It’s a horrible irony of British politics that those who rely on it the most get the least say in it. Nowhere is that starker than the benefits system. Successive governments have overhauled, poked at, and cut the welfare budget for years with only a cursory thought for the people who actually use it. This is usually to court votes, make arbitrary savings and bolster rhetoric – safe in the knowledge that claimants who are affected the most are the least able to complain.
This is why Jeremy Corbyn’s line of questioning at today’s session of Prime Minister’s Questions was pretty impressive. He managed to force Theresa May’s focus onto a welfare system that the Conservatives have notoriously and clumsily played with – with disastrous consequences for Britain’s vulnerable.
“On the steps of Downing Street, the Prime Minister promised to stand up for families who are ‘just managing’ to get by,” Corbyn told the House. “However, we now know these were just empty words.”
The Labour leader went on to criticise May’s cuts to Universal Credit, the government’s beleaguered new welfare scheme, claiming they would “leave millions worse off”. He linked this, rather smartly, to George Osborne u-turning on tax credit cuts, by describing it as “slipping the same cuts in through the backdoor”.
Corbyn urged the government to review the “whole punitive benefit sanctions regime”, referring to the case of ex-serviceman David Clapson, who died three weeks after his benefits were sanctioned. He called the sanction system, “institutionalised barbarity against often very vulnerable people”.
It’s not easy for May to defend the Tories’ reforms to this system – they’ve made a lot of mistakes and unpopular proposals over the years. And they know it. They’ve had to row back on a number of attempts to change the system – partially reversing the Bedroom Tax, dropping tax credit cut proposals, announcing a review of Work Capability Assessments for people with disabilities, scrapping retesting for chronically ill sickness benefit claimants, etc.
Corbyn forcing May to defend sanctions and finding disabled or ill claimants fit for work put her in an unflattering light. It renders her response – that Labour “is drifting away from the views of Labour voters. It’s this party that understands the views of working class people” – a little hollow. Particularly when Universal Credit includes in-work benefits. The government that claims it “works for everyone” is still the “Nasty Party”.
And it comes at a time when the cruelty of welfare reform is on the agenda, with the latest release from socialist director Ken Loach, I, Daniel Blake, which Corbyn recommended to May. A film sparking such high-profile debate that the Work & Pensions Secretary Damian Green had to respond to it in the Commons this week.
But May didn’t seem too keen on a trip to the cinema. She tackled questions on welfare the way Tory Prime Ministers always do – by exploiting Labour’s persistent problem of appearing soft on the subject. She accused Corbyn of wanting “no assessments, no sanctions, and unlimited welfare!” Twice.
Sadly, it’s probably enough. Loach’s film has been a success, but it won’t have achieved a wholesale shift in public opinion. Yet that doesn’t diminish Corbyn’s performance. It has become a trope of political commentary now to accuse him not of incompetence, but of invisibility. As with all Westminster received wisdom, it’s clichéd and overblown, but there’s some truth in it. The government battling a war on all fronts – Europe, business, and its own backbenches – on Brexit, and the horrorshow of the imminent US election, has hampered the opposition’s airtime. But by forcing the government to address its welfare shortcomings, Corbyn showed he can capture the narrative on subjects that are all too often overlooked. With a little help from his friend.