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19 March 2015updated 26 Sep 2023 8:24am

It is shameful that Labour buys into the rhetoric that people who need welfare are scum

The Labour party is missing the opportunity to stand up proudly for low-paid workers and those who rely on state support.

By Frances Ryan

I’m not sure at what point the Labour party decided people on benefits weren’t equal citizens. Perhaps Rachel Reeves can pin it down. This week, the shadow work and pensions secretary was quoted in the Guardian saying:

We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work. Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people.

Reeves is not stupid. She will know that, for example, more than 90 per cent of new housing benefit claims are from people in work – that low wages and high living costs are forcing people to turn up to a job, work all day, and then get “top ups” from the state to afford luxuries like rent and heat. And, as such, that being “the party of people on benefits” would currently largely mean “being the party of people in work who are struggling to make ends meet”.

She will also be aware, I’m sure, that even the reviled “those who are out of work” are not slackers voluntarily unemployed but victims of an unstable job market – and that in that climate of zero-hours contracts, workfare, and agency work, the “working people” who apparently deserve representation can very quickly become the “out of work” people who do not. But still Reeves says we are not the party of people on benefits”, anyway. She believes in ending target-based sanctions and preventing the need for food banks (as reaffirmed in the same Guardian interview) but, regardless, says Labour “will be tougher than the Tories” on benefits. 

Reeves is not alone in this doublethink. She is emblematic of Labour’s wider, growing inability to deal with social security. As someone who has been a member of the party since I was 18 – and who both talks about benefits for a living and relies on my own benefits to live – the party’s response to what is one of the most pressing issues of modern politics and, more to the point, people’s lives, feels shameful.

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In a culture of vilifying Benefits Street and baiting the cost of Katie Price’s severely disabled eleven-year-old child, Labour appears – understandably – terrified of being on the wrong side of the scrounger versus striver binary that has been carved for them. That fear is driving them away from their own values and, ironically, in this quest for votes, from the people who would naturally support them.

Multiple sections of society – the disabled, the chronically ill, the low earners, the zero-hours contract workers – risk being widely turned off by the very rhetoric Labour appear convinced will win them over. This week, Jack Monroe publicly defected to the Green party, citing Labour’s response to “welfare” as a key reason. Social media swarms with increasingly disaffected want-to-be Labour voters; people who know what it is to spend the day afraid of the brown envelope, not only from debt collectors but the Department for Work and Pensions. Demonising benefit claimants does not appeal to the voter with MS who has to live on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), just as “other-ing” benefit claimants is a meaningless narrative to the families needing to claim housing benefit because their wages don’t cover the rent.

Disability is a key example of this. Labour is making (often) silent strides on the concerns of disabled and chronically ill people. This year, they re-launched Disability Labour. Kate Green, Labour’s shadow disability minister, speaks out about disability benefit backlogs. Scrapping the bedroom tax is firmly on the agenda. Reeves herself says she wants a welfare state that is there “to protect people in times of need” – for example, if someone “became disabled”

But it is difficult to present yourself as on the side of the disabled while signing up to a wider, dividing portrayal of social security. Words like “tougher than the Tories” and “not the party of people on benefits” are personal stings that people struggling on disability benefits remember. This stuff is not empty political rhetoric. It is a reflection on people’s lives, their basic self-esteem. Crass, Daily Mail-esque statements on benefits are cheap, pointless jibes that do nothing but leave people who need the support of the state feeling like scum. Or as one voter on ESA put it for the New Statesman this week, as if she “need[s] to apologise for claiming money so I can eat”.

It is telling that the question that caused Reeves trouble this week was: “Is it a problem if Labour are seen as the party of the welfare state?” Imagine a climate where a Labour politician sees that as an accusation. We are at the point where “welfare” brings with it the image of the feckless underclass eating takeaways in front of a 50-inch plasma screens, and structural poverty is cast as personal, moral failure. Labour loses the argument the minute it accepts the Tory premise. “Are you the welfare party?” “We are the party of a living wage for people going to work in the morning and dignified support for anyone unable to,” is an answer that can be said proudly. It is shameful to be the politicians slashing the safety net, not the ones defending it.

Instead, Labour positions itself against the so-called people “able to live a life on benefits” (again, their own words); the political equivalent of forming a plan to hunt Lord Voldemort. Labour is defining itself by how seriously it can chase a villain that does not exist. The “better off on benefits than in work” claim is a complete fallacy. The families where “generations have never worked” have never actually been foundNor has any evidence of “a culture of worklessness” (in fact, the opposite: people experiencing long-term unemployment routinely prefer to be in jobs rather than on benefits). 

What Labour is struggling to tackle when it comes to benefits is a cultural perception: the insecurity and fear that the Conservatives have benefited from stoking. That does not mean it should be ignored or that it’s easy – if anything, the feeling that there are others having an easy life as you struggle is in many ways harder to address than if there were a tangible target. But it requires finding different solutions than Labour is currently managing. It means re-framing the debate itself. Low wage earners will not see their life improved by making an unemployed person’s worse. Disabled and chronically ill people cannot be respected until receiving benefits is presented as something other than lazy failure.

It may feel as if this climate cannot cope with a nuanced, passionate support for social security. But actually, we can’t survive without one. Voters are crying out for a principled alternative to the past five years. Iain Duncan Smith presides over an annihilation of support millions of people rely on. As the Budget this week showed, another £13bn worth of welfare cuts are coming. The Treasury will need to make “unprecedented” welfare cuts over the next three years, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Marginalised, penalised, struggling citizens need someone to defend them. The Labour party can do this proudly. It needs to be bold enough to do it.

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