But Labour’s attack on “benefits cheats” didn’t help the system


8:33 pm - July 8th 2010

by Neil Robertson    


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Most of you will have now seen Sunny’s interview with Ed Miliband, in which he declared himself ‘the candidate of change’ and then somewhat contentiously argued that New Labour wasn’t too harsh in how it handled the benefits system.

Responding to heckles from the audience, Sunny suggests Miliband’s critics have missed the point:

Sure, New Labour did use a lot of negative language, but it’s naive to assume people won’t talk about “benefits cheats” just because the Labour government didn’t. The Daily Mail cannot be wished away. And so I’m assuming New Labour simply made the calculation that sounding harsh on benefit cheats in public would convince the public something was being done about them – and keep faith in the system. Because once that faith goes, then the system goes.

In many respects, Sunny is absolutely correct.

We shouldn’t have any trouble believing that New Labour’s punitive approach to the long term unemployed – from threatening them with homelessness and forcing them into workfare to giving them breathalisers and lie detectors – was anything less than pure political opportunism, designed to win a few favourable headlines and deflect the charge that they’re soft on ‘scroungers’.

Some of us having been saying this for years, and the fact that most of these proposals never made it past the pages of the tabloids is a testament to how ineffably unserious they were.

But if we’re to accept that such tactics were born more out of calculation than conviction (which is hardly the most most stirring defence, is it?), we should then consider whether those tactics worked. So did New Labour’s frequent admonishments of the long-term unemployed succeed in convincing the public to, as Sunny puts it, “keep faith in the system”?

Not so much. Over a period which saw remarkably consistent growth and increased national prosperity, both the British Social Attitudes survey and the Rowntree Foundation found a hardening in the British public’s attitudes to unemployment, poverty & welfare.

In 1996, the BSA survey found that 78% of respondants agreed that the government had a responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed. By 2006, that number had fallen to 55%.

At best, Labour failed to arrest an inexorable decline in the public’s faith in the benefits system; at worst, its calculations actively fed on this lack of faith to the point where the public has become far more receptive to the idea of Tory cuts.

This doesn’t mean that we need to ignore those good things Labour has done, nor dredge up its misdeeds at every opportunity; there will be a new leadership team before too long, and they don’t bear responsibility for every mistake made in 13 long years.

But when the past approach seemed to win very little respite from the crowd that cries ‘Shameless!‘ at the first sight of a Job Centre – and lost them a huge amount of goodwill in the process – perhaps it’s time for people like Miliband to stop reaching for face-saving justifications.

Instead of trying to score points off the long-term unemployed, these ex-ministers must now talk about how they would assist & empower them. And instead of devising tabloid-pleasing scams, they should explain how they would prevent the millions who’re being left behind from being added to the human scrapheap.

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About the author
Neil Robertson is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He was born in Barnsley in 1984, and through a mixture of good luck and circumstance he ended up passing through Cambridge, Sheffield and Coventry before finally landing in London, where he works in education. His writing often focuses on social policy or international relations, because that's what all the Cool Kids write about. He mostly blogs at: The Bleeding Heart Show.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Labour party ,Westminster

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Reader comments


I do accept that their words had an impact, and I also agree that Ed Miliband should have accepted that the govt’s approach to welfare was full of holes and half-baked ideas.

But that attitudes have hardened isn’t necessarily a cause of what ministers say. After all, they’ve been saying that climate change is the biggest threat to mankind and the polls moved in the opposite direction.

Correlation doesn’t equate to causation… though I’d be interested in the evidence.

My feeling is that increased immigration, which is coupled with the view that lots of people who’ve come here temporarily get benefits, did a lot to depress that support too.

That is also why I favour an insurance based scheme for economic migrants (they pay into a pot that they can then take back) to maintain support for the welfare system.

2. Chaise Guevara

“But that attitudes have hardened isn’t necessarily a cause of what ministers say. After all, they’ve been saying that climate change is the biggest threat to mankind and the polls moved in the opposite direction.”

Yeah, but regardless of what effect it had in reality, they still said it.

I’m kind of feeling like the left has nowhere to run at the moment. When there’s only one major leftwing party and that one has yet to shed its authoritarianism, what then?

Sunny,

But that attitudes have hardened isn’t necessarily a cause of what ministers say.

[…]

My feeling is that increased immigration, which is coupled with the view that lots of people who’ve come here temporarily get benefits, did a lot to depress that support too.

Very true, I wouldn’t deny that there could be a confluence of different actors and actions which have led to this hardening in public attitudes towards the benefits system. And it’s surely very difficult (impossible?) to measure which of these had the greatest impact.

The basic point, though, is that the rhetoric moved distinctly rightward, that Labour contributed to this trend, and that it would do well not to allow the trend to continue under new leadership.

(btw, E. Miliband’s thing on prisons = very welcome indeed)

4. Matt Munro

The correlation is surely with economic growth. As in when the economy is doing well people are less well disposed towards the uneployed because with jobs avaiable they are more likely to be seen as lazy and responsible for their own position. If the economy dives and even people in work are considering the posibility of unemployment, they are more likley to see the unemployed as victims of circumstance and feel more sympathy.

The correlation is surely with economic growth. As in when the economy is doing well people are less well disposed towards the uneployed because with jobs avaiable they are more likely to be seen as lazy and responsible for their own position. If the economy dives and even people in work are considering the posibility of unemployment, they are more likley to see the unemployed as victims of circumstance and feel more sympathy.

That wasn’t what happened in the 1980s (unless you watched Boys from the Blackstuff, which challenged precisely the ‘on your bike’ mentality being encouraged by the Tories at the time). New Labour wanted a narrative of the deserving and the undeserving poor, but simply ended up picking up where Peter Lilley and his ‘little list’ of straw welfare scroungers left off.

and that it would do well not to allow the trend to continue under new leadership.

I’ll buy that. I just think that the impact of Labour’s so-called “war” on “benefit cheats” is over-played. People like to pretend that it made all the difference without taking into account other factors.

When there’s only one major leftwing party and that one has yet to shed its authoritarianism, what then?

Then you have to find ways to influence that party. Just running away from the battle means you compound that loss.

I strongly advise reading this http://www.corporatewatch.org/?lid=3572 Last week’s Now Show contrasted the difference in the way the government (and its predecessor) encourage reporting suspected “benefit scroungers” and tax evaders. I look forward to the day when posters are placed in wine bars, exclusive restaurants and first class passenger lounges encouraging the reporting of corporate crooks. Continually demonising the poor is basically the government washing its hands of them and allowing scum like Serco and £4Emma to take control is just flushing money down the toilet

One thing that Labour’s attack on benefits claimants has done is give an air of legitimacy to the Daily Hate’s merciless agenda. Let us take into account that the Daily Hate’s agenda is not about tackling fraud, it is about kicking lumps out of the poor in a direct class war. They were never going to be bought off with a few sacrificial lambs, they are after the big prize.

I agree we cannot wish away the daily Hate and their sub human readership, but that does not mean we need to make their life easier either, does it? For every dancing pensioner out there you can find at least one story of a badly disabled person who has been denied benefits because of outrageous decisions by the company who are paid to reduce the incapacity benefit numbers, but for reasons best known to themselves, the labour Party are unable to bring any these stories to the fore.

If I was in charge of the Labour Party, every PMQ’s, every parliamentary debate, every panellist on ‘Question time’, ‘Any Questions’, ‘Newsnight’, ‘Ready Steady Cook’ etc, would be expected to weave these type of stories into the debate, but then again, that is just me, I don’t despise these people.

Let the candidate for ‘change’ stand up and admit the Party got it wrong and say the attacks went too far, and…

(sorry, here it comes)

…stand up for the most vulnerable in society for once.

10. Mike Killingworth

Let’s consider how the media operate: thought-experiment time. Imagine that a couple of blind sisters carry out a suicide pact – the note they leave refers to their fears over benefit cuts among several other things. The Minister of the day, tackled about this, says that he sees it as evidence that the anti-scrounger policy is working. How does the media deal with it? If he’s Labour, he’s denounced as a heartless bastard; if a Tory, they just won’t run the story and it merely circulates around the comments board on Dale’s and Smithson’s sites.

This is the old problem all over again: if Labour pays attention to the Murdoch press and the Mail it is contesting the same political ground as the coalition parties, who do it better. And its base will begin to ask – why do we bother? (Indeed this approach has already cost the Party two-thirds of its individual members, which Diane at least thinks is a problem, even if the others don’t.)

[1]

I favour an insurance based scheme for economic migrants (they pay into a pot that they can then take back) to maintain support for the welfare system

I’m assuming that this wouldn’t apply to citizens, and I don’t think you could apply it to EU nationals. So it’s a scheme to provide better publicly-funded health care to the Russian mafioso who has entered the country on a fake Bulgarian passport than to the Filipina health-care assistant working with the terminally ill in a hospice. I don’t think so.,

11. Shatterface

I’d like to see the same kind or aggressive rhetoric targeted at rich tax fraudsters.

> I’d like to see the same kind or aggressive rhetoric targeted at rich tax fraudsters.

Problem is, benefit cheats aren’t political donors on the same scale as tax cheats…

> When there’s only one major leftwing party and that one has yet to shed its authoritarianism, what then?

Green.

Nu-Labour didn’t just use harsh language on welfare. They implemented harsh measures.

The introduction of ESA to replace Incapacity Benefit is the most punitive reform of welfare in recent memory. It’s so potentially damaging that the man who helped design it, Paul Gregg, doesn’t think it should be implemented as planned and the Lib Dem’s Danny Alexander believes it could end up with “hundreds of thousands” of people being incorrectly assessed.

“Instead of trying to score points off the long-term unemployed, these ex-ministers must now talk about how they would assist & empower them.”

The ESA was explicitly accompanied with language like “empower and assist”. Look closely and it’s nothing more than meaningless obfuscation.

Again, it simply isn’t true that Nu-Labour pandered to the reactionary press only with never-to-be-employed ideas. They followed through with concrete action, and now the Tories have gleefully inherited their fully-formed policies and can implement them without delay – and take all the `credit` for the suffering they’ll cause (and are causing now).

14. gwenhwyfaer

I just think that the impact of Labour’s so-called “war” on “benefit cheats” is over-played. People like to pretend that it made all the difference without taking into account other factors.

And I think you’re underplaying the impact that such statements and actions had coming from a party whose roots lay in the left – it meant that what was once a pretty hard-right viewpoint, and recognised as such, suddenly became accepted as a truth across the whole spectrum. Anyone who stood up for the principle of a liberal benefits system, anyone who thought it was worth tolerating a little error to ensure that nobody starved, could instantly be dismissed as “just another crazy leftie”, even out of touch with centre-left opinion (whereas in reality Labour had long since departed the left, and were busily vacating the centre ground).

The same thing has happened with the justice system. The idea that it’s preferable to let ten guilty people go free than to lock up one innocent person, central to a modern liberal justice system, is now cause to dismiss the person voicing it as “soft on crime” – even when that person is a senior judge. Instead we have “prison works”, and a succession of Labour home secretaries that have managed to make Michael Howard look like a leading light of liberal rationalism.

This isn’t just poor judgement on Labour’s part. This isn’t just a failure to stand up for their principles. The blunt truth is that after four terms in opposition, Labour simply gave up.

15. Mike Killingworth

[14] Generous welfare systems, humane penology and indeed social democracy itself all have the same precondition: ethnic homogeneity.

When class politics – which is what Britain had from 1900/18 until the 1990s – is replaced by race-class politics, you get a conservative punitive approach because at least a significant minority, if not a majority of claimants & defendants, are of a different ethnic group to the majority. In race-class politics, the kind of position that was “centre-left” or even centrist in pure class politics becomes ultra-left.

That is why the Labour Party can shed two-thirds of its membership (a quarter of a million people! without any other Party growing substantially: their political “gut instinct” is so far detached from where the rest of the country.

Those of you who consider that the majority of people are “decent but misled by the right-wing media” might like to chew on this. Imagine there was full employment again (ooh, look! a flying pig) – would it then be safe to repeal the anti-discrimination legislation of the last 40-odd years?

16. Mike Killingworth

My apologies for the crap proof-reading of that comment – hopefully the sense is clear.

17. Alisdair Cameron

@ Seamus (13)

Again, it simply isn’t true that Nu-Labour pandered to the reactionary press only with never-to-be-employed ideas. They followed through with concrete action

Absolutely, and it is one of the most disgraceful legacies of that bankrupt ‘project’. Sunny, it simply was weasel words, and objectionable rhetoric: it was vile policy and despicable deeds to, the effects of which I see every day. The Tories will take it further. but the despair,the misery I encounter today is the doing of the likes of Purnell and New labour. That simply cannot be denied.

18. gwenhwyfaer

No, Mike #15, I have no idea what you’re saying – because it looks to me as though what you’re saying would fall foul of the comments policy, and since your comment has not been redacted I am clearly misunderstanding it.

19. Mike Killingworth

[18] Can you please tell me which bit you don’t understand?

If it helps, ask yourself: why does middle America hate welfare, except for the elderly (MediCare)? Answer: because it believes – rightly or wrongly – that welfare recipients are black (and some po’ white trash middle America dislikes just as much).

In this country, attacking welfare is Labour’s dogwhistle to prevent votes leaching to the BNP.

The comments policy is directed at abisuve comments – I should be interested to know who you think I am abusing.


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