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We must now push for a proper welfare state

We cannot allow the Labour Party to retreat — unions, along with unemployed and disability-rights groups, must push for a new benefits system now that Covid-19 has opened the door, writes JYOTI WILKINSON

THE recent noises coming from Labour’s new Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Reynolds have been disappointing to say the least.

In his first interview since being appointed to the new Shadow Cabinet, Reynolds chose to pursue the rhetoric and approach to social security within Labour that many socialists hoped had become a thing of the past.

While giving some understated lip-service to the failings of Universal Credit he suggests that welfare should reflect “what you put in” to tackle public mistrust and was quick to praise the Tories’ approach.

Simply put, this indication of a marked return to the notion of the deserving and undeserving poor is a step back — and must be stopped in its tracks.

Social security and benefits have never been a popular subject of discourse and the culture and idea of a welfare state that provides a safety net from “cradle to grave” for whoever simply needs it has become long forgotten.

Decades of governments and their friends in the media scapegoating claimants as scroungers to help justify the neoliberal agenda have ensured that we now have a culture in which large sections of the population have been pitted against some of the most vulnerable within our society.

Too often you hear tales of those unfortunate enough that they require state support to simply survive living in luxury. Too often the struggling single mother is castigated for seeking support to provide a decent home for her children — and perhaps even more shamefully, too often these myths have not been challenged by those who have the power to do so.

Colin Hampton, who is co-ordinator of the Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centre, a welfare-rights organisation with roots in the labour movement, has provided his insight.

“The present pandemic has shaken up the world. One consequence of the lockdown has been the challenging of entrenched views towards low-paid workers and those vulnerable within our communities.

“Even the most diehard Conservative, preaching self-reliance and privatisation, must have had at least a fleeting moment of reflection.

“We are not islands on our own, but are interdependent for our mutual survival. All those cleaners, shop assistants, delivery drivers etc have been given new status during this time, though not reflected in their wages. The homeless must be given shelter — so as not to infect us! People must be given furlough payments when unable to work, even if only to prevent looting and social unrest.

“Workers will be waking up to the realities of claiming benefits and finding it is not the garden of roses that they have been led to believe. I have witnessed the process many times when mass redundancies have affected Derbyshire.

“However, we must seize the narrative to make sure that when people reflect on that experience, the conclusions they draw enable policy changes — bringing social security for all.”

Social security should be a vote winner for Labour, but as elections approach it never has a comprehensive policy plan or even a vision to give to the electorate of what it actually wants to achieve.

Before the 1997 election of Tony Blair’s New Labour government a group of activists from unemployed workers’ centres travelled to Parliament to meet the shadow ministers responsible. This was just following the introduction of the Jobseeker’s Allowance.

Shadow ministers assured them that, once elected, they would alter beyond recognition the Jobseeker’s Allowance and its sanctions regime and that claimants’ groups would be in the midst of all policy formulation through consultation and involvement.

In the end nothing changed. Jobseeker’s Allowance was entrenched and the sanctions regime made even harsher. The rhetoric of “hard-working families” was developed and each year public attitude surveys showed the increasing lack of empathy towards claimants at the same time as benefit levels plummeted relative to wages.

No attempt was made to challenge and change the perception of those forced to claim benefits through sickness, disability or lack of opportunities in areas ravaged by unemployment. For the most part only supply-side policies were used, such as the New Deal, which emphasised that unemployment and poverty were the fault of those not doing enough to find work.

Casualisation of employment became entrenched. Jobs had to be taken if no hours or conditions of work were advertised in the job centre, and zero-hours contracts became normalised.

Many forget that benefit sanctions went through the roof under New Labour, preparing the way for the atrocities brought to bear on people following the introduction of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and work-capability assessments under James Purnell and the coalition government thereafter.

Some of New Labour’s ideas included charging interest of 26.8 per cent per annum on crisis loans to the unemployed and plans that the TUC said were reminiscent of workfare: claimants being forced to work full-time for their benefits after two years’ unemployment. National salary insurance was another idea.

This plan would see a trebling of Jobseeker’s Allowance rates for redundant workers to be repaid when they found work once more. The idea was framed in the language that people in Britain do not feel that they get back from the welfare state what they put in. Strikingly familiar to Reynolds saying “welfare should reflect what you put in to tackle public mistrust.”

The labour and trade-union movement needs to develop this “system” whether in government or not. The Tories, when out of office for 13 years, had the Centre for Social Justice and the development of Universal Credit.

Similarly, we must use our time out of government to develop policy initiatives and cultivate wide support through the engagement and involvement of all those who have experience as well as a stake in the policy formation.

The unemployed workers’ centres along with Unite Community, PCS, the TUC and many others have already backed a welfare charter laying down the principles on which these policies should be developed.

The major trade unions and the TUC have supported the principle of a universal basic income. As a movement we need to come together with a plan.

Colin once took the Guardian’s Amelia Gentlemen to visit 6 ESA claimants who had been given zero points on the work-capability assessment.

“These people were never likely to work, ranging from a young person with special needs to a man who was drinking morphine out of a bottle. Each one angrily expressing their case to the journalist finished by attacking other benefit claimants on their estate saying ‘they are the ones who shouldn’t be getting benefits – not me!’”

The propaganda runs deep, but a tipping point has been reached and the Corbyn movement showed that we should not be fearful in arguing for dignity and social security for all. It is no use any longer having ambitions and visions — we need plans and policies.

Our job is to keep up the pressure, to understand the limitations and constraints of the Labour Party and to work with the trade unions and disability groups. In doing so, public support for radical policies has to be pursued.

The Covid-19 pandemic has ensured that we will now likely see the Tory government use the opportunity to usher in another era of devastating cuts, with those who rely on the welfare state once again bearing the brunt of the burden.

While we will no doubt be told that we are all in this together and that we all need to tighten our belts, the reality is that the most vulnerable in our society will receive the brunt of the burden and those who rely on that safety net will no doubt suffer the most.

During the Covid-19 crisis, the development of mutual-assistance groups up and down the country has proven that communities will indeed work together collectively to help provide support for those in need. We need to start building on those foundations to start revisiting our cultural attitudes towards social security.

In a society where we do not even have a minimum-income guarantee, socialists should be at the forefront of developing radical ideas that redress the balance and end the stigmatisation of claimants.

Ideas such as universal basic income and universal basic services need to be explored, along with immediate measures such as scrapping the barbaric and defunct Universal Credit, reinstating proper income support and getting rid of the Local Housing Allowance and bedroom tax.

When the welfare state was created by the post-war Labour government, it was on the back of an overwhelming appetite that things had to change. The Covid-19 crisis has helped that appetite grow once again — and when the opportunity arises to redress that balance we must take it.

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