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The war for the poor

In the run-up to next year’s general election, poverty is back at the heart of political debate. In

Not long ago, I accompanied a group of teenagers from one of the most deprived areas of South Yorkshire on a day out. A local charity had invited the youngsters to go orienteering and rock climbing. It was a lovely, sunny day, and most of the dozen or so kids threw themselves into the activities. But there was one boy, Daniel, who didn't seem to fit in.

Daniel was pale and obese, and arrived clutching an inhaler in one hand. He wasn't sure whether he could cope with outdoor pursuits, because of his weak ankles and a badly bruised foot. He said that he lived with his disabled mother, who had run him over on her mobility scooter during a trip to Tesco.

No one seemed particularly surprised by Daniel's health-related misfortunes. He lived in a once prosperous pit village that had floundered since the mines closed. As joblessness had become endemic in the area, so had ill health. A fifth of its working-age population was on incapacity benefit - four times the proportion that was unemployed. An older generation that had inherited trades and work ethics from its own parents had been left with little to pass on but health defects.

The links between poverty and sickness are well documented. Children from the poorest families are twice as likely to die before the age of 15 as those from the wealthiest, and are two and a half times as likely to have chronic health problems. Less well documented, however, is an alarming trend in the number of young people on disability benefits. The statistics are stark. While the overall number of those on disability benefits has dropped by 2 per cent since 2003, the number of claimants under the age of 25 has risen by two-thirds, from 80,000 to 134,000. A similar pattern has appeared across Europe - in the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland, as well as in eastern Europe and Scandinavia.

Why is this? Surely Labour's attempts to alleviate poverty should have led to corresponding improvements in health? Although the government's pledge to halve child poverty by 2010 will not be met, approximately 600,000 children have been lifted out of poverty. And health statistics tend to show the nation generally, and children in particular, getting healthier. Yet the number of young people claiming sickness benefits continues to rise.

The deprivation map

My initial attempts to make sense of this conundrum led to confusion and even denial. Lurking in the background of every conversation seemed to be the feeling that even to talk about the issue could amount to an admission that claimants were lazy, feckless or dishonest. My approaches to organisations that dealt with young people's rights elicited little response, or simply a refusal to recognise that such a phenomenon even existed. "Government policy is to put pressure on claimants to come off of sickness and disability benefits," wrote one welfare rights worker. Another added: "We are, of course, in the midst of a recession, so the numbers claiming all benefits would be likely to increase."

This last correspondent did seem to have a point. The numbers of young people on Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which is for those with long-term care needs or poor mobility, had been increasing steadily and had doubled since 2003. But the pattern among those on incapacity benefit, for those unable to work, was different. It had dropped for several years, but began to rise rapidly in the autumn of 2008 - just when the recession hit.
So, was the increase in the numbers on sickness benefits in some way related to youth unemployment? Could benefits advisers even have been encouraged to push claimants towards incapacity benefit or its recent replacement, the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), to keep them off the unemployment statistics?

I visited Lancashire. Its welfare rights service was rightly proud of its efforts to ensure that those entitled to benefits got them. One problem, they said, was that both the poorest and the wealthiest were reluctant to claim. In Chorley, a pretty town with only slightly more than its fair share of discount shops and mobility-aid stores, I met Joe Wilson, a welfare rights worker with a quarter of a century's experience under his belt. "That's a depressing thought," he remarked, as he ushered me into a tiny, windowless room.

Wilson, who was about to hold a benefits advice session, thought there were several possible reasons for the rise in young people on sickness benefits. A major factor, he said, was that Jobcentre Plus staff were offloading applicants to other departments by sending clients to get sick notes and apply for ESAs. "If you're working at the Jobcentre and you're overrun, there's an incentive to get them on to the ESA because then their file is off your desk," he explained. Most are judged fit at their medical, but continue to receive the benefit while they wait months for an appeal hearing. Eventually, they go back to claiming Jobseekers' Allowance.

Yet such mechanistic explanations didn't explain why the numbers of young claimants were rising so much faster than the numbers of older claimants. Even though unemployment had risen fastest among the young, the number on these benefits had risen faster still.

Sitting in on Wilson's advice session, I began to sense the complexity of the issue and the deeper social change that was contributing to it. First up was Mary, who had moderate learning difficulties, worked in a supported job in a factory and claimed a low level of DLA. She had been in special schools and in care as a child. She had no family and struggled with daily life.

Then came Colin, who sometimes felt anxious, and occasionally had a bad back. He had been on incapacity benefit, but it had been stopped. He was appealing. "My doctor has no problem giving me sick notes, but the benefits people don't seem to believe me," he explained. "I don't think I was in the medical more than ten minutes."

Neither Mary nor Colin was incapable of work. "Colin would have worked in a warehouse, moving stuff around. Or in construction," said Wilson. "When there used to be a manufacturing sector, there were low-grade labouring jobs for people with mild learning difficulties. You needed someone to sweep the factory floor. Those jobs don't exist any more."

What next?

A picture was beginning to emerge that made sense. Were young people with mild disabilities becoming stuck because the labour market just didn't have a place for them any more? Growing up in areas where traditional industries had died, did they find the route into incapacity benefits clearer than the route into work?

Jim Dickson, head of Lancashire's welfare rights service, agreed that something of the sort was probably happening and that it certainly related to levels of poverty in the area. "If you took the deprivation map of Lancashire and put it alongside a map of DLA claimants, you'd be looking at a mirror image," he told me. "In the old days, the disabilities were work-related. Joiners had arthritis, nurses had bad backs. I don't think that's so strong now."

Instead, there were the conditions of the jobless - depression and anxiety. The proportion of sickness-benefit claimants with mental health problems had been growing, particularly among the young. And there were other modern-day conditions too - ADHD, Asperger syndrome, asthma - all found predominantly among the young and often among the poor.

After my visit to Lancashire, I spoke to Frank Field, the MP for Birkenhead and a former minister for welfare reform. Field, a leading proponent of the view that benefits should help people into work, argued that within Britain's poorer communities, it was not only sickness that was being passed down through the generations. Communities were also passing on their knowledge of the benefits system. "We are healthier as a nation, so there can't be a terrible, plague-like epidemic among those on benefits. There's something else going on," Field said. "There are different groups of young people. Some of them are struggling. Others have no intention of working, but the system accommodates them."

The rising levels of sickness benefit among the young required attention from the government: "These figures are very challenging, and the government has to look at them seriously," Field continued. "It isn't in a young person's interests to be on incapacity benefit - it affects their life chances."

I wondered what would become of Daniel, who was growing up in one of Britain's poorest areas with the odds stacked against him. He had almost every risk factor - he did not have any qualifications, he had been dependent on benefits from an early age and he already had health problems. When I met him, he was about to embark on a course for vulnerable youngsters at his local college. But after that, what next? Would an employer be willing to give him the support and encouragement he so obviously needs? Or would he end up, like his mother before him, with little to look forward to but a life on disability benefits?

Some names have been changed.
Fran Abrams is a journalist and author.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times