Following the tedious return to a Labour leadership battle last weekend, Ed Miliband sought to underline his uneventful leadership by giving a speech that captured the initiative from the Tories and finally put forward a proposal from the opposition that was coherent and memorable. Last monday morning Frank Field stated that it would be “difficult to overestimate how significant today’s speech is”, and he was right. The speech’s significance was the extent to which it represented not only the continuation of the Blairite legacy but the continuation of a political establishment in which each party blends into the other without a blemish.
The speech began with a blunt attack on welfare recipients. Miliband recounted how he had met a man “with a real injury” who had been on incapacity benefit for a decade. Staggeringly, he went on to conflate this man with the executives of Southern Cross; the exploitation and physical and mental abuse of the elderly is apparently an equal crime to drawing out incapacity benefit. In making this speech, Miliband chose the government’s side in its war with the disabled. Atos healthcare has been given a £300 million contract to quite brazenly strip recipients of incapacity benefit from the welfare budget. With assessors overworked and incompetent, sometimes with no knowledge of problems such as mental illness, and the computer system they use described as a “complete mess” by the designer, the plans are bleakly absurd. A third of “fit to work” decisions are challenged through appeals, with 40% of them successful. The government’s response? Remove the right to appeal, obviously.
By comparing the disabled to the same people who prey on them Miliband’s message – given with no context as to the man’s medical condition – was clear: if he had been on benefits for a decade, he must be a cheat, an assumption that both rests on and reinforces the sort of prejudices that have led to increased attacks on the disabled. More astoundingly, in a period in which unemployment has hit a seventeen year high, Miliband said that “it’s just not right for the country to be supporting him not to work”. His use of the euphemistic and deliberately dishonest term “worklessness” is a syllable from fecklessness. Like Blair, he has adopted the automatic, unthinking tropes of the Daily Mail.
Compared to the gigantic and sustained redistribution of public wealth into the hands of the rich, benefits cheats are nothing. Beyond the £850 billion cost of the bank bailout, there is the persistent refusal of successive governments to deal with the income crisis the rich have forced upon them. Compare the tax gap of £120 billion with the £3.1 billion lost through both fraud and error in the benefits system. The various means of moving wealth from the poor to the rich is not a matter of irresponsibility amongst “wealth creators”, but is instead the brute inclination of the richest in society. Miliband is the leader of the Labour party during the greatest expansion of the divide between rich and poor since the Great Depression, yet his solution is to attack the working class.
This is nothing new. The government who began the incapacity benefit reforms and first gave the contract to Atos was a Labour one. The new assessment system was trialled by Labour and threw up the same faulty assessments. It was Labour’s Baroness Morgan who is both on the Board of Directors for Southern Cross and the chair of Ofsted. It was this shadow cabinet that decided they were “too slow” to commit itself to cuts after the recession set in, and who have since set out to prove they are not “deficit deniers”. Nationally and locally, they have resisted any opportunity to put forward real change.
More sinister is Miliband’s newfound support for voluntarism. The big reveal of his speech – the proposal to base the provision of social housing on whether or not a prospective tenant deserves a place, rather than whether or not they need one – means that people will be rewarded for being “good neighbours”. The position is ludicrous. There is a shameful shortage of social housing in a country where the rates of homelessness are shooting up: the solution is to build more affordable houses, not ration the few that exist to families based on their moral character.
That people “who volunteer, or who work” will be granted housing is further codification of the stigma towards those who are unemployed or on benefits. Who is the moral arbiter in these decisions – those parties who have demonstrated beyond doubt their complete incapacity to govern in the interests of the people, or companies like Atos or Southern Cross who see us merely as commodities?
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