Bottom of the class

In the second part of our series on poverty, Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford argue that the g

Who cares about the poor? David Cameron says the Conservatives do. Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, is worried that the Tories are not simply raiding Labour territory, they are declaring war on its reason to exist. Through 100 years of disputes about what Labour is or should be about, Field says, "most have agreed that [it] exists to protect and advance the interests of the poor". That consensus is now open to question.

The Welfare Reform Act 2009 received royal assent last November. There is no better time than now for the centre left to ask itself a few difficult questions about its relationship with the poor. In the final vote on the bill, the Commons rejected Lords amendments that sought some protection for the most vulnerable. Those who are sick, even very ill, will be expected actively to seek work, or face sanctions. Sanctions also apply to mothers of very small children and to those suffering serious mental illness. But the biggest shock to those who campaigned for a more humane approach to welfare reform was the silence of the labour movement. Was this through lack of interest, or tacit support for the measures?

Government ministers rigorously defended the bill, claiming that William Beveridge would have approved of it. This is wrong. Beveridge described his 1942 plan as "in some ways a revolution, but in more important ways it is a natural development from the past". The revolutionary part broke with the ruling welfare ideology and created a "new type of human institution". Beveridge called it "social insurance", which implies both that it is compulsory and that "men stand together with their fellows" by pooling risks. The implementation of this universalist principle and its ethic of
solidarity was an exceptional event in British history. The Welfare Reform Act undermines both the principle and its effect.

Yet there is some truth in the government's argument. The rhetoric of welfare reform is in keeping with some of the "natural developments" that influenced Beveridge, including the idea of an "undeserving poor" and the belief that it is the dysfunctional behaviour of the poor that is responsible for their poverty. The punitive treatment of Incapacity Benefit claimants and the belief in the curative powers of work have their roots in the late-Victorian idea of a "social residuum". New Labour revived a disciplinary approach to welfare, concerned with controlling rather than supporting individuals.

Its intellectual lineage - represented by figures such as Thomas Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, the late-Victorian social investigators, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb - is steeped in a technocratic and rationalist notion of progress. Its driving ethos was not so much social justice as that the "degeneracy" of the poor got in the way of the efficient drive towards a perfect society. Sidney Webb railed against the falling birth rate and feared that the country would fall "to the Irish and the Jews".

Moral panic

Beveridge was a member of the Eugenics Education Society, set up in reaction to the threat of "degeneracy". Its "first object", wrote its founder, Francis Galton, "is to check the birth rate of the unfit instead of allowing them to come into being . . . The second object is the improvement of the race by furthering the productivity of the fit by early marriages and the healthful rearing of their children." In his 1907 pamphlet The Problem of the Unemployed, Beveridge argued that men whose "general defects" make them "unemployable" should be made "dependants of the state". In return, they must pay with "complete and permanent loss of all citizen rights - including not only the franchise but civil freedom and fatherhood".

Labour has historically lacked the political ideology to counter the legacy of utilitarian, disciplinary welfare. Its own political culture has been imbued with the Puritan work ethic. As Richard Tawney has argued, 17th-century Puritanism prepared the way for capitalist civilisation and brought with it a new punitive attitude towards the poor. Labour, like the wider social-democratic tradition, has been unable to build a counterculture that can offer an alternative ethics of living and working. As a result, it has colluded in distinguishing morally between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor.

History has shown us that economic crises generate middle-class panics about a "dangerous" underclass and its racial and sexual transgressions. In the 1980s, the new right embarked on a project to theorise an underclass in Britain. It drew on the work of the American political scientist Charles Murray, whose research had revived eugenicist debates about race and intelligence. Murray was invited to Britain by the Sunday Times in 1989 and his ideas were taken up by Digby Anderson's Social Affairs Unit. The American academic Lawrence Mead was also influential in reviving the belief that poverty was about behaviour and dependency, rather than economics and justice. The problem was not environment, but individual failing. The work of the new right laid the foundations for New Labour's welfare reforms.

Electoral collapse

The government calculated that it could triangulate the Conservatives and subject the underclass to punitive measures without alienating Labour's core supporters. Its refrain of "hard-working families" attempted to codify this division. But the so-called underclass is not a class apart as the new right and the social investigators of the 19th century tried to prove. It is an imagined body of people - chavs, hoodies, junkies - projected on to single mothers, the sick and parts of the working class impoverished by the impact of recession and unemployment.

Welfare reform has generated insecurity beyond those it has targeted. It has helped to create support for the BNP among low earners who fear the same abyss of unemployment and culture loss. The government's treatment of the poor has become an electoral liability. Statistical evidence about the numbers taken out of poverty will not undo the distrust and the feeling that Labour is "not on our side". How will Labour rebuild its base?
The centre left needs answers. The Tories discuss recapitalising the poor, while the government can only talk about harsher penalties. Across Europe, centre-left parties associated with the neoliberal transformation of the nation state are paying a heavy political price.

In Germany in 2002, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) launched the reform of the benefits system with its "Hartz IV" laws. The introduction of greater conditionality speeded up the downward trend in the party's electoral support. Membership collapsed and its working-class base deserted it. Oscar Lafontaine exited to form the Left Party, culminating in the SPD's catastrophic defeat in last September's federal elections. New Labour has followed a similar path. It must face the possibility of similar losses to its support come the election.

Jon Cruddas is the MP for Dagenham
Jonathan Rutherford is professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University

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This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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