It’s all about policy
Another day and yet more desperate attempts by Corbyn detractors to try to weaken his formidable base of support. Claims that he is unelectable and that he has no policies just don’t fit the facts. The current bitter battle within the Labour party is all about policy as the right struggle to cling on to a neoliberal agenda that the electorate are increasingly turning against and thwart the development of policies that can deliver the alternative vision of society that underpins support for Jeremy Corbyn.
In the following post Ellen Clifford explores, from a disability perspective, the winning power of left wing policies.
The March 2016 budget was a pivotal moment for both Corbyn’s Labour and George Osborne. Responding to a budget that funded tax breaks for the rich through benefit cuts for disabled people, Corbyn went straight to the heart of the matter, declaring at the dispatch box: “This Budget has unfairness at its very core, paid for by those who can least afford it. The Chancellor could not have made his priorities clearer. While half a million people with disabilities are losing over £1 billion in Personal Independence Payments, corporation tax is being cut and billions handed out in tax cuts to the very wealthy.” That week Labour went ahead in the polls for the first time since Corbyn’s election as Labour leader and Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State who had driven through the biggest shake up of the welfare state since its creation, unexpectedly and dramatically resigned. The government made an immediate u-turn on the proposed cut and Osborne’s hopes of being the next Prime Minister seemed to lie in tatters.
The cuts to Personal Independence Payments (PIP) proposed in the budget were only the latest wave in a tsunami of cuts that had been hitting disabled people since 2010. Research by the Centre for Welfare Reform in 2013 showed that disabled people had been impacted by the cuts nine times harder than non-disabled people, with that figure rising to nineteen times harder for people with high support needs accessing social care support. The range and scale of cuts was unprecedented with disabled people hit in every area of their lives from benefits to social care to education.
In May 2015 the Tories were then elected with a mandate to take another £12 billion from welfare. In October 2015 the UK became the first nation state to be investigated for grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s rights. The world looked on as deaths linked to benefit cuts mounted and still the Tories came after the poorest members of society to pay for the bankers’ financial crisis while the rich got richer.
Attacks on disabled people and the poorest members of society, explained by IDS after his resignation as “distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest”, were facilitated by a shameful lack of opposition from Labour prior to Corbyn’s election. This was underpinned by a stark awareness among disabled campaigners that the roots of welfare reform could be traced back to New Labour, not only individual punitive policies such as sanctions, workfare and the Work Capability Assessment but also the narrative of benefit scrounging that has been used to justify benefit cuts and obscure the facts.
Labour’s failure to take a stand against welfare reform under the Coalition government was perceived by many disabled people as abandonment. The impact of this approach on the outcome of the 2015 General Election is unquantified but we know it cost Labour votes. Campaigning journalist Ros Wynne Jones comments that, “In the run up to the 2015 election, a fear of unelectability made the front bench position on welfare at times so highly confused it almost triangulated itself out of existence.”
Meanwhile other parties capitalised on Labour’s failure to stand up for disabled people. The SNP, UKIP and the Greens all took votes from Labour by making straightforward commitments to disabled voters on issues we had been lobbying for since 2010. All were issues where the central concern was no more avoidable harm, indignity and suffering for disabled people. They were also areas where the fiscal policy was questionable and taxpayers’ money was arguably not being used in the best way. On all these issues both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell took a principled stance in supporting disabled people in defiance of their party line.
Labour’s misdirection on welfare made Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader inevitable. It is a grim and frustrating chapter in Labour’s history but one which evidences the kind of society most people want to live in as well as pointing to an alternative policy direction with the potential to win from the left.
The development of welfare reform under New Labour
When Rachel Reeves was quoted in the Guardian just two months before the General Election as 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 out of work”, it was the final straw for many disabled voters. Reeves claimed she was taken out of context but to those living day to day at the sharp end of benefit cuts there was no context that could justify words with such a clear message of rejection. People out of work enduring rampant stigmatisation as benefit cheats and scroungers desperately wanted a party that would defend them. Here was a dismissal not only of their votes but also of their plight. One disabled campaigner wrote a resignation letter to his local CLP. While stressing that “every member” of his local party had afforded him “nothing but friendship, respect and camaraderie” he explained: “As someone who claims benefits only because they cannot work, I feel personally betrayed and insulted by that statement and I now feel that I am unwelcome within the UK Labour party.”
As a backdrop to Labour’s failure to challenge the right-wing narrative of a broken welfare system dominated by fraud, disabled people were very aware that the most dangerous aspects of welfare reform all had roots in New Labour. The Tories had accelerated without first piloting the roll out of the notorious Work Capability Assessment (WCA) which tested eligibility for the Incapacity Benefit replacement Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). However the WCA was developed under New Labour as part of an approach to welfare reform that included punitive measures such as sanctions and workfare, constant re-assessments for eligibility and the involvement of private companies. Understanding this background is essential for understanding the strength of mistrust disabled voters felt towards Labour under the Coalition government. It also highlights the fundamental flaws behind welfare reform and what an alternative approach to social security could look like.
The aim of welfare reform whether under the Tories or New Labour was quite simply to reduce claimant numbers to keep spending down. The targets for reduction set by successive governments far exceeded levels of benefit fraud or error and could only be achieved by redefining who is and isn’t eligible. To this end New Labour adopted the practices of UnumProvident, a private insurance company with a reputation in the US for running “disability denial factories”. By 2005, after many successful legal cases throughout the USA, the California Department of Insurance Commissioner, John Garamendi, stated: “Unum Provident is an outlaw company. It is a company that has operated in an illegal fashion for years…”. A Unum internal report from 2005 boasts that UK government policy is “to a large extent being driven by our thinking”. The 2006 Welfare reform bill was underpinned by the same methodology as informed the work of Unum, one where, as Jonathan Rutherford explains, “work is abstracted from the material conditions of paid employment and inequality”. This approach to disability locates the problem within the individual and is diametrically opposed to the social model of disability as championed by the Disabled People’s Rights Movement which argues that societal barriers are what create unequal life chances. The result was a Work Capability Assessment designed to move disabled people off benefits irrespective of the concrete barriers they face to accessing the world of work, disregarding diagnosis, prognosis or limited life expectancy. Meanwhile Unum pushed ahead with marketing its Income Protection Insurance in Britain.
A key characteristic of welfare reform developed under New Labour and escalated by the Tories was the opening up of public finance to private companies. ‘Reducing Dependency, Increasing Opportunity’, the March 2007 review of the future for welfare to work commissioned by New Labour from former banker Lord Freud commented that “The fiscal prize is considerable’. The core of his proposal was that government targets could be achieved by bringing in the private sector on long-term outcome-based contracts. Writing in 2007, Rutherford concluded that “New Labour’s politics of welfare reform has sub-ordinated concern for the sick and disabled to the creation of a new kind of market state.” Freud’s role as the architect of welfare reform was assured after shifting allegiance to the Tories. A peerage later he was made Minister for Welfare Reform, a position he continues to hold.
The scapegoating of benefit claimants used as a deadly smoke screen for benefit cuts was a tactic tried and tested under New Labour. The study ‘Benefits Stigma Britain’ analysing media coverage from 1995 – 2011 finds peaks of stigmatisation in the late 1990s and 2008 before growing exponentially under the Coalition from 2010 -11. It was under New Labour that ‘benefit scrounging’ as opposed to fraud emerged as the dominant theme within negative media stories. Public perceptions of welfare became widely distorted as a result. Research commissioned by the disability organisation Inclusion London in 2011 found members of the public under the impression that levels of disability benefit fraud were as high as 70%, with the true figure being no more than 0.5%. This left a wide playing field for the right wing media whose demonisation of benefit claimants reached hysterical levels under the Coalition government and has been linked to increasing levels of hostility and harassment towards disabled people.
The failure of welfare reform
The human cost of welfare reform has been terrible. Alongside a handful of well-published deaths and suicides linked to benefit cuts is a much wider picture of suffering and avoidable harm. A study by academics from Liverpool and Oxford universities published in 2015 found that reassessments for Incapacity Benefit from 2010 – 2013 were associated with an extra 590 suicides, 279,000 additional cases of self-reported mental health problems and the prescribing of a further 752,000 anti-depressant. Disability News Service continues to press for the release of information from 49 ‘peer reviews’ undertaken into suicides and complex cases linked to benefit cuts which the DWP has so far successfully blocked. With fresh cuts to Employment and Support Allowance voted through in the Welfare Reform and Work bill we can expect further tragedies.
Human suffering aside, welfare reform as a tax-funded government policy has been an utter disaster. Contracts with private companies, central to the success of Freud’s vision, have proved wasteful and inefficient, costing more than they save as assessments are overturned at appeal following costly tribunals and as the DWP has to invest extra to clear backlogs resulting from under-performance. A study by the National Audit Office published in January 2016 found that over the next three years 1.6 billion will be handed to private contractors to carry out disability assessments. Savings in benefit payments resulting from the tests are projected at less than a billion by 2020. Over the summer of 2015, face to face assessment targets were falling short by 20,000 per month while backlogs of hundreds of thousands of claimants were leaving disabled people without access to full payments for more than six months. Forecast reductions in spending on disability benefits have failed to materialise. In October 2014 the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecast spend on disability benefits between 2015 and 2019 would be 55.9 billion. By March 2016 this forecasted spend had grown to 66.4 billion.
The failure to reduce disability benefit spending is a consequence of the fact that there simply aren’t the vast numbers of people claiming disability benefits as a lifestyle choice when they could be working that were assumed. The myth of inter-generational worklessness has been successfully repudiated while the evidence base for a recent study claiming scientific proof that the benefits system is creating a generation of ‘work resistant personalities’ was so flawed that right wing commentators had to issue subsequent apologies for praiseworthy reviews. The logic of welfare reform is to reduce claimant numbers but if those claimants genuinely need to be on benefits the result is avoidable harm to disabled people while wasting taxpayers’ money on intensive regimes of assessments. The failings of the welfare reform programme have been deliberately concealed from public view by misinformation. Time and again Iain Duncan Smith was called before the UK Statistics Authority and reprimanded for misleading use of statistics. His departure from Work and Pensions was linked by some commentators to the fact his department was running out of excuses not to make public a number of presumably damning reports on the progress of Universal Credit.
Labour and welfare reform under the Coalition government
The scale of the welfare reform programme failure was well documented and apparent under the Coalition government yet Labour refused to challenge the dominant narrative that welfare reform was necessary and commit to policy pledges that could have restored the confidence of disabled voters. The calculation seemed to be that election in 2015 rested on pandering to public misperceptions and scapegoating of benefit claimants. In his 2011 party conference speech, Liam Byrne, then shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, stated that: “many people on the door step at the last election felt that too often we were for shirkers not workers”. Meanwhile on the ground the brutal realities of welfare reform and the flawed WCA were beginning to hit. The message to disabled people was not to look to Labour for support.
Labour’s election strategy centred around not being seen as soft on welfare while avoiding spending commitments that could be used to question their economic competence. Individual pledges by Labour to end the contract with Atos to run the WCA or abolish the bedroom tax if elected did not go far enough. Nor could those suffering under the realities of welfare reform wait for Labour to get elected. Campaigners effectively chased Atos out of their contract before 2015 while Labour councils up and down the country continued to implement the hated bedroom tax. Only a handful of Labour MPs including Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Michael Meacher stood with disabled campaigners at a memorial service for the victims of welfare reform under a banner calling for the abolition of the WCA, while Labour’s 2015 disability mini-manifesto went no further than committing to “overhaul”, but nevertheless retain, the WCA. Labour’s position on the Independent Living Fund became farcical with their own Parliamentary Candidates in utter confusion as Miliband attempted to criticise the government for its decision to close the Fund while insisting Labour would not retain it if elected.
Journalist Dr Frances Ryan says, “It became very difficult for Labour to fully support disabled people without rejecting the wider dominant political narrative of the election that being an economically viable party meant (or at least appearing) to be ‘tough on welfare’. With the Conservatives promising 12 billion worth of so-called necessary cuts to social climate the very climate that meant Labour needed to be the party for disabled people ultimately stopped them from being it.”
Other parties were less hesitant about adopting policies in defence of the rights and well-being of disabled people. In a BBC televised referendum debate Alistair Darling referred only once to “people with disabilities” and only because he was asked a question specifically about disability benefits while managing to focus most of his response on the need to have a strong economy. Salmond by contrast deliberately mentioned disabled people eight times, referring to them as victims of austerity. In the run up to the General Election individual disabled people were contacting Disabled People Against Cuts to ask if the SNP could stand in England. On both sides of the border, disabled campaigners were interested in the policy pledges the SNP were prepared to commit to that Labour continued to shun. The Independent Living Fund, a source of support for disabled people with high support needs enabling them to live in the community when the alternative was residential care, was one key example of this. Whereas Labour maintained its position “not to keep the ILF” if elected, the SNP committed not only to ring fence funding for existing ILF recipients but to re-open a Scottish ILF for new users.
In England meanwhile activity by the UK Independence Party indicated a deliberate and systematic targeting of disabled people’s votes. UKIP appointed a disabled spokesperson, Star Etheridge, who had herself undergone a WCA and all trace of UKIP’s 2010 welfare policies, where benefit claimants were described as “an underclass of parasitic scrounger”, was removed from the internet. Debbie Jolly co-founder of DPAC explains: “As a campaign DPAC is opposed to all forms of discrimination and scapegoating. As such we never welcomed support from UKIP despite their adoption of policies including the scrapping of the WCA and saving the ILF. In the run up to the election we had to maintain constant vigilance over UKIP supporters infiltrating disabled people’s campaign groups on social media. Our own members would regularly contact us having been caught up by UKIP’s promises of protecting benefits for disabled people. It was a real problem. Although the Green party also made positive commitments to disabled people in England, UKIP had so much more of the media as well as a very well organised grassroots campaign.” When Russell Brand alluded to this problem on BBC Question Time, a disabled audience member was ready to immediately jump in to counter that Farage supposedly had an unblemished record on disability. The disability vote was clearly valued by UKIP as a core part of their election strategy.
Even after Labour’s defeat at the polls in May 2015, it took Corbyn’s election as leader to correct the misguided approach to welfare and disability that had alienated so many disabled voters. Ignoring overwhelming evidence to the contrary, elements within the party concluded election failure was linked to not being “tough enough” on welfare. In the Fabian Society’s offensively titled publication ‘Never Again’, Will Straw suggests that Ed Miliband’s mistake was not to adopt as “the centrepiece of his entire campaign” the mantra that it is “wrong to be idle on benefits when you can work”. In a vote on the hated Welfare Reform and Work bill in July 2015, 184 Labour MPs under acting leader Harriet Harman followed the party line in abstaining. Among the 48 MPs who rebelled were Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, who announced in the debate: “I would swim through vomit to vote against the bill”. Less than two months later Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour party. Linda Burnip, co-founder of DPAC says, only a small handful of Labour MPs seemed to genuinely support our vital work, amongst them Jeremy Corbyn.” Debbie Jolly adds: “The constant aping of the Tories by the Blairites in search of an election win was a complete disaster in 2015 for people like me who would never ever vote Tory.”
An online poll conducted by DPAC found that 78% (580 out of 740) of respondents felt Labour had failed to give the commitments disabled people needed before the 2015 General Election. 60% of respondents (309 out of 508) said they had voted for Labour in the GE and another 60% (433 out of 712) said they had voted for Corbyn to be Labour leader. A number of comments were left by individuals explaining that although they support Corbyn they had not participated in the leadership election because their allegiance is now with either the Green party or the SNP as a result of what they see as better commitments on disability. A number also mentioned distrust of the Parliamentary Labour Party citing, as one comment deftly put it, “the Labstain debacle”. DPAC national committee member Bob Ellard says, “Disabled people are a highly politicised, well informed cohort of society who demand much from politicians and use our votes not through tribal loyalty but to the party that offers us the best deal.”
Disabled campaigners are clear about how policies since 2010 have actively retrogressed disabled people’s rights and what an alternative would look like on issues touching all areas of our lives including social security but also independent living, social care and inclusive education. Before Corbyn’s election as leader it was however made clear to us that Labour felt they had more to lose than to gain by listening to us. Sean McGovern, disability councillor of the TUC General Council says: “Running up to the 2015 general election Labour had ample opportunity to promote some progressive disability policies… Instead Labour decided to sit on its hands on all these issues. By doing so, in my view, they alienated themselves from a large swathe of voters – disabled people and their supporters… When Corbyn decided to run for the leadership of the Labour party with John McDonnell at his side disabled people knew they had a prospective leadership team who understood disabled people and their issues. Two people who understand the social model of disability.”
An alternative approach – winning from the left
Policies that protect disabled people are not just something disabled people and our families care about. Most people do not want to live in a deeply unequal society where disadvantage is punished and are in favour of a social security system that provides a safety net for those that need. A TUC survey published in 2013 found that support for welfare reform was based on widespread public ignorance. The survey also showed that when members of the public were given accurate information about how the welfare budget is spent their attitudes changed. Such facts were decidedly missing from the welfare narrative communicated by all three main political parties under the Coalition government. Politicians play a crucial role in the shaping of public perceptions on welfare because such a large percentage of media coverage on the subject is policy focused. Opposition to the scapegoating of benefit claimants as presented by the SNP and the Green party was not only the principled stand Labour should have taken but could also have exposed the realities of welfare reform to the wider public much earlier.
Where politicians take a lead in opposing the austerity narrative and necessity of welfare reform they can influence public opinion. Throughout late 2015 and early 2016 Labour showed strong opposition to cuts to Employment and Support Allowance proposed in the Welfare Reform and Work bill, supporting the Lords in two rebellions against the measure to reduce the incomes of disabled people in the Work Related Activity Group by £30 per week. A survey conducted by Populus in January found just 6% of the public thought the government’s disability benefit reforms would make Britain a better place. A popular name and shame campaign of Tory MPs who had voted in favour of the ESA cut led to a number of disability organisations very publicly ‘sacking’ patrons including London mayoral hopeful Zac Goldsmith. A YouGov poll after the March 2016 budget found that 70% of the public believed that the PIP cuts were the “wrong priority”.
This was the background to Iain Duncan Smith’s opportunistic decision to deal Osborne and Cameron a blow in language borrowed from the left as the Tories imploded over Europe. In a resignation letter that questioned whether “enough [had] been done to ensure ‘we are all in this together'”, IDS described “the latest changes to benefits for the disabled” as “a compromise too far” and their context “within a Budget that benefits higher earning taxpayers” as indefensible. He went even further in an astonishing interview on the Andrew Marr show, publicly stating what both the mainstream media and pre-Corbyn Labour had been too afraid to name, that is, the ideological rather than economic basis of austerity. Disabled campaigners looked on in incredulity as this man who had steadfastly denied the impacts of welfare reform for close to six years expressed concern that the government was “hurting the most vulnerable” and that the proposed PIP cut “looks like we see this as a pot of money, that doesn’t matter because they don’t vote for you”. Tracey Lazard, CEO of Inclusion London, says, “Disabled people have known all along what IDS made public in his resignation, that we have borne the brunt of disproportionate, indefensible and ideological cuts. We hope these revelations will embolden Labour to finally stand up for us and they need to; they have their work cut out to regain our trust and our votes.”
In the aftermath of the Tories’ March 2016 budget disaster there are efforts across the political spectrum to appear to prioritise the well-being of disabled people. Every time a government minister speaks the dubious amounts they are claiming to spend on disability seems to increase by billions. A mail out by the Labour campaigns team dated 26 March 2016 encouraged supporters to back Sadiq Khan’s bid to be mayor pointing out that unlike his rival Zac Goldsmith, Khan voted against the March 2016 budget that proposed to take money off disabled people.
If this new found interest in disability is to be anything more than just the latest stick with which to beat the Tories, there needs to be some fundamental shifts in understanding and approach towards disability at a wider policy level within the Labour party. IDS may be gone with disability thrown momentarily into the spotlight but policies that unfairly target disabled people such as the bedroom tax, sanctions, the WCA and tightened eligibility for PIP are still in place and there is worse yet to come. At the time of writing disabled campaigners wait apprehensively for the government’s long expected health and employment white paper. This is likely to extend conditionality while tying medical and therapeutic services to targets for moving claimants off benefits and into employment. Pilots funded by the DWP are already underway in a number of local authority areas with Labour councils disregarding the potential impact in taking forward such an ideologically driven approach to welfare. In other areas of disabled people’s lives, the increasing social care budget shortfall is having a devastating impact with disabled people who rely on social care support denied basic human rights while plans to fully academise education threatens to increase discrimination against disabled learners.
Disabled people’s rights need defending as never before but this can only be done by challenging the dominant narrative of austerity and the model of disability which underpins welfare reform at its most fundamental level. We need alternative policies grounded in an accurate understanding of the needs and realities of disabled people’s lives. Just because many disabled people want to work does not mean that they can or will find suitable employment no matter how hard they try. Welfare reform has failed because it seeks to impose top down policy targets that can only be achieved by redefining disability: reducing claimant numbers is not something that can be achieved by simply wishing away disability and impairment. Whereas prejudice and negative attitudes towards disabled people are socially constructed, the material conditions of disabled people’s lives present concrete barriers embedded in the complex inter-relationship between disability and capitalism. Locating the problem within the individual as the model underpinning welfare reform does, ignores the socio-economic factors that create inequality. These forces are bigger than any one person can overcome. The result is an approach that punishes the individual claimant for circumstances beyond their control. What is needed is an alternative approach that understands how conditions such as the intensification of work and growth of insecure and low paid employment are not only making employment harder to reach for disabled people but also increasing incidences of illness and impairment through the effects of stress and in-work poverty.
There is also a need for a much better understanding of the oppression of disabled people and of disability as an equalities issue. Labour’s failure to make the commitments to disabled people that were needed before the 2015 General Election resulted from the way our issues were viewed at a policy level primarily through the prism of spending commitments. Voters on the other hand understood the attacks on disabled people being waged by the Tories as a human rights issue. Labour’s lack of opposition represented an affront to basic principles of social justice and fairness. There is one anecdote that beautifully encapsulates the situation in the run up to the General Election. In a meeting with members of the shadow DWP team member, Sean McGovern challenged Labour’s position on closing the Independent Living Fund. Kate Green, then shadow minister for disabled people commented that the ILF closure only affected around 16,500 people. Sean retorted: “It’s called solidarity. It’s one of the building blocks of socialism”. Those campaigning to save the Independent Living Fund were fighting for those 16,500 individuals but also, crucially for the equalities principle that everyone, regardless of impairment, should have the right to live in the community alongside family and friends.
Most people want to live in a society where those who cannot participate in the labour market are supported by a safety net that affords a standard of life consistent with a person’s human rights. Most people want to live in a society where everyone regardless of impairment has the same chances to participate, contribute and be valued. That is why the Tories have had to actively conceal the true impact of their policies behind rhetoric that claims they will always protect the “most vulnerable”. Traditionally exclusion and powerlessness have led to a lack of wider awareness and the marginalisation of disabled people’s issues and interests. Under austerity we have been brought to the forefront, not only of the attacks but also to resistance against the cuts. A statement given by the campaign UKUncut for the 2014 publication ‘From Cuts…to Resistance” says, “DPAC have pushed the anti cuts movement to be bolder and more inclusive in its protests. DPAC has shown that those hit the hardest will hit back the hardest.” This relationship with the broader anti austerity movement has given our issues an unprecedented political profile on the left. However support for disabled people is also a cross-cutting issue able to capture the wider popular indignation against rising inequality, as indicated by the experience of DPAC activist Paula Peters. When traveling on the London Underground Paula was recognised by a fellow commuter from press coverage of a protest during events in March 2016 and given a hero’s response by the whole train carriage. She explains, “I ended up going seven extra stops in the wrong direction as the passengers wanted more details about DPAC, the details of the DPAC website and how they could support us….I think the tide is turning.”