The Labour Party’s ‘welfare’ dilemma

By Savi Hensman
July 20, 2015

Divisions have opened up among Labour Party leaders over whether to avoid opposing harsh social security cuts. Some regard this as a difference between the sensible and dogmatic. But perhaps this exposes past folly in supporting injustice and deceit.

The UK’s Conservative government pushed through still more measures which will harm numerous people on low incomes. Acting Labour leader Harriet Harman urged her party’s MPs not to vote against these and many, though not all, abstained.

She put forward an amendment seeking to soften parts of a bill bringing in yet more restrictions on social security. But this failed (as expected), and she did not want the party to be seen to care too much about disadvantaged people.

Those needing social security payments include low-paid workers, unemployed people and those unable to work because they are too sick or disabled. Many have paid national insurance and other taxes for years, only to be denied help when they need it.

However successive governments have been generous to many in the banking sector whose recklessness helped to crash the global economy. The wealth gap has increased rapidly in recent years.

Certainly harsh ‘welfare’ cuts remain popular with large parts of the electorate. This is not surprising, as politicians and sections of the media have kept making out that people on ‘welfare’ are ‘skivers’ or ‘scroungers’.

Many are horrified at the insults and hardships heaped on so many when they most need support, especially if personally affected. But some of these tend not to vote, or the Labour Party takes their support for granted.

The Labour government in power until 2010 helped to stir up this hostility and spread misinformation about people not in paid work. Their successors have built on this to further punish those already struggling to make ends meet.

In the early 2000s, ministers helped to popularise a bizarre pseudo-scientific theory that later led to the misnamed ‘work capability assessment’. This promoted the idea that large numbers of people with serious illnesses, injuries or impairments were ‘malingering’.

Of course some people in all walks of life could make more effort. But in the real world, making life more miserable for someone who has just been laid off by his boss or diagnosed with a potentially deadly disease will not bring about a miracle ‘cure’.

This was part of the Labour leadership’s push to the right, which was supposed to reassure the rich and powerful that it would protect their interests. At the same time it brought in policies that helped some low-waged people and their families.

A millionaire former investment banker, David Freud, was brought in to review the ‘welfare’ system. The government introduced tough new measures which were supposed to encourage people to try harder to get jobs. He then went over to the Conservatives.

This is not to say that those driving the changes were purely cynical. No doubt many really believed that they, and other members of the ruling class with whom they associated, prospered solely as a result of merit. They may have thought that, if the poor could be jolted into following their example, it would be better for everyone.

When the economic crisis hit, at first there was huge public indignation against bankers. Regrettably this was sometimes focused on individuals rather than the system. But it did call neoliberal economics, and celebration of the quest for profit whatever the human cost, into question.

However the notion that unemployed people, or those too sick or disabled to work, were sponging off everyone else, provided another target for those feeling insecure and angry. The fact that politicians of the ‘left’ as well as right seemed to think this a significant problem helped to fuel suspicion and prejudice.

In addition the Labour Party leadership was hesitant in pointing out that deregulation and unbridled capitalism overall had caused the crisis. This allowed opponents to persuade many people that too much public spending was the real problem.

The Labour Party leadership has to deal with the fact that it has helped to convince large numbers of people that even harsher cuts to ‘welfare’ are justified. But by playing along with the government, it has called into question its purpose, as well as harming its longer-term credibility as sympathy grows for the destitute.

Ancient religious and ethical traditions have highlighted how one wrong can lead to another, creating a downward spiral. This in the end has practical as well as spiritual consequences. If politicians allow cruelty, injustice and deceit to flourish, they should be aware that the results will catch up with them in time.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator of politics, religion, welfare and allied topics. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

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