Osborne’s modern-day clearances

The Tories are planning to cleanse the poor from our cities. But will Labour offer a workable altern

In the winter of 1799, Dorothy Wordsworth moved in to Dove Cottage in Grasmere with her brother William. The Industrial Revolution was at its height. In the midst of all this change, Dorothy kept a diary. She wrote about nature, her walks with her brother and their garden. But there was more. She also described her encounters with beggars: a "poor girl" who "called to beg"; a "broken" soldier; "a pretty little boy" of seven ("When I asked him if he got enough to eat, he looked surprised and said 'Nay'"); a sailor who had spent 57 years at sea.

She wondered where these sick, destitute and uprooted people had come from. Countless pamphlets of the time sought answers: wages were either too high or too low; paupers were feckless - they had bad diets and drug habits and drank tea that impaired their health.

Fast-forward to today. An anonymous member of the government describes the coalition's welfare reforms as the modern-day "Highland clearances". In London, cuts in welfare and housing benefit will lead to a forced migration of the poor into the most deprived areas.

This brutal social engineering will have profound effects on families across the country. As many as one million people could be affected by the changes to housing benefit: children will be uprooted from schools and friends; extended patterns of family support and care will be broken; the jobs of the working poor will be threatened by longer journeys and rising travel costs. The communities receiving these migrants - those with the lowest housing costs - will be put under intense pressure just as council budgets are hacked back, job losses stack up and new housebuilding is curtailed. So much for "community cohesion".

Good society

In Wordsworth's lifetime, the English working class was defined by three acts of dispossession. First, people were dispossessed of their land and livelihood. In 1801, the enclosing of land was standardised in the first General Enclosure Act. The Industrial Revolution turned common people into shiftless migrants. Second, there was the political dispossession of the labouring class. The enclosures forced the people off their land, and the Reform Act of 1832 excluded the landless from the franchise. Finally, people were dispossessed of their own labour. The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 established a competitive market in labour. The poor were divided between helpless paupers confined to the workhouse and a new category - the unemployed. Labour was turned into a commodity, and capitalism emerged.

So began what the great Hungarian theorist Karl Polanyi described as the "double movement" of capitalism. On the one hand, the market destroys old social networks and reduces all human relations to commercial transactions. On the other, there is a countervailing tendency to defend human values: the search for community and security.

This government's £18bn benefit cuts will leave the poor to pick up the tab for the economic crisis, while its housing strategy amounts to a modern enclosure movement. This clearance, together with the hasty redrawing of electoral boundaries and moves to discourage electoral registration, signal the political disenfranchisement of the poor. To complete the job, the poor are being dehumanised and redefined as a "social residuum" - a feckless mob undeserving of our sympathy.

This is an acutely political project, driven by the Conservatives' chief election strategist, George Osborne. He also happens to be Chancellor, but the politics are driving the economics. And the project is working. The aim is a redrawing of society, the desired political outcome a majority Conservative government.

The history of the Labour Party is, in part, the response of people to their dispossession. It was created to fight for the people's liberty and to defend life and relationships from commodification. Labour politics was the politics of a common life, a common law and a common wealth. This is a core Labour tradition that needs to be reclaimed today. But will it be?

David Miliband recently acknowledged that Labour lacked a creed, "a strong idea of a good society and a life fit for all human beings for all citizens". In turn, Ed Miliband, in his first speech as party leader, called on Labour to “inspire people with our vision of the good society". The notion of the "good society" is a welcome change from what New Labour had become. It signals a movement dedicated to social justice and intellectual freedom and the desire for self-realisation. This is not the stripped-down, atomised materialism that became New Labour's signature tune but a politics of virtue, rooted in Aristotle, which resists commodification and nurtures community.

Change we can believe in?

This ethical, religious and humanist tradition lies deep in the history of Labour and is built around the dignity of every person and the desire to give "voice to the voiceless". Embracing it could help Labour rediscover its language and its identity and, in turn, create a counterculture that would offer an alternative ethics of living and working, an ideal of well-being.

Historically, however, this tradition has mostly been marginalised. As a result, Labour has lacked the political ideology - the creed - to counter not just capitalist commodification, but also the legacy of utilitarian, disciplinary notions of welfare. This latter can be traced back to Malthus, Bentham and, yes, Sidney and Beatrice Webb - even to Beveridge, who was a supporter of the Eugenics Society. What drove these men and women was not so much a vision of social justice as a conviction that the "degeneracy" of the poor impeded the drive towards a perfectly rational society. They colluded in distinguishing between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor. (The right has always fostered this tradition. In the 1980s, just like Osborne today, the "new right" sought to identify and demonise an "underclass" in Brit­ain. The problem, it argued, was not environment, but the failings of individuals.)

So far, the debate on the Spending Review and the opposition response to it has focused on whether we have moved on from the orthodox economics of New Labour. The jury is still out on that. But the more fundamental question is whether Labour will fully embrace the notion of the "good society". The first test will come over welfare reform. Will Labour offer real change?

Jon Cruddas is Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham.