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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

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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.