The shadow minister wants to further stigmatise benefit recipients in her party’s quest for ‘squeezed middle’ voters
The new shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves has said that Labour would be tougher on benefits than the Tories.
I really wish she had been in the South West UK Youth Parliament meeting in Taunton last weekend, as I was, and heard a speaker from the floor, who is visually impaired, explain how he had been desperately seeking a job, without success. But, he said, he wasn’t claiming jobseeker’s allowance, because he wasn’t a scrounger.
Now all credit to the Labour party speaker on that occasion, Kate Taylor, the youngest female councillor in the country (on Plymouth city council), who said what I had been going to say: “Claim that money. You are entitled to it.” I repeated that urging.
It would appear, however, that Reeves would not have said that. Her rhetoric is going to further stigmatise benefit recipients and further discourage applications for benefits from people who need them, who are – or should be – entitled to them. People like that young speaker, who had already absorbed the toxic, misleading focus of the Mail, the Telegraph, Sky and others on the few who cheat the system (while they ignore the many who don’t even claim what they’re entitled to).
Benefits are there – must be there in this rich country (we are the sixth-richest country in the world after all) – to support those who need help, those who are being failed by the economy, who through ill health or accident are unable to support themselves, who the economy is failing to provide opportunities for, or who are contributing to society through caring for others.
With nearly a million young people unemployed, and a 30% gap in the employment rates between non-disabled and disabled people, that youth parliament speaker is facing an uphill struggle, no matter how hard he tries.
He did nothing to contribute to the state of our economy. He wasn’t in charge of the banks in the noughties. He hasn’t been raking profits into tax havens and paying workers less than a living wage, or promoting the spread of zero-hours contracts. He’s just suffering the consequences in an economy in which the share of GDP going into wages – into the pockets of ordinary men and women – has been going down, as company profits have gone up.
One aspect of fixed-term parliaments that we’re just now coming to terms with is the fact that election campaigns are going to start early – very early. We’re clearly in the 2015 campaign now. The Tory party has lined itself up as the party of big business. We always knew that of course, it’s just that with its plans for corporation tax, its failure to lift the minimum wage to levels that workers can live on and its comforts for tax-evaders, David Cameron has made his allegiance to the City that funds his party crystal clear.
And Labour is going to repeat “cost of living” like a mantra. But it’s clear that it has no plans to tackle the critical structural issue that means we have an economy of increasingly low wages and insecure employment; it’s not going to encourage the small businesses and co-operatives that are being squashed under the oppressive weight of market-abusing multinationals that could provide the varied, decent employment opportunities that we need.
Labour has laid out its slate: it is going to try to set the struggling against the poorest – to further stigmatise and penalise the millions of households that are going under in this dysfunctional economy.
It’s going for the “squeezed middle” of swing voters in seats in the south of England, not telling them that their problems come from our still out-of-control finance sector, our tax-avoiding, high-profit multinationals.
Labour’s blaming the people hardest hit by our economy.
Any one of us, except the super-rich, is only one medical incident, one accident, one redundancy, away from needing the support of society to get back on our feet, or to survive for the long haul. Labour is identifying itself as a party that wants to beat down anyone in that situation, wants to demonise and stigmatise them.