had fallen while killings of women remained stable. But official records have long failed to recognise this difference, and there were no statistics specifically on men’s fatal violence against women until 2012, when Karen Ingala Smith (CEO of nia) started cataloguing reports of women killed by men on her personal blog, a project she called Counting Dead Women.

That was the start of the Femicide Census, now a high-powered data project on a platform developed by Deloitte. The list has been expanded so that victim-killer relationship, method of killing, age, occupation, ethnicity, health status and nationality can all be explored.

Or rather, these factors can be explored when they’re known. What gets reported is selective, and that selection tells a great a deal about what is considered valuable in a woman, and what kind of woman is valued. As the census notes: “almost without exception, it was easier to find out whether or not the victim had been a mother than it was to find out where she worked”.

Killings of black, Asian, minority ethnicity and refugee women receive vastly less media coverage than white women – especially young, attractive white women whose deaths fulfil the stranger-danger narrative. (Not that this is a competition with any winners. When the press reports on its favoured victims, the tone is often objectifying and fetishistic.)

Women’s chances of being killed are highest among the 36-45 age group, then decline until 66+ when they jump up again. These are often framed by the perpetrators as “mercy killings”, although the sincerity of that mercy can be judged by one of the male killers quoted in the census: “‘I did not want her to become a decrepit old hag.”

Another important finding in the census is that 21 of the women killed between 2009 and 2015 were involved in pornography and/or prostitution, including two transwomen. The majority of these victims (13 women) were killed by clients, a grim indictment of the sex trade. The most chilling category of victim, though, is perhaps the group of five called “symbolic woman”, which means “cases where a man sought to kill a woman – any woman”. In the purest sense, these are women who were killed for being women, by men who chose them as the outlet for misogynist aggression.

The truth about men’s fatal violence against women has for too many years been obscured under the “isolated incident”. The Femicide Census begins to put that ignorance right: when a man kills a woman, he may act alone, but he acts as part of a culture that normalises men’s possession of women, the availability of women for sexual use, the right to use force against non-compliant or inconvenient women.

With knowledge, action becomes possible: the Femicide Census is a clarion call for specialist refuge services, for support to help women exit prostitution, for drastic reform of attitudes and understanding at every level of society. But the census is also an act of honour to the dead. Over two pages, the census prints the names of all the women to whom it is dedicated: all the women killed by men over the six years it covers. Not “isolated incidents” but women who mattered, women who are mourned, women brutally killed by men, and women in whose memory we must work to prevent future male violence, armed with everything the census tells us.

 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.