Labour should stop accepting the Tory premise that welfare is shameful. Photo: Getty
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It is shameful that Labour buys into the rhetoric that people who need welfare are scum

The Labour party is missing the opportunity to stand up proudly for low-paid workers and those who rely on state support.

I’m not sure at what point the Labour party decided people on benefits weren’t equal citizens. Perhaps Rachel Reeves can pin it down. This week, the shadow work and pensions secretary was quoted in the Guardian saying:

We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work. Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people.

Reeves is not stupid. She will know that, for example, more than 90 per cent of new housing benefit claims are from people in work – that low wages and high living costs are forcing people to turn up to a job, work all day, and then get "top ups" from the state to afford luxuries like rent and heat. And, as such, that being “the party of people on benefits” would currently largely mean “being the party of people in work who are struggling to make ends meet”.

She will also be aware, I’m sure, that even the reviled “those who are out of work” are not slackers voluntarily unemployed but victims of an unstable job market – and that in that climate of zero-hours contracts, workfare, and agency work, the “working people” who apparently deserve representation can very quickly become the “out of work” people who do not. But still Reeves says we are not the party of people on benefits”, anyway. She believes in ending target-based sanctions and preventing the need for food banks (as reaffirmed in the same Guardian interview) but, regardless, says Labour “will be tougher than the Tories” on benefits. 

Reeves is not alone in this doublethink. She is emblematic of Labour’s wider, growing inability to deal with social security. As someone who has been a member of the party since I was 18 – and who both talks about benefits for a living and relies on my own benefits to live – the party’s response to what is one of the most pressing issues of modern politics and, more to the point, people’s lives, feels shameful.

In a culture of vilifying Benefits Street and baiting the cost of Katie Price’s severely disabled eleven-year-old child, Labour appears – understandably – terrified of being on the wrong side of the scrounger versus striver binary that has been carved for them. That fear is driving them away from their own values and, ironically, in this quest for votes, from the people who would naturally support them.

Multiple sections of society – the disabled, the chronically ill, the low earners, the zero-hours contract workers – risk being widely turned off by the very rhetoric Labour appear convinced will win them over. This week, Jack Monroe publicly defected to the Green party, citing Labour’s response to “welfare” as a key reason. Social media swarms with increasingly disaffected want-to-be Labour voters; people who know what it is to spend the day afraid of the brown envelope, not only from debt collectors but the Department for Work and Pensions. Demonising benefit claimants does not appeal to the voter with MS who has to live on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), just as "other-ing" benefit claimants is a meaningless narrative to the families needing to claim housing benefit because their wages don’t cover the rent.

Disability is a key example of this. Labour is making (often) silent strides on the concerns of disabled and chronically ill people. This year, they re-launched Disability Labour. Kate Green, Labour’s shadow disability minister, speaks out about disability benefit backlogs. Scrapping the bedroom tax is firmly on the agenda. Reeves herself says she wants a welfare state that is there “to protect people in times of need” – for example, if someone “became disabled”

But it is difficult to present yourself as on the side of the disabled while signing up to a wider, dividing portrayal of social security. Words like “tougher than the Tories” and “not the party of people on benefits” are personal stings that people struggling on disability benefits remember. This stuff is not empty political rhetoric. It is a reflection on people’s lives, their basic self-esteem. Crass, Daily Mail-esque statements on benefits are cheap, pointless jibes that do nothing but leave people who need the support of the state feeling like scum. Or as one voter on ESA put it for the New Statesman this week, as if she “need[s] to apologise for claiming money so I can eat”.

It is telling that the question that caused Reeves trouble this week was: “Is it a problem if Labour are seen as the party of the welfare state?” Imagine a climate where a Labour politician sees that as an accusation. We are at the point where "welfare" brings with it the image of the feckless underclass eating takeaways in front of a 50-inch plasma screens, and structural poverty is cast as personal, moral failure. Labour loses the argument the minute it accepts the Tory premise. “Are you the welfare party?” “We are the party of a living wage for people going to work in the morning and dignified support for anyone unable to,” is an answer that can be said proudly. It is shameful to be the politicians slashing the safety net, not the ones defending it.

Instead, Labour positions itself against the so-called people “able to live a life on benefits” (again, their own words); the political equivalent of forming a plan to hunt Lord Voldemort. Labour is defining itself by how seriously it can chase a villain that does not exist. The "better off on benefits than in work" claim is a complete fallacy. The families where "generations have never worked" have never actually been foundNor has any evidence of "a culture of worklessness" (in fact, the opposite: people experiencing long-term unemployment routinely prefer to be in jobs rather than on benefits). 

What Labour is struggling to tackle when it comes to benefits is a cultural perception: the insecurity and fear that the Conservatives have benefited from stoking. That does not mean it should be ignored or that it’s easy – if anything, the feeling that there are others having an easy life as you struggle is in many ways harder to address than if there were a tangible target. But it requires finding different solutions than Labour is currently managing. It means re-framing the debate itself. Low wage earners will not see their life improved by making an unemployed person’s worse. Disabled and chronically ill people cannot be respected until receiving benefits is presented as something other than lazy failure.

It may feel as if this climate cannot cope with a nuanced, passionate support for social security. But actually, we can’t survive without one. Voters are crying out for a principled alternative to the past five years. Iain Duncan Smith presides over an annihilation of support millions of people rely on. As the Budget this week showed, another £13bn worth of welfare cuts are coming. The Treasury will need to make “unprecedented” welfare cuts over the next three years, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Marginalised, penalised, struggling citizens need someone to defend them. The Labour party can do this proudly. It needs to be bold enough to do it.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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