Labour and the sick note

Peter Hain on the Tories' plan to force the unemployed into work will fail. Plus the

In opposition, the Tories show they know little about dealing with the problems of poverty and worklessness that they helped create when in power. Their response to Labour's radical new approach to welfare, with its emphasis on creating skills, has been to become cheerleaders for the reactionary, discredited Wisconsin model of welfare reform, with its emphasis on unemployment and forcing all who can work into jobs.

As Gordon Brown signalled in a major speech on 26 November, employability rather than unemployment is the new challenge.

Over the past decade, huge progress has been made in reversing the Conservative legacy of entrenched unemployment, child poverty and benefit dependency, which tripled the numbers moving to Incapacity Benefit and cemented the "sick note" in the foundations of the economy.

Yet, behind the headlines of Iain Duncan Smith's much-quoted "compassion" for the poor, the Tories still believe poverty and disadvantage are self-inflicted and that the way to get the most vulnerable across the high wire from benefits to work is to remove the safety net. That is why they have latched on to the sink-or-swim philosophy inherent in Wisconsin.

From the late 1980s onwards, as governor of Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson (a Republican, and until recently a presidential hopeful) introduced a system of state-funded welfare. Over time, this meant abolishing "cash assistance" for anyone without children; lone mums with children as young as 13 weeks were forced into work; a cap was put on the benefits caseload regardless of demand; there were time limits on entitlement; and the whole system, including determining welfare eligibility, was privatised.

The result was that between 1994 and 2004, both absolute and relative child poverty increased, with disproportionate impact on black and Hispanic communities. Thousands of families with no work and no welfare were left to rely on charity. Benefit entitlement and distribution had to be taken back under state control when major contractors became plagued by fraud.

It is not surprising that the Tories would ignore the social impacts of such a policy. But behind the claims that Wisconsin reduced unemployment benefit claims to the state by 80 per cent is the fact that the private contractors used were incentivised to redirect people on to federally funded sickness benefits, which increased by roughly 40 per cent during the same period.

The actual reduction in benefit claimants was 15 per cent, a lower reduction than we have achieved in the UK in the past ten years. We have also proved that you can significantly decrease the numbers of families on benefits and still cut both absolute and relative child poverty. Indeed, that has been our motivation.

Although we have got 2.8 million more people into jobs and taken a million off benefits since 1997, there are still far too many on welfare. This is not good for them - people stuck on benefits suffer very high levels of illness and de pression, and their children underachieve. And it is certainly not good for the economy.

Our approach is driven by progressive values of full employment, opportunity for all and social justice. The old definition of full employment was measured in terms of low unemployment, which William Beveridge defined as a claimant count rate of 3 per cent or less. We have hit that every month since 2002. Our new approach defines it in terms of high employment; we aim for 80 per cent from the current 74 per cent.

To achieve that, we need to do still more to help those with disabilities, single parents and the long-term unemployed into sustainable and rewarding jobs: British benefit claimants becoming British workers in British jobs.

It means calling time on our "sick note" culture. Incapacity Benefit still accounts for more than half of the 4.5 million people of working age in Britain on an "out of work" benefit. In the past, they were in effect written off, more likely to die or retire than work again. Yet, with the right help, the majority could work, and the jobs are certainly out there for them among the 660,000 vacancies.

From next year I will replace Incapacity Benefit with a new Employment and Support Allowance. It will include a more rigorous medical assessment and place the emphasis on work, identifying what someone can do, not what they cannot. Roughly half of those who take the assessment are likely to be deemed able to work. We will require people to discuss with a personal adviser what they can do to increase their chances of getting a job when the time is right.

Rightward drift

It won't be easy: the longer people have been out of work, the more expensive, intensive and specialist is the help they need to get back into work and to make sure they can stay there. This requires considerable investment upfront and savings don't come back for some years.

Which is why David Cameron's October announcement that, at a stroke, £3bn can be found to fund tax cuts is fantasy. This is another black hole in Conservative spending plans. Pinning their colours to the mast of Wisconsin leaves the Tories' welfare policy in disarray, more slick spin than substance, and underlines their rightward drift on social policy.

Meanwhile, we have signed up more than 200 firms and organisations to our Local Employment Partnerships to help recruit the long-term disadvantaged jobless - youngsters, over-fifties, the disabled and lone parents. We will ensure they get the right training to be "job-ready". In return, employers will give them a fair shot at the job through a guaranteed interview or a work-trial.

There will be disabled people and lone parents for whom work is not an option, and I will ensure that they will be protected. But most lone parents want to work, not least because while on benefit their children are five times more likely to be in poverty, with a hugely increased risk of physical and mental illness.

Comprehensive and affordable childcare will be vital (increasingly there is provision in schools from breakfast to 6pm). We are encouraging employers to be more flexible and help employees balance work and family responsibilities. More than 80 per cent already do something towards this and our commitment to extend the right to request flexible working will boost this percentage further. We have also announced skills support for people on benefit, as there is evidence that welfare claimants frequently lack the skills to fill the jobs available.

There is a consistent vision of welfare running from Beveridge through Attlee to Gordon Brown: that a fair, prosperous and, above all, cohesive society can only be built on a system of social justice in which everyone who can work is expected to contribute to, and share in, national prosperity, while those who can't are protected.

There were times in the past century when these principles were neglected, with oppor tunities to work in effect denied to millions. Unconditional handouts, which made for a life of stunted ambition and thwarted opportunity, were a reality for too many. Neither should be acceptable to progressives in our pursuit of full employment and abolishing child poverty in our generation.

A new, progressive vision for our welfare system must be firm, fair and effective. The prescription from the right will once again be reactionary, stigmatising and self-defeating.

The dividing line between Labour and the Conservatives could not be starker.

Peter Hain is Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and for Wales

Peter Hain is a former Labour cabinet minister and was MP for Neath between 1991 and 2015 before joining the House of Lords.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future