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Laurie Penny on a subversive idea: compassion

Britain is being refashioned into a nation which believes that helping the needy is morally and fiscally wrong.

It's a freezing January morning, and "Cuts Kill" has been written in bloody letters across Regent Street. Disabled activists in wheelchairs have lashed themselves together across the road with thick chains and D-locks, blocking the road.

This is not the vision of human need that the Conservative Party had in mind when it began to extend Labour's welfare cuts. There is nothing abject or cringing about these disabled people, although many of them have put their health at grave risk to come here today to protest against the Welfare Reform Bill. Provisions in the bill will make disabled people "lose our homes, lose our jobs and lose our care payments", according to one young woman in a wheelchair who holds up a sign saying: “No more meals on wheels? Eat the Rich!" Tiny Tim this ain't.

The way we talk about welfare is changing. Debate surrounding the bill has focused largely on whether or not it is moral to allow a tiny minority of families to receive £26,000 or more in state benefits - overlooking how housing benefit, which makes up most of this figure, goes straight into the pockets of private landlords.

Last week during a radio phone-in, I spoke to a woman whose voice shook with rage at the idea that immigrant families might be receiving tens of thousands of pounds in payments when her own benefits are due to be cut. It's a callous but effective strategy: turn the anger of the working poor against the non-working poorer, diverting attention from the biggest redistribution of wealth to the very rich in a generation.

At the protest, officers from the Metropolitan Police - who have a less-than-spotless record when it comes to dragging peaceful protesters from their wheelchairs - are looking nervous at the prospect of arresting 15 wheelchair users in full view of the national press.

Lee, 32, who has cerebral palsy and receives Disability Living Allowance, is worried about losing his livelihood. "It could happen to anybody," he says, shifting himself in his chair, which is chained to a line of others across the street. "They don't realise that, by doing this, it means a lot of people will go into decline and a lot might even lose their lives."

Hear no evil

Unfortunately the government does realise but it chooses to ignore the evidence. Official consultations on disability benefits advised that forcing the disabled to hunt for non-existent jobs they can't physically handle in the middle of a recession is no way to "make work pay". "It's about saving money, basically," Lee says.

Lee is wrong on that count. Across Regent Street, UK Uncut activists hold a banner stating "Tax Avoidance £25bn; Welfare Cuts £4.5bn". There are quicker, easier ways to pay down the deficit than throwing the disabled and mentally ill out of their homes and communities, and this government knows that full well. Instead, the reforms are about changing our political culture to one in which basic compassion no longer plays a part.

Britain is being refashioned into a nation which believes that helping the needy is morally and fiscally unaffordable - and no sum of money saved is worth that shame.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lucky Dave

Photo: Getty
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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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