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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

Matt Forde
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Matt Forde: “Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May are indistinguishable on Brexit”

The Dave host and former Labour adviser on why comedy is so much better than politics.

Matt Forde gave up his Labour Party membership after Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership victory, according to Wikipedia, because he is a “committed Blairite”. Presented with that information two years later, the host of Dave’s satirical chat show Unspun, and former Labour adviser, says the description isn’t entirely accurate. “I left politics because I wanted to concentrate on my comedy career full-time. I’d always done both; I did my first gig when I was 16 and carried on doing them during my early activism. I guess when I was working for MPs and Labour, I didn’t have as much time and I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate. I also felt that the direction Labour was going in wasn’t for me. I don’t write my own Wikipedia page, in any case.” 

Forde’s admiration for Tony Blair, though, radiates off him. The ex-Prime Minister appeared as a guest on Unspun last year. Pressed on Blair’s legacy, Forde insists that it encompasses “far more than people care to admit” beyond the Iraq War. “I think a lot of people on the hard left would equate Blairism to Iraq and I really struggle with that," he says. "Millions of people voted for New Labour and millions of people still reflect on that period of politics in a positive way.

"Social justice was still at the core of New Labour. It was about tackling inequality and using the state to do that. But it was also about being pro-business, pro-Europe and having a pragmatic view of the world.” That Labour won three general elections on Blair’s watch, Forde suggests, is considered by some factions of the party to be an inconvenient truth.

The Nottingham-born comic believes Labour’s broad church represents a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the party’s lurch to the left has resulted in its biggest increase in the share of the vote by a party leader since Clement Attlee in 1945; on the other, the success is only relative, as it still hasn’t been enough to get back into government. For all the talk of renewed unity under Corbyn’s bright banner of socialism, Forde says there remains a distinct disunity regarding the party’s position on Brexit. “The thing is, on Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May are pretty much indistinguishable from each other," he says. "They will allow it to happen and deny us access to the single market. Brexit is the single biggest threat to our economy and society and I don’t feel like the scale of that issue is being reflected by the two major parties. It feels like those of us who do care about it and can see what a car crash it’s going to be are stood screaming behind a piece of soundproof glass.”

In fairness, the idea of a Labour split along European faultlines is not one that started with Corbyn. Aside from not being in government, what makes the current Labour squabbling different? Forde smirks. “I know there’s a view that Blair sort of hijacked Labour and rubbed a lot of noses in the dirt. The difference between that era and this one is that people like Corbyn and John McDonnell were actually allowed to rebel. They weren’t threatened with deselection for having a different opinion. The leadership and culture of the party at that time understood the broad church. At the end of the day, it was better to have a hard left MP in Islington than to deselect him and not have one at all. The idea that some Corbyn supporters would rather that a Blairite MP lost their seat is baffling.”

The Labour MP Chuka Umunna recently tabled an amendment on the Queen’s Speech calling for the UK to stay in the single market post-Brexit. Some shadow ministers decided to join him in defying the whip. Was Umunna right to table the amendment? “Yes, I think so,” says Forde. “We don’t have plurality right now. We’re too binary in Labour. There’s an idea that you’re either with us or against us. That’s not just immature, but deeply disrespectful to some very valuable assets in the party.” 

Arguing against Corbyn in the context of Europe does seem a bit of a moot point – “it shouldn’t” Forde objects – but it does. Whatever Corbyn’s perceived failings on Brexit are, he has mobilised a formidable youth wing and campaigned with immeasurably more verve than the current Prime Minister. Forde nods. “The Maybot did herself no favours, sure. He’s a natural campaigner and he deserves credit for that. Look, Corbyn is a nice guy. He’s affable; you can talk football with him. But as for the culture around him, that isn’t always the case.” 

Is Corbynism a cult? Forde sighs. “The problem with investing so emotionally in an individual is that all of your politics end up being processed through them. You suspend critical thought. You think that if this person represents what you believe, then they can never do anything wrong.” 

Corbyn, though, won’t be Labour leader forever. “Tell that to his supporters,” jokes Forde. What happens post-Corbynism? Who should be in the frame to take over? “I guess that depends on whether he does actually become  Prime Minister, which to be fair is a distinct possibility now. If he does, you might see the party want to stick with that far-left tract, but then what happens to the rest of us? You’ve already seen Paul Mason [the journalist and Corbyn supporter] telling centrists that if they want a pro-European centrist party then they should leave Labour. That’s horrendous.” 

Forde’s frustration with the Brexit imbroglio is forthright. It’s something that clearly troubles him and overarches his comedy. So, would he ever go back into politics himself? “I doubt it. Comedy is so much better. Politics is exhausting and for a lot of the time a thankless task that ages people at a rate that no other industry does.” At 68, incidentally, Jeremy Corbyn is entitled to retire. 

Matt Forde performs A Show Hastily Rewritten In Light Of Recent Events - Again! at Pleasance Forth at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 2-27 August.

 

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.