Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
The current crisis of capitalism and the state has triggered one of the many moral panics about our benefits system that have recurred in UK history since the first national Poor Law was enacted in 1601. As always this panic includes hand-wringing about women whose lifestyles and behaviour threaten the domestic and public order and undermine economic progress.
What is distinctive about this panic, however, is that it involves a dim recognition that the whole tax-benefits system is malfunctioning and that ‘disorderly’ women might be a symptom of a far deeper set of issues about individual autonomy, the family, work, social cohesion and national prosperity. The idea of the proposed ‘universal credit’, which will replace a large number of means-tested benefits with a single one (which is strictly neither universal nor a credit), was hatched just before the crisis by the Conservative think-tank, the Centre for Social Justice, for reasons that had nothing to do with austerity and cuts.
Our benefits system owes its existence to the recognition by the government of Elizabeth I that some groups in society were not receiving an income sufficient for subsistence, either through property holdings, employment and the family or through charity and the church. But the government then, and ever since, could not resist the temptation to combine provision of income to the groups it identified as needy with administrative and moral discipline for those it saw as threats to the social order.
The authorities set up to give income support to the poor of each parish were also empowered to set up workhouses for the ‘idle sturdy beggars’ who disfigured the towns and cities, to whip or conscript into the military the ‘footloose vagabonds’ who roamed the countryside, and to confine and discipline the ‘whores and harlots’ who defied their husbands’ authority and shamed public morals. Today’s version of this policy is called the Work Programme.
Two things have changed since 1601, and they have made the situation much more complicated without improving it for those directly affected. First, the state found that, during a period of falling real wages and high public spending because of wars, it could not rely on property taxes to supply sufficient revenue, so it introduced an income tax in 1799. Originally just falling on the rich, its scope has gradually spread down the income scale, so that now even many of those receiving benefits are also paying tax on anything they earn.
Second, successive governments since 1908 have introduced benefits that are not linked to poverty itself, and that do not involve coercive conditions and loss of autonomy. The first of these was retirement pensions, and in 1948 a whole range of benefits for unemployment, sickness and long-term disability were based on National Insurance contributions, and not means tested.
Two features of the latter scheme made its effects less significant for women than for men. First, all the assumptions built into the rules on contributions and eligibility treated them as ‘dependants’ of their husbands if they were married and regarded their primary role as being in the home. Second, the rates of benefits were very low compared with other affluent countries, so the scheme left a growing proportion of people still dependent on means-tested provision, with all its stigma and complexity, while making the calculation of their need and entitlement far more difficult for them and the authorities.
The only new system that was unequivocally advantageous for all women was child benefit, originally called family allowance and pioneered by Eleanor Rathbone in the 1920s. Eventually this gave all women with children an unconditional sum, which was in their control, did not involve pleasing men (either partners or officials) and did not affect their eligibility for other benefits.
These advantages of child benefit are still unique; in the whole benefits system, it is the only one that unequivocally increases women’s autonomy. If child benefit was doubled, far more women would be able to choose the hours they worked, to leave abusive relationships and to avoid participation in meaningless government ‘training’ programmes. Better still, if all women received their whole benefits entitlement, or their income tax allowance, as a weekly cash payment like child benefit, then the demands of women’s movements would have been significantly advanced.
But best of all would be if men too were paid their benefits entitlements and income tax allowances in this form. It would mean that they were no longer required to seek full-time employment, and would be free to negotiate a shared responsibility for child care and domestic work, to participate in community work (which has always been done mainly by women) – and to refuse unpaid roles in Poundland under the Work Programme.
Such an idea sounds unfeasible, but this is exactly how it already is in Alaska and in Iran, in parts of Namibia and Brazil, and will soon be in Mongolia. It is called a ‘citizen’s income’ or ‘basic income’, people like Tom Paine and Bertrand Russell have been advocating it since the 1790s, and perhaps its time has come.
The current crisis has brought about a questioning of the viability of the tax-benefits system that goes well beyond ‘affordability’. The universal credit reform is not primarily an austerity measure, but a half-baked attempt to address the perennial issues of disincentives to work, saving and domestic stability that were built into the 1601 law and have resurfaced in every recession and fiscal crisis ever since.
But as an opportunity the crisis goes deeper than this. Since the share of GNP going to capital has risen to around 50 per cent, and median earnings have failed to rise for decades, it is time to recognise that the future of income security cannot lie in the old Labourist principle. The idea of ‘full employment’ no longer makes sense when so many work part-time or are self-employed. We need the security of a citizen’s income to facilitate creativity and flexibility, not policies that try to put us back in that box.
Women never did get such a good deal from Labourism. This may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for women to campaign for a citizen’s income, and for feminists to make alliances with other movements for its implementation. There were campaigns in the Great Depression of the 1930s, and many intellectuals then favoured it over Beveridge’s social insurance scheme. That has had a 70-year trial and, like every other reform of the tax-benefit system since 1601, it has failed to meet the challenges of economic and social development. It is time to try something new.
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency