Labour must counter the Tories' "nasty" narrative on welfare by focusing on people

We should be talking about the pointlessness of finding someone “fit for work” when there is no work for them to take.

Last month the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of Cait Reilly who sued the government for forcing her to work at Poundland for free. Otherwise, she was told, she would lose her benefits. This is Workfare – a scheme which the Labour Party deplores.

The vast majority of people on benefits are desperate to find work. To be on benefits is to be poor. It chips away at a person’s self-esteem. Losing your job is frightening. Benefits are essential to allow people to survive until they find another job.

But there is a small minority of people who would rather be on benefits than to find work. If they don’t take the work or training, they should have their benefits stopped, sanctioned.

But the Court of Appeal ruling went so wide that it opened up to challenge all sanctioning decisions made in the last two years. It meant that even those people who had their benefits sanctioned for not taking a job or training would be able to get compensation from the government.

The ruling was as a result of the government’s bad drafting of the original law. They should have got it right in the first place. So whilst I agreed that all sanctioning decisions should not be open to challenge on a technical detail, I thought we were right to abstain since it was a headache of their own making.

At the same time, we finally had evidence that Jobcentre Plus has been working to sanctioning targets. Staff at Jobcentres are being forced to sanction a certain number of people every week. It explains some of the terrible decisions they come to and which we as MPs see in our surgeries every week.

The Labour Party is therefore using this emergency legislation to ensure that all bad sanctioning decisions can be appealed and even more importantly, that the whole sanctioning regime is reviewed.

But this debate, and the vote last week, are about something else, and that is the Labour Party’s difficulty in getting its welfare message across.

The Tories have successfully managed to convince people that there are deserving and undeserving poor: strivers and scroungers. This is a nasty view of the world. If someone is poor, they are poor. Since when did people have to pass a niceness test before being allowed to get benefits?

But this is exactly the narrative the Tories are using to get support for cutting the welfare bill.

We, the Labour Party, must not position ourselves in relation to this nasty narrative by also only talking about cutting the welfare bill. This is not what should motivate us.

As the Labour Party, we should be talking about people – the Minimum Wage workers at the Tesco distribution centre near Chesterfield that is moving south, leaving people in the north without jobs through no fault of their own.

We should be talking about the pointlessness of finding someone “fit for work” when there is no work for them to take. To that person, it amounts to the same thing. We need to focus on creating growth in the economy to encourage more and better jobs.

And we should be asking what is happening to those people whose benefits are being sanctioned and who are disappearing. They turn up at foodbanks and rely on friends, family and loan sharks to see them through. How many of them ever find a job? Very few.

The system that is being created by this Tory-Liberal government is forcing people from the poverty of welfare to the abject poverty of nothing at all.

If claimants are offered a reasonable job, and they refuse to take it, it must be made clear to them that they can't stay on benefits. But if they go to work, they must be given an income by the employer.

Let’s make sure we focus our narrative on the people who claim the benefit rather than the benefit they claim – because the language we use matters.

Losing your job is frightening. Photograph: Getty Images
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So many teenage girls don’t want to identify as girls any more. And who can blame them?

Among internet-literate teenagers, gender has become the primary way to challenge the mores of older generations.

On the bus back from the cinema, a conversation drifted over from the back row. A mother questioning, curious, her speech accented; her teenage daughter, with perfect RP, fielding her inquiries with the exasperated patience that flourishes between the ages of 13 and 21.

“No, Mum, you’re a cis woman because you’re the gender you were born as.”

“OK. And what about Lily?”

Lily – or, perhaps, Daisy or Rose – was a school friend who was now using the pronoun “they”. The heavy overtone of the daughter’s forbearance was that these were matters her mother could not understand.

Among internet-literate teenagers, gender has become the primary way to challenge the mores of older generations. I know four journalists – London-based, middle class – whose children have announced that they do not consider themselves to be girls. It seems too many to be a coincidence. And if pained teenagers are now explaining gender fluidity to their mums on the 108 from Millennium Leisure Park West, you know the idea has truly gone mainstream.

We should welcome young people challenging gender, an arbitrary system that has acquired the status of immutable human nature. Name almost anything now associated with women – high heels, long hair, the colour pink – and you can find a time or place when it was considered masculine. And just as feminists once fought for “Ms” alongside “Miss” and “Mrs”, people should be allowed to take gender out of their honorific altogether and go by “Mx”. Getting used to “they” as a singular pronoun is harder but not impossible. Language evolves.

However, there is more to the current Gender Revolution than upending our assumptions about the “correct” names or pronouns or hobbies or appearance for men and women. In the past few years, the word “transsexual” has dropped out of favour – it is considered impolite to reference sex – in favour of “transgender”. But this obscures the idea that to cross definitively from one gender to another requires surgery and a lifetime of synthetic hormones. For trans men, it’s top surgery – breast removal – and, more rarely, a phalloplasty to make a penis, plus testosterone (“T”), which lowers the voice, hardens fat to muscle and unleashes any latent male-pattern baldness. For trans women, oestrogen (HRT, used off-label) can be supplemented with breast implants and a procedure to skin the penis and invert it, creating a neovagina and clitoris.

These surgeries are non-trivial – I have a friend undergoing the latter this summer and she will be housebound for two weeks afterwards, with a 12-week recovery period. Infection is always a risk. For her, it’s a life-saving intervention: she says she simply would not want to live in a male body.

But 80 per cent of gender-nonconforming children do not grow up to be transsexual; many emerge as happy gay men or lesbians content to live in their birth sex. A strange taboo has sprung up about mentioning this, as if the way that some people do not turn out to be trans invalidates the experiences of those who do. It should not.

But separating dissatisfaction with the social constraints of gender from body dysmorphia is vital. Because we have smudged together the categories of “transsexual” and “transgender”, is every youngster who questions their gender – and, frankly, every youngster should, because gender is restrictive bollocks – getting the message that they must bind their breasts or tuck their penis? I wince when I read oh-so-liberal parents explaining that they knew their toddler son was a girl when he wore pink and played with Barbies. Is there really anything so wrong with being a boy who wants to dress up as Elsa from Frozen? Or a girl who would rather be outside getting muddy than wear skirts and be “ladylike”? Toys and children’s clothes are becoming more gendered: when I was young, we played with Lego – not “Lego” and “Lego for Girls”. As we have shrunk the boxes, is it any wonder that more and more children want to escape from them?

In the year to March 2015, the Tavistock in London – the only specialist gender clinic in the country for under-16s – saw 697 children. This year, it saw 1,419. The largest surge has been among girls aged 14 and over and it is this group I feel most personal affinity for, because, if I were growing up today, I would be among them. A few years ago, I found a textbook from my junior school, with three sentences that floored me: “My name is Helen. I am nine years old. I am skinny.” And the truth was, I was skinny. I had a bowl haircut and wore culottes. Then puberty hit and I piled on a few stone in a year. Taut pink skin turned to lumpen fat and mottled flesh. And everyone had an opinion about it. I was trapped inside a body that didn’t feel like mine any more.

Many of my school friends felt the same way. Some tried to escape through vomiting or starving. Others were part of that charmed cohort who became lissom, beautiful, golden; their parents felt a different sort of ­worry and they were treated to sermons about getting into strange men’s cars.

I won my body back by defacing it; at least, that’s how my parents saw it. An earring, then two. And another. Then piercings that no one could see: nursing each one like a wound or a child. Salvation through pain: a metal bar through cartilage that couldn’t be slept on for a month. A tattoo that hurt like hell. Pink hair, ebbing to orange in a shower that looked like Carrie. And finally – finally – a body that felt like me.

I tell my story not to belittle anyone else’s, or to imply that they have chosen the wrong path. If you cannot live in your body, then change it – and the world must help you to do that. But if you feel crushed by society’s expectations, it might be that there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s something wrong with the world.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad