The peril of ill-chosen words

“It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt,” according to Abraham Lincoln. That is something that Liam Byrne would have been well-advised to consider before he put pen to paper for The Guardian this week.
Mr Byrne, the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, in his article ‘A William Beveridge for this century’s welfare state’ claims that the UK welfare system needs reform. Unfortunately, the language he uses – and the points he omits – led this reader to think this Labour front-bencher supports the Coalition Tory/Lib Dem government in its plans to slash the benefits bill by cheating honest, deserving claimants out of their entitlement.
Have a quick look at the article, then I’ll explain.

All done? Right. Consider the following:
Isn’t it strange that Mr Byrne, a Labour front-bencher, chooses to identify with a late member of the Liberal Party who (although admittedly a great man) would have been on the opposite side of the House of Commons, if he were alive today? What makes Mr Byrne think he can assume he knows what Mr Beveridge would have wanted anyway? Isn’t that the old trick of using a historical figure who can’t speak for himself to support Mr Byrne’s view? To me, this indicates sympathy with the government’s position from the get-go.
This supposition is borne out by his words. Mr Byrne writes: “He [Mr Beveridge] would scarcely have believed housing benefit alone is costing the UK over £20bn a year. That is simply too high.” Notice he doesn’t say anything about how the benefit bill should come down – simply that it is too high. So the reader fills in the blanks as follows: “This man supports the Conservative plan to cut the amount of housing benefit paid to individuals and force them out of their homes”. (The Conservative plan is to limit the amount of housing benefit payable to any individual; if this amount means they can’t afford to stay in a particular residence, they’ll be out on their ears).
In fact, the bill is too high because the current government either can’t afford or doesn’t want to pay it. The solution is to get more people into well-paid work – that way, they wouldn’t need to claim housing benefit and would also be helping to pay down the deficit that’s putting the government off welfare benefits in the first place. However, it was a lack of decent pay that caused the Credit Crunch in 2008 and led to the huge national deficit that working- and middle-class people are having to pay off now; people were borrowing because they were falling into debt – and then of course they defaulted on the loans. How were they supposed to pay them back? Let’s move on.
“He [Beveridge]would have wanted reform that was tough-minded, and asked everyone to work hard to find a job.” ‘Everyone’ in this case including people whose ESA (and soon, DLA) claims have been turned down, despite their illnesses, because of a system run by a private company that has been ordered to cut people off? (The government has employed a Atos, an IT corporation, to carry out assessments of disability using a tick-box questionnaire, instead of employing medical experts. It’s well-known that this company is under orders to get as many claimants as possible off the books, and this has led to a shocking amount of inaccuracy in the way Atos employees have filled in the forms. A survey by the Citizens Advice Bureau in Mid Wales found more than 40 per cent of those who undertook the assessment discovered serious errors – the answers being input by the assessors were not the answers they had been given)
“He never foresaw unearned support as desirable.” So people on benefits are on ‘unearned support’, are they? That’ll be extremely unpalatable for everyone who was ever laid off after years of faithful service, having fully paid all their taxes and National Insurance; also to those on sickness benefits who acquired their disability in the workplace or because of the work they were doing, as well as everyone who had a job for any length of time before becoming disabled.
“‘Something for something’ means reward for those who are desperately trying to do the right thing, saving for the future and trying to build a stable, secure home.” As opposed to ‘benefits scroungers’, to use the language of the Conservative-led coalition?
“Social security has to change.” The Coalition in power at the moment has been changing it. In these five words alone, Mr Byrne can be read as supporting their agenda.
The language Mr Byrne uses places him firmly in the Tory camp: Tories want radical reform of the benefits system (to make it harder for people to claim, as we all know from the Atos experience). Mr Byrne wants to know “how we become the radical reformers once again”.
The Tories don’t want to pay benefits and intend to change the terms under which they are received to cut the cost. Mr Byrne writes that Mr Beveridge (with whom he’s identifying, let’s not forget) would be “appalled at the spiralling cost of benefits”.
Mr Byrne writes: “He would have wanted reform that was tough-minded, and asked everyone to work hard to find a job.” The Tories want everyone to work hard to find a job – even when, as we all know, there aren’t any jobs to find.
The sad aspect of this is that Mr Byrne missed a golden opportunity: If he had said that Beveridge might not have agreed with his party’s current stance; if he’d said he believed Beveridge would have been horrified by the Coalition’s plans to disenfranchise disabled benefits claimants – whether they deserved to lose the cash or not – then he might have scored significantly against the current government. He didn’t do this; instead, he appeared to side with them. At a time when it is vital for Labour to ensure it is seen as different from the Coalition, Mr Byrne has ensured that readers see only the similarities.
Also, although he is the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Mr Byrne is allowed to have opinions about other aspects of government, and also about which of these should be reformed first. Ask a child which is more important to stop – something that deprives us of £25bn a year (such as the way wealthy corporations and individuals are failing to pay the taxes they owe) and something that takes only £1bn (benefit fraud in the UK) and you know what answer you’d get.
I accept that Mr Byrne doesn’t say people who need benefits should go without them. The problem is, he doesn’t say they should NOT go without them, either.
He does not demand an end to the unfair Atos assessments or propose a fairer system, even though all he has to do is challenge the Coalition to introduce such a system; he doesn’t have to spell out the details for them.
At the root of the whole debacle is the saddest fact of all – that Labour has been tacitly supporting this attack on the disabled for far too long. It’s a policy that mocks the efforts of honest working people who have been, through no fault of their own, forced to claim the state benefits that their taxes have supported for so many years. That’s what many people are concerned about and arguing against.
It’s time for Mr Byrne to change his tune – along with the rest of the Labour front bench. Otherwise, who are they fighting for? Ed Miliband’s ‘Squeezed Middle’ is important, but is only one small part of society. Labour will not win the popular victory it needs if it gains middle class support at the expense of everybody else.

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