Heal thyself? Photo: Getty Images
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Memo to David Cameron: I have all the incentives I need to stop being ill. It's called "being ill"

Disease isn’t like a gas meter. It has no notion of economics. It doesn’t switch off because you’ve stopped putting money in.

Another day, another rummage down the back of the benefits sofa to find a spare £12bn. This week: changing Employment Support Allowance to incentivise ill people to get back to work.

One problem: I already have the best incentive to stop being ill and get back to work. It’s called “being ill”.

I would love to go back to work because if I were able to work, I would no longer be sick. Long-term illness nibbles away at your identity from the edges, taking out chunks of the things that make you you: the friends you meet, the shops you wander into, the job you do. I would love to work, if only because it would give me something to use in small talk, a context in which to place myself, the grit around which an imperfect pearl of who I am can begin to re-form.

I would like to have a job. I would like to feel productive. I would like to do more with my day than clutch at cups of tea and switch on the radio because I can’t keep my eyes open for the television. But currently I can’t and I rely on ESA to keep me in teabags.

This proposal makes two fundamental mistakes: that illness and disability are a) passive and b) attractively lucrative.

If you think I do not work for my benefits, you are wrong. Ringing the DWP at eight in the morning to find out why my benefits are a month late, only to hear a recorded message to tell me they are busy and that perhaps I ought to call back between eight and nine in the morning. The constant stream of sick notes I have to ask my doctor for, pick up from the surgery and post to the DWP, because the backlog means that if I wanted to get assessed in a reasonable timeframe, I should have applied for ESA roughly six months before I got ill. The sight of a brown envelope on the doormat makes my heart pause; I fear each one will contain a ransom note of sanctions. My doctor asks me what causes me stress. I can answer in less than three words. I can answer in three letters. Dee. Doubleyew. Pea.

Use of the word “passive” is nonsensical, as though one can be “active” for sickness benefits. Perhaps I could open my home to visitors and charge them to look at me. Come, behold the Incredible Chronically Ill Girl! She’s only 25, but she walks with a stick! See how she struggles to do her own laundry! GASP as her overwhelming fatigue prevents her finding the words to answer your basic question about tea!

Chronic illness often feels like a terribly paid admin job, chasing down missed payments, posting doctors notes, requesting repeat prescriptions, sending in bank statements. The rigamarole around being ill seems to tower, colussus-like, over the actual illness. The welfare state should exist to make life easier for those in need, to offer a helping hand in times of crisis, no matter how long those times last. Welfare isn’t lucrative. It’s enough to get by.

Disease isn’t like a gas meter. It has no notion of economics. It doesn’t switch off because you’ve stopped putting money in. This isn’t some kind of elaborate con I’ve been running, shutting myself away from the world to trick you out of the princely sum of £48 a week. Cutting my benefits won't get me back into work. It will make my life smaller, more stressful. It will make me sicker.

Please do not be taken in by the weaselly misuse of the word incentive. Incentives are nice things, rewards, like cream cakes or that video of Michael Gove falling over. Cutting the money that sick and disabled people receive isn’t an incentive to work, it’s a disincentive and a punishment for being ill. You can paint it orange and call it a carrot as much as you like, but if you’re beating people into the ground with it, it’s still a stick.

This isn’t just a question of economics, of ideological war on the welfare state. This is the insidious, callous notion that sick and disabled people are ultimately not trying hard enough. This says what people with chronic illnesses and disabilities hear all too much from their friends, from their families, from even their doctors: we do not believe that you are ill.

If you think that eventually you can make people so sad and stressed and poor that they will “get over” being ill, that you can starve them out and they’ll end their little displays of sickness, then you are very much mistaken. We have all the incentives we need to get back to work; cutting ESA will only make it harder to do so.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue