“Gotta feel sorry for Corbyn. “Don’t mention Scotland! Drink this! Just Drink. The. Irn. Bru. Try to look happy.”
That’s SNP councillor Mhairi Hunter’s opinion of Jeremy Corbyn’s trip north of the English border – but it’s one that doesn’t seem to reflect the actual state of affairs at all.
Sure, we have the photographs of Labour’s new leader brandishing a bottle of Irn Bru and claims like that in The National, that Scottish Labour has told him not to mention the word ‘Scotland’ for fear of “playing to the nationalist agenda” (it seems he was advised by senior party insiders to refer to towns and cities rather than the country).
Others have been taking the visit more seriously. According to the FT, “Some Labour members think that his left wing views will make it harder for the ruling Scottish National party to portray itself as a champion of socialist values while pursuing centrist policies” (Scottish Labour’s opinion seems to be that the SNP are “New Labour in kilts”).
This, of course, suggests that moving Labour to the left of the political spectrum leaves more of the middle ground for the SNP. Won’t that imply a visible shift in that party’s policies, away from what the electorate thought it was, though?
Mr Corbyn himself seems to endorse that view. Asked how Labour’s anti-austerity stance differs from the SNP’s, he told the Daily Record: “We mean it.”
“We’ve learned the lessons of the economic strategies of the past and the way they haven’t worked. It does mean rebalancing our economy, it does mean maintaining the 50p top rate of tax, it does mean not cutting tax credits for the poorest people in our society.
“We want to invest in a growing, expanding economy across the UK and we fully support the powers in the Scotland Bill, and we are going to be working closely with the Labour Party in Scotland to try to defend the people of Scotland from the worst effects of the Trade Union Bill and, of course, the Welfare Reform Bill.”
Mr Corbyn warned that the SNP plan for “full fiscal autonomy” would lead to “very, very heavy” austerity – implying that the nationalists have been misleading their electorate about the effects of their policies.
He told the Record: “If you go for fiscal autonomy, I don’t know what kind of austerity you are going to have but all I know is it would be very, very heavy. I want to see an end to austerity across all of the UK and that is what the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell did in his speech at the party conference on Monday.”
He made it clear that he rejects SNP claims that they are the only effective opposition to the Tories, and pointed out that Labour membership in Scotland it at its highest in years since he took over as leader.
“I believe we’re going to continue to gain support,” he said. “We’re going to do lot of campaigning and point out that what really matters to people is housing, is education, jobs, opportunities and opposing what the Tories are doing in the Welfare Reform Bill.
“We will do our best to get sufficient powers to the Scottish Parliament to try to reduce the impact of the disastrous welfare reform bill on the people of Scotland.”
And he repeated his position on Trident, saying his belief that it should be scrapped had been well known for years and would win popular support in Scotland.
Hmm. That’s six mentions of ‘Scotland’, just in the comments quoted here. Perhaps Ms Hunter and The National were mistaken?
Here’s a man of the Labour Left who Alastair Campbell could support: Tony Benn. He passed away last year, meaning the new generation of spin doctors that has replaced Campbell could make his past words mean whatever they wanted.
Yesterday’s men are popping out of the woodwork, desperate to slow Jeremy Corbyn’s momentum in the Labour leadership race – the latest being Alastair Campbell.
It’s a shame because, while enjoyable on chat shows, Campbell can hardly be described as a socialist – therefore his desire to counsel Labour members against supporting a return to the ideals for which they probably joined up in the first place should be a lost cause and he’ll suffer a backlash.
As a sufferer of depression, Campbell should also know better than to try to blot out other people’s hope; apparently that hasn’t occurred to him.
It’s an even greater shame that, it seems, Mr Campbell has nothing new to say. His article claims that “Corbyn will be a leader of the hard left, for the hard left”, even though that position has already been disproved. Corbyn is left-wing, yes – but he’s not “hard left”.
Corbyn’s claim that Labour lost because it wasn’t left-wing enough, deplored by Campbell, is correct; look at the SNP’s victory in Scotland. That party claimed an anti-austerity, pro-investment platform and trounced “austerity-lite, anti-investment” Labour. In England, Labour simply didn’t seem different from the Conservative Party – or at least, not different enough.
And that is a problem that has dogged the party ever since Tony Blair took office in 1997. The party lost votes at every subsequent election as the realities of his sub-Tory policies sank into an electorate that was initially unwilling to accept them. Where Campbell states that the argument that Labour hasn’t been left-wing enough has “been put forward by some in the Party all my political lifetime, and the ultimate beneficiaries have always been the Tories not Labour,” he is mistaken.
Who benefited from New Labour’s attitude to privatisation in the health service? The Conservatives.
Who benefited from New Labour’s failure to restore the rights of trade unions? The Conservatives.
Who benefited from New Labour’s policy on social security, moving towards a privatised, insurance-based system? The Conservatives.
Who benefited from New Labour’s introduction of private ownership into education, with academy schools? The Conservatives.
Who benefited from New Labour’s failure to regulate the banks? The Conservatives.
These are just headline examples of right-wing policies supported by New Labour. The Conservatives took them and ran with them, and we now have a government that slipped into power on a lie that Labour overspent, when the financial crisis was caused by profligacy among rich bankers who should have known better. We have a health service that is slipping into the hands of greedy privateers, a social security system that pushes genuine claimants off-benefit and into destitution, despair and death, and wages are diminishing rapidly with unions unable to stand up for their members.
That is only part of the legacy of New Labour, but Alastair Campbell wants you to believe that left-wingers are responsible for Tory success.
Yes, New Labour were better for working people than the Cameron-led Coalition, or the current Conservative Government seems likely to be – but that’s like comparing influenza with ebola.
Campbell even admits that Labour lost partly because of the “catastrophic misjudgement” of failing to rebut the idea that Labour caused the crash – a misjudgement of Blairite New Labour hangers-on, not left-wingers who have spent the last five years screaming for their front bench to get a clue. Just look at Michael Meacher’s blogs if you don’t believe it.
Note also that Campbell discusses the country’s desire not to have a Labour/SNP government, without every admitting that Ed Miliband had ruled it out; it was never going to happen, no matter what the result of the election.
Campbell resorts to the (now-familiar) suggestion that Corbyn is a dream for the Conservatives. This is not true. The Tories have put forward a bluff that they want Corbyn because he is unelectable, and like-minded members of New Labour, such as Campbell, have swallowed it without question – like good little Tory-lite boys and girls.
In fact, the Tories – and Blairite New Labour – are terrified because Corbyn represents a huge shift in the thinking of the general public. They will do anything to block that movement because it will throw both sets of politicians off the gravy train they currently occupy.
Neil Kinnock spent a lot of time dealing with left-wingers in his party (not the “hard left” of Campbell’s article, although there were certainly more in the Labour Party at that time because it was more representative of the country than it is now) because they knew he was a right-winger who wanted to drag the party away from its ideals and, ultimately, into the same neoliberalism as the Conservative Party.
There is no mention of particular policies in Campbell’s article. He writes things like, “Some of the positions winning him the loudest applause in his packed meetings are those that will be met with the most deafening silence when campaigners get out on the doorsteps of the undecided come election time.” What positions? Perhaps Campbell is silent because his choices will be exactly the policies that are winning Corbyn the most votes.
Worst still – for Campbell’s argument – is the fact that he cannot say anything in support of any of the other three leadership candidates. He can’t see them winning either. And that means he can’t address their worst obstacle at the moment, which is the fact that the general public currently sees the leadership race as being between Corbyn and the others, with no distinction between them. They are already also-rans.
So let’s put a cap on Campbell’s outburst, with a demonstration of how ridiculous his viewpoint really is.
If Alastair Campbell is so unhappy with Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy, but the party’s grassroots are determined to have a left-wing leader, let’s propose an alternative: The late Tony Benn.
Yes, I’m well aware that Mr Benn has passed on. This makes him perfect for right-wing Labour. Whenever a new issue is raised, the party would have to look to pronouncements made by the great man when he was still among us.
And then, no doubt spin doctors in the mould of Mr Campbell could twist those words to make them seem to support whatever they want instead.
The voters would have their left-wing leader, and the neoliberals would still have power. It’s the best of both worlds.
That’s about the size of it, wouldn’t you say, Mr Campbell?
The Vox Political Facebook page has become a lively place over the last couple of days – mainly because of the presence of misinformed people purveying hand-me-down myths about Labour Party policies, accompanied by the odd troll who wants to cause mischief by supporting those beliefs, even though they know them to be false.
This makes it a frustrating place for Yr Obdt Srvt, who has had to respond to every other comment with a rehash of explanations provided to other people on other comment threads. It’s like trying to have a conversation in which you have to repeat yourself after every couple of sentences because you’re talking to people who keep coming out with the same – disproved – claims.
Clearly it is time to provide these people with a common point of reference, to which they may refer – it won’t shut up the trolls but at least they’ll look stupid if they’ve been given an answer and still carry on.
So! Let’s have a look at some of these claims.
1. “Labour voted to support the Bedroom Tax and it is hypocritical of them to oppose it now.”
Labour never – categorically NEVER – voted for the Bedroom Tax.
The entire Parliamentary Labour Party (barring possibly any who were ill or had some other reasonable excuse not to be present) voted against the Welfare Reform Act (which contains Bedroom Tax legislation) when it was pushed through Parliament in February 2012. Look up Hansard debates, February 21, where MPs’ speeches, and the way they voted, are reported verbatim.
Since then, the party’s campaigning against the Bedroom Tax has been constant.
If you have been making this claim, you stand corrected.
Do not come to this blog or the Vox Political Facebook page repeating that claim again.
In addition, you should now take responsibility for preventing other people from spreading that falsehood. If you spot anyone doing so, you just make sure they know the facts – along with everyone they’ve been misinforming.
2. “Labour has committed itself to following Coalition spending plans and is therefore no different from the Conservatives.”
The Tory spending limits myth is another one that has to be challenged at every turn because a lot of people misunderstand it.
Firstly, just because Labour has committed itself to keeping the same limit on its spending as the Tories, for one year only, does not mean that Labour will spend the money in exactly the same way!
Too many people make this assumption when there is absolutely no basis for it in fact – including some newspapers, it is sad to report. They got it wrong.
Secondly, government spending for the first year is tied down, to a certain extent, by commitments made by the previous administration. Once those are out of the way, it leaves the board clear for the new government to be as bold as it wants.
“First, the party’s pledge to match the coalition’s spending totals in 2015/16 does not mean that it has to spend each budget in the same way. In education, for instance, it could devote less funding to free schools and more to schools in areas where demand is greatest.
“Second, the commitment to match planned government spending only applies to the first year of the next parliament: the party is free to outspend the coalition after that and to make greater use of tax rises to reduce borrowing.
“Third, while promising to eliminate the current account deficit, Labour (unlike the Tories) has not pledged to eradicate the total deficit, leaving room to borrow to fund capital projects such as housing and transport infrastructure (provided that the rate of spending growth is slower than the growth in GDP it will still be able to meet its promise to reduce the national debt).”
3. “Ed Miliband is a closet Tory because he has said he wants to govern like Margaret Thatcher.”
Some people seem determined to shoehorn this statement into a belief that Miliband was confessing that he is a Conservative.
He was talking about Margaret Thatcher’s style of leadership, not her political beliefs – Thatcher led from the front, telling her cabinet what she wanted done and expecting them to do it. In contrast, for example, Johon Major was a consensus leader who discussed big decisions with the other members of his cabinet in order to find out their opinions before making a decision.
Now, you might have an opinion on which of those styles is the best, but you won’t even be able to start forming a judgement if you’re unable to recognise what it really is!
4. “We cannot trust New Labour, the party of Tony Blair and his brand of neoliberalism.”
New Labour ended in 2010.
Go to a search engine and type in ‘Ed Miliband new labour dead’ or something similar. The relevant articles are dated around September 26. New Labour was a neoliberal mistake.
New Labour made too many errors – it was a silly experiment to take Labour down the same neoliberal cul-de-sac as Thatcherite Tories. This is why the current leadership has turned its back on the whole project.
Yr Obdt Srvt joined Labour to help turn the party back into what it should be. Yes, there are still New Labour hangers-on, but Vox Political does its bit to expose them for what they are on the blog (as you’ll know, if you’re a regular reader).
We’re not all Red Tory propagandists, you know!
5. “Labour has not opposed any of the Coalition cuts to services or social security. Labour has supported them.”
This misconception seems to have grown from the fact that the Coalition has been able to push through all of the changes it wanted, no matter how damaging – and arises from a misunderstanding of the way Parliament works.
While the Coalition has a majority, it doesn’t matter what Labour does in Parliament – the Coalition will always win the vote.
In fact, Labour has opposed every single cut inflicted on the UK by the Coalition, except in one case where the party abstained in order to win concessions.
Labour MPs and activists have campaigned ceaselessly against the cuts that have led to many thousands of deaths, speaking out in the Commons Chamber, in newspapers, at demonstrations, rallies and public events. They have made it perfectly clear that they intend to hold the Coalition to account.
Claims that Labour “sat idle” for the last four years are dangerous nonsense as some people may believe them without checking the facts for themselves.
The right man for the job? Despite what follows, Ed Miliband must take much of the responsibility for the Sun photoshoot cock-up. If he’s going to slavishly do whatever his political advisors say then he is a follower, not a leader. He should be thinking very carefully about the right thing to do – not only for his future, but for the future of the nation.
Ed Miliband has lost far too much political ground by making silly schoolboy mistakes, but it is right that he should not take all of the blame.
The Labour leader is surrounded by advisors who should be warning him away from having his photograph taken with a football-promoting copy of The Sun in the week that the Hillsborough inquests were taking place. Instead it seems they egged him on to do it.
That’s completely wrong-headed and suggests that there are people close to Miliband who are working against him. Blairites who want to discredit ‘Red Ed’, perhaps? It would explain why Labour is still coming out – and getting bogged down – with ‘Red Tory’ ideas when it should be pushing a new anti-austerity, anti-privatisation, pro-equality and pro-fairness position.
The party’s former deputy chairman, Tom Watson, wants to see better results or resignations – but he’s being far too charitable to people who are idiots at best, fifth columnists at worst.
“The people around Ed… they’re very powerful political people; they carry a lot of power in the Labour party,” Watson told Radio 5 Live (as reported in The Guardian). If that’s true, then they probably gained that power as part of neoliberal New Labour. Their ideas will be as out-of-date as those of the current Conservative-led Coalition.
Look what Watson said shortly after: “We had a leader of the Labour party who was publicly embarrassed on Thursday because whoever was in charge of press let him go through a process where we had councillors in Merseyside resigning. It was a schoolboy error from someone who doesn’t understand the Labour party.” And yet, by his own admission, these are some of the most powerful people in it!
But you didn’t have to be a powerful political advisor to know what the right decision should have been; a commenter on Facebook pointed it out. Miliband should have declined The Sun‘s invitation and arranged a photo shoot of his own, preferably with a local football team; “Labour supports British football from the grass roots upward.” That would have highlighted, also, the commercialisation (and corruption?) of the game at higher levels.
It’s what I would have suggested.
So here’s a thought: Let’s tell Ed to fire whoever told him a Sun photoshoot would be a good idea and hire me instead. Not only do I know what the score is (more than his current yes-men, for sure), I won’t cost as much, and it’s a job I can do from home – so my activities as a carer won’t be affected.
You think that’s a mistake? Surely not.
How much time do you think it takes to tell a man the difference between a good idea and a duff one?
Struggling to make an impact: Ed Miliband must reject the Tory Party’s narrative about the need for austerity and bring forward a vision for the future that really does make us ‘One Nation’ again, rather than hanging on David Cameron’s neoliberal coat-tails, as many former Labour voters believe.
The political debate is all about the Labour Party again today – as it has been since the Budget.
The newspapers and websites are full of advice for the party, which is now clearly seen to be struggling to gain any kind of a foothold with electors who have become disillusioned at what might best be called the Party of Very Little Opposition.
Labour “must adopt new principles” according to an alliance of thinktanks and party intellectuals who have written to The Guardian; Ed Miliband has been told “don’t play safe” with the party’s manifesto according to an article on the same paper’s site.
We can probably discount the Telegraph article by Dan Hodges, claiming that Labour is “closed for business”. It plays to right-wing readers’ prejudices just a little too much.
Will Ed pay any attention to these pleas? Evidence suggests he will not.
I should clarify from the outset that, as a Labour member, I want the Party to win in 2015 (and also to gain the lion’s share of the vote in May’s European elections).
But Miliband seems to be living in a world of his own, insulated from the rest of the Labour Party – not to mention supporters of Labour ideals who are not members – by a small group of (not-so-special) advisers who, it’s claimed, intercept any decent ideas before they get to the party leader and spin them until they turn to drivel. Whether this is true or not seems immaterial as this is the perception of the general public.
And perception is everything.
As I write this article I have just received a comment stating that “Miliband’s strategy for the next election seems to be a) to accept the Tory frame of reference for any given argument and b) to then concede the field of battle on that issue, whatever it is, without a shot being fired.” This is a common complaint, and Labour has no answer to it.
Why do Miliband, Balls, Tristram Hunt (notably), Rachel Reeves (lamentably) and all the other Labour frontbenchers blithely accept the Coalition’s terms of reference on any issue, against the wishes of their own backbenchers, their party as a whole and the public at large?
Are they really just a gang of greedy moneygrubbers, determined to screw the country for whatever they can get? That in itself would be a betrayal of Labour Party ideals and their constituency parties should deselect them if members believed that to be the case for one moment.
Are they a gang of neoliberals, their political philosophy so close to that of the Conservatives that you can’t get a credit card between them? This rings threateningly true in the cases of Oxford PPE graduats Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, ex-Bank of England employee Rachel Reeves and Tristram Hunt. But Ed Miliband is (famously) the son of a Marxist. He, above all, should know better.
The trouble is, David Miliband is the son of the same Marxist and he was as much a part of the neoliberal New Labour Red Tory deception as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Oh look – another comment has just arrived. “More people don’t bother to vote because they feel that we as a people have moved on and all we really want is people who will represent us honestly, by majority and with no hidden agendas, backhanders or lobbyists pulling the strings. I don’t see any evidence that the present government or the Labour Party are capable or willing to do just that… They should have the courage to change and become the voice of the people.”
Become the voice of the people. The meaning is clear – Labour is not currently representing anybody at all.
Is this true? Let’s look at some of the other comments on my (left-leaning, let’s not forget) blog. These are from people who are generally sympathetic to Socialism and who should, therefore, see Labour as the natural home of their vote. What do they say?
“[Is it] any wonder [that] 1. People don’t vote because they are seen as “all the bloody same”? and 2. The perceived differences have become so minuscule?”
“Until Labour wakes up and realises it is the welfare cuts that are a major concern to most of us and to anyone who has a conscience, they will lose the next election due to apathy.”
“Labour have to do something different to what they have up to now but they don’t seem to want to. Are they scared of being in government over a country in the state it is?”
“Labour have had four years to do something – anything – to fight against the welfare cuts, and to help the people they are supposed to be the party for! They’ve really done nothing when all is said and done.”
If Ed Miliband was reading this, I would be asking if he was getting the message yet (are you, Ed?) and what he proposes to do about it. You think not? Let’s have some more comments from people who should be supporting Labour – I’ve got plenty of them!
“There has been absolutely no fight in this opposition and I am ashamed of them.”
“People need a reason to apply their votes to Labour and Miliband-Balls are not providing them with one. They are sleepwalking into another hung Parliament and a very real risk of the Tories teaming up with UKIP. Then we’ll really see Nazism grip this country.”
“The would-be voters demand change and need bold new policies to blunt the Tory cutters. If the Labour Party cannot come up with policies which are radical then they don’t deserve to be in power at the next election, or ever.”
“Ed Balls worries me because he seems intent on copycatting Osborne. For example Osborne says he will run a surplus by the end of the next Parliament and Balls promises the same. Osborne say he will be introducing a Benefit Cap on social security spending on working age benefits (which could have devastating effects and lead to real terms cuts in benefits for years on end) and Balls says that Labour will vote with the Coalition to introduce it.”
“Surely we need some clear red water between Labour and the Tories? Surely Labour needs to differentiate itself more from the policies of the Coalition?”
“I sent an email to the Labour Party asking for its policy on TTIP (the rightly-feared Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that will force employment standards down to third-world levels, or below), amongst other things. They were decidedly equivocal and I felt no reassurance at all. I think it’s about we faced facts, Labour aren’t being coy in a pre-election year to avoid frightening the horses, they really are just another pack of neoliberals.”
This is how left-wing voters (and the squeezed-middle waverers to whom Ed Miliband keeps trying to pander) see the modern Labour Party: Carbon-copy Tories with no fresh ideas who aren’t worth the effort of voting.
If any of Ed’s shadow cabinet is okay with that description, he needs to sack them and bring in someone with a clue. And he needed to do it last year.
If the Conservatives win in 2015, it seems clear that responsibility will lie as much with Labour’s failure to provide any clearly-visible alternative.
We have already seen carnage inflicted on the poor, the sick and disabled, and a Conservative-only government (or in collaboration withUKIP) would increase that bloodshed tenfold (senior citizens take note: the bribe you were given last week was a trick and if you vote Conservative, many of you will not live to rectify your error at another election).
Unless Ed Miliband sorts out his party – pronto – that blood will be on his hands as well, and the people will not forgive him.
Note that I did not say they won’t forgive Labour. I said they won’t forgive Ed Miliband.
Words cannot describe the way people feel at what has been done to them by the Coalition. If Labour reveals even the slightest element of complicity, I wouldn’t give a farthing for Miliband’s safety.
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We all owe a debt of thanks to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation for its work to reveal the depth of poverty in British society today.
The Foundation’s latest report reveals that – even by standards that have slipped since the Coalition government came into office – in-work poverty has galloped ahead of that suffered by those in workless and retired families – proving once and for all that, under the Tories and Liberal Democrats, work doesn’t pay!
But the situation is actually worse than the figures suggest, because the poverty line is always 60 per cent of average (median) income – and incomes in the UK have been dropping. Some say the average is now seven per cent lower than in 2010; others say nearly 10 per cent.
This means that, if we add in the people in working families who would be below the poverty line if it had remained at, say, 2008 levels, another two million people would be considered to be in poverty. These people are no better-off than they were before the poverty level slipped; they can’t buy more than they could before – in fact, their money goes a lot less far because inflation, even at 2.7 per cent, has hugely outstripped pay increases.
Add in the number of workless and retired families who are also in poverty – 6.3 million – and we have 15 million people in poverty in the UK today. That’s a quarter of the population of the seventh largest economy in the world.
And George Osborne wants us to congratulate him for his achievements over the past three years. Well done, George. You have conclusively proved that you are the worst Chancellor in British history – heading up the worst government in British history.
Let’s look at some of his successes:
The fall in average incomes in the last two years alone has wiped out all the gains made by Labour in the previous decade – and George has another year and a half to put people in even more serious trouble.
Worse still, incomes for the poorest 10 per cent of the population have been falling since 2004/5, because the neoliberal New Labour government did not protect them. These are the people for whom the four ‘D’s – debt, destitution, desperation and despair – will hit hardest.
The proportion of low-paid jobs increased in 2012. Remember that, when the government tells you that more people are in work than ever before. They are not telling you that these jobs keep people in poverty. They are not telling you the fact that, under the Coalition, work most certainly does not pay.
Among those in work, the number paid less than the living wage rose from 4.6 million to five million in 2012. This means 400,000 more working people are having to claim benefits to make ends meet. Work does not pay. The five million figure is one-sixth of the total workforce and includes two million people who had never previously claimed.
Meanwhile, those in benefit are being pushed into very deep poverty by sanctions, the effect of overlapping changes to social security benefits – which the government has again and again refused to measure, and the falling value of benefits due to the Chancellor’s one per cent uprating cap.
More sanction referrals were made on the unemployed between 2010 and 2012 than there are people currently claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance (1.6 million, against 1.48 million claimants) – and 800,000 benefit stoppages or reductions were approved. This impacts on the government’s jobless figures, which do not include the number of jobseekers under sanction. Think about it – 800,000 is more than half the number that official figures show are out of work. Also, we know that Workfare is being stepped up, in order to fiddle the figures even more seriously.
The Bedroom Tax and council tax benefit cuts have hit 400,000 families, of whom around 267,000 families were already in poverty.
It is in this context that Iain Duncan Smith feebly attempted to distract attention away from the damning facts by telling the Telegraphthat 50 families were each earning around £70,000 in benefits before his benefit cap (the £26,000-per-year, not the one per cent uprating limit) was brought in.
While this may be a shocking figure for some people, he did not provide the full details. How many people are we discussing, per family? Will the cap push them below the poverty line? Considering the facts laid out above, would a job relieve poverty for these families – or make it worse?
Smith – or ‘RTU’, as we call him here (it stands for ‘Returned To Unit’, a reference to his dismal Army career) – has yet again insisted that his diabolical changes are making the system “fair”. Anybody who repeats an assertion such as this, as often as he has, knows that nobody believes it.
Today, he is due to go before the Commons Work and Pensions Committee to account for his persistent interference with the statistics. Expect bluster and bravado but do not expect the facts.
For example, he will never admit how many people have died from the poverty caused by his assessment regime for Employment and Support Allowance.
That figure alone could bring down this government.
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Doesn’t he look like a puppet? In fact the correct term is ‘marionette’ – for a puppet on strings, worked from above. But who’s pulling Nick Clegg’s strings this time?
The Government is running an independent study into the impact of the Bedroom Tax, in order to find out if it is really possible for social housing tenants to move into smaller accommodation to escape its effects. The result should more likely be feared than welcomed.
Nick Clegg announced that the study was taking place in response to a Parliamentary question from Harriet Harman – but was immediately undermined by the Department for Work and Pensions. A government spokesman said the DWP routinely commissions research on new policies and an independent consortium was already carrying out evaluation work.
Clegg had to say he was taking action after his own party voted to change its policy on the Tax – the Liberal Democrats now oppose it – but this is not cause for celebration.
Who will carry out this independent study? We are told it is an “independent consortium” but what does that mean? What will be their terms of reference? What questions will they be asking and will they be the questions that need to be asked?
Observers should be raising serious doubts about all of these because this is not a government with a good track record on evidence-led policy.
We all know what this is about – the government’s hugely flawed scheme to claw back Housing Benefit cash from social housing tenants, taking 14 per cent of payments from those with one spare bedroom, and a quarter of the benefit from anyone with two. The Discretionary Housing Payment scheme for local councils was boosted to £60 million in anticipation of extra demand from struggling tenants.
It is true that evidence about the policy is conflicting. Lord Freud, introducing it in the House of Lords, apparently refused to listen to arguments that there were too few single-bedroom properties into which under-occupiers could downsize. Now he is blaming local authorities for the shortage.
The government said the policy would save £480 million, but the increased cost of DHPs must be subtracted from that, and also the costs of people who do manage to downsize. This could range from just four per cent of the 660,000 affected households to 20 per cent, depending on who you believe – a recent study by the University of York suggested that 20 per cent of households intended to move (which isn’t quite the same as actually doing it), but this was based on evidence from just four housing associations.
It seems unlikely that one-fifth of everyone affected nationally is moving to a different property – but even if they were, this would not create a saving for the government because it would have to pay out, not only increased Housing Benefit for those who have moved into smaller but more expensive private rented housing, but also Housing Benefit for people moving into the now-vacant larger social housing.
And then there are the people who cannot downsize but cannot afford the rent if their Housing Benefit is reduced. Recent reports had 50,000 households facing eviction – around one-thirteenth of the total number affected.
If they become homeless, local councils will have to find temporary accommodation for them – and this is paradoxically much more expensive than putting them in social housing, because they have to go into bed-and-breakfast rooms. Homelessness was already on the increase before the Bedroom Tax was introduced, rising from 44,160 households in 2011-12 to 53,540 in 2012-13.
Rearranging the pack: Both the government and its opposition are having a reshuffle today – but will we get aces, or just another set of jokers?
Today’s the day – doomsday for some, and a new dawn for others. Both the Coalition and Labour are reshuffling their top teams.
We already know some of the names that have stepped down. On the government side, Michael Moore has been sacked as Scottish Secretary, to make way for fellow Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael. Apparently Mr Carmichael, referring to the upcoming referendum on Scotland seceding from the Union, has said he is “up for it”.
At least nobody tried to put a Tory in, to represent a country where that party has no MPs at all. It may seem beyond the realm of possibility but with the Government of Idiots (and I refer to the term in its classical sense) it would not be surprising.
Deputy Chief Whip John Randall and Cabinet Office Minister Chloe Smith (who was humiliated on the BBC’s Newsnight last year when, as Exchequer Secretary, she struggled to answer questions about the government’s decision to defer a rise in fuel duty. It seems she had been promoted because David Cameron mistakenly believed she was a trained accountant. This does not bode well for today’s decisions) have both stepped down.
The BBC reported that Ms Smith’s resignation letter stated she had been “only 27” when she became an MP and now wanted to “develop other ways of giving public service” – indicating possible disillusionment with the Coalition government and the way it conducts itself.
Transport Minister Simon Burns has also stepped down – but this is to run for the position of Deputy Speaker, which was left vacant by Nigel Evans after he stepped down to fight criminal charges for sexual assault.
All the pundits are saying the government reshuffle will concentrate on mid-level ministers, with every Cabinet-level Tory secure in their position. What a shame.
Meanwhile, over at Labour, the situation is not so clear. Ed Miliband’s decisions have been unrestricted, and speculation has ranged from whether he will increase Shadow Cabinet representative for women, bring back members of Labour’s old guard (unlikely – he would face criticism along predictable lines from the Tories and besides, this seems to be about bringing in new, more attractive faces), promote people who are loyal to him or (my preference) have a Shadow Cabinet Of All Talents – including critics who happen to be very good at their jobs.
Abraham Lincoln had a Cabinet Of All Talents, if I recall correctly. Some consider this to be part of what made him great.
One person who won’t be a part of Labour’s team is former Minister (and then Shadow Minister) for the Disabled, Anne McGuire. who quit last week after five years in the job.
The Stirling MP was praised by disability campaigners such as Sue Marsh who, in an email, described her as “the one true ally we had on Labour’s front bench”.
And blogger Sue Jones wrote: “Anne will always be remembered by our community for her very articulate attacks on the media’s [mis]representation of disabled people and on the Government’s welfare reforms, in parliamentary debate. I remember her account of private debate, too, on the same topic with Iain Duncan Smith, and such was her ferocity and anger at the profound unfairness of the media’s sustained persecution of sick and disabled people, fanned by Iain Duncan Smith, as we know, that she pinned him against a wall on one occasion.”
But the former Shadow Minister, who is herself disabled, ran into controversy when she agreed to host a fringe meeting at this year’s Labour Party Conference, organised by the right-wing thinktank Reform, and sponsored by the Association of British Insurers.
Entitled ‘New thinking on the welfare state’, the event seems to have been a front for insurance companies to try to influence Labour’s thinking on social security in the future. Similar events were arranged by Reform and staged at both the Liberal Democrat and Conservative conferences.
Discussions at the private, round-table policy seminar seem to have centred on ways in which insurance companies could become more involved with social security – what products they could sell to working-class people who fear the loss of income that follows loss of employment.
This is exactly the scenario that the American Unum corporation wanted to create when it was invited into the then-Department of Social Security by Peter Lilley – a weakened state system that either cannot or will not support people in genuine need, particularly the sick and disabled, forcing them to buy insurance policies in the hope that these will top-up their income.
Anne McGuire denied this was the intent of the exercise but it is significant that neoliberal New Labour did nothing to prevent the advance of this agenda during its years in power, including the period she spent as Minister for the Disabled.
People who have suffered under the current benefit regime are demanding – ever more stridently – that Labour should mount a strong attack on the practices of the Department for Work and Pensions, as run by Iain Duncan Smith and his cronies, Mark Hoban and Esther McVey.
Part of this demand is that private organisations such as Unum and Atos, which administers work capability assessments, should be kicked out, and a new, fairer system of determining disability benefits based on a claimant’s medical condition and needs, rather than the greed of private enterprise, should be brought in.
There has been no hope of this with plastic Tory Liam Byrne as Shadow Work and Pensions spokesman, but rumour has it he could be shunted out and replaced by Rachel Reeves. Is this a good move?
The omens are not wonderful. She is yet another alumnus of the Politics, Philosophy and Economics course at Oxford (another notable example of that course’s graduates is David Cameron). Her background is in business. She once interviewed for a job with tax avoiders Goldman Sachs (but turned down the job offer) and has been named by The Guardian as one of several MPs who use unpaid interns.
Real change required: Sacking Atos would be a cosmetic difference if DWP policy remains unchanged under a Labour government. Let’s have an announcement about that! [Picture: Skwawkbox blog]
Having had time away to think about this, it has occurred to me that in discussing whether Labour is right to say it will fire Atos – or whether it will even fulfil that promise – we are barking up the wrong tree.
Atos does what the DWP tells it to do. We can all say it does this work very badly, but that would be splitting hairs. The orders come from the Department.
Getting rid of Atos won’t make any difference if the policy stays the same – and Labour’s record on social security has not been good since neoliberal ‘New Labour’ took office in 1997.
So I reckon more pressure needs to be exerted on Mr Miliband and his front bench, to expel all traces – not only of Atos, but of Unum, the real influence, and to put forward a new policy that is, above all, humane to claimants of disability/sickness/incapacity benefits.
What he says on this subject will be very interesting. But he must be pinned down.
No Atos – or any other unqualified overseers of our medical health.
Mansel Aylward, former chief medical officer at the Department of Work and Pensions, now director of the (UnumProvident) Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research at Cardiff University: Architect of misery?
If we know anything at all about the Work Capability Assessment for sickness and disability benefits, we know that it doesn’t work. In fact, it kills. There is a wealth of evidence proving this, and if any readers are in doubt, please take a look at the other article I am publishing today, MPs tell their own Atos horror stories.
Much has been made of this fact, without properly – in my opinion – addressing why it doesn’t work. The apparent intention is an honourable one – to help people who have been ‘parked’ on disability benefits back into work, if it is now possible for them to take employment again, and to provide support for those who cannot work at all. What went wrong?
Let’s start at the beginning. The WCA is, at least nominally, based on the biopsychosocial model developed by George Engel. He wanted to broaden the way people think about illness, taking into account not only biological factors but psychological and social influences as well. He contended that these non-biological influences may interfere with a patient’s healing process.
The idea has been developed to suggest that, once identified, the non-biological factors inhibiting healing would be neutralised via a variety of support methods. Stressful events in a person’s life or environmental factors are acknowledged as having real effects on their illness, and it can be seen that this confers a certain amount of legitimacy on symptoms that are not currently explainable by medicine.
Engel stated, in 1961, “Many illnesses are largely subjective – at least until we as observers discover the parameters and framework within which we can also make objective observations. Hyperparathyroidism… was a purely subjective experience for many patients until we discovered what to look for and which instruments to use in the search.” He also warned that people engaged in research should “see what everyone else has seen and think what nobody else has thought” – as long as they don’t automatically assume that their new thought must be correct.
The Engels theory forms the basis of the system of insurance claims management adopted by US giant Unum when its bosses realised that their profits were being threatened by falling interest rates – meaning the company’s investments were losing value – and a rise in claims for “subjective illnesses” which had no clear biological markers – Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), Fibromyalgia, Chronic Pain, Multiple Sclerosis, Lyme Disease, even Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
As I wrote on Wednesday, Unum adapted the biopsychosocial model into a new medical examination that stripped it of its ‘bio’ and ‘social’ aspects in order to concentrate on the ‘psycho’ – with a relentless emphasis on an individual claimant’s beliefs and attitudes.
The new test aggressively disputed whether the claimant was ill, questioning illnesses that were “self-reported”, labelling some disabling conditions as “psychological”, and playing up the “subjective” nature of “mental” and “nervous” claims. The thinking behind it was: Sickness is temporary. Illness is a behaviour – all the things that people say and do that express and communicate their feelings of being unwell. The degree of this behaviour is dependent on the attitudes and beliefs of the individual, as well as the social context and culture. Illness is a personal choice. In other words: “It’s all in the mind; these people are fit to work.” (as I mentioned in When big business dabbles with welfare; a cautionary tale)
Already we can see that this is a perversion of Professor Engel’s theory, using it to call an individual’s illness into question, not to treat it. Yet this is the model that was put forward to the Department of Social Security (later the Department of Work and Pensions) by its then-chief medical officer, Mansel Aylward, in tandem with Unum’s then-second vice president, John LoCascio.
Together they devised a new ‘All Work Test’ that would not actually focus on whether an individual could do their job; instead it would assess their general capacity to work through a series of ‘descriptors’. Decisions on eligibility for benefit would be made by non-medical adjudication officers within the government department, advised by doctors trained by Mr LoCascio. Claimants’ own doctors would be marginalised.
When New Labour came to power, Mansel Aylward was asked to change the test to reduce the flow of claimants with mental health problems. In came the ‘Personal Capability Assessment’, which again focused on what a person was able to do and how they could be supported back into work.
It is at this point that US IT corporation Atos Origin (now Atos Healthcare in the UK) became involved. The task of administrating the PCA was contracted out to a company which was taken over by Atos, meaning its employees – who had no medical training – could now assess claims for sickness and disability benefits, using the company’s Logical Integrated Medical Assessment tick-box computer system. These evaluations proved unreliable and the number of successful appeals against decisions skyrocketed.
So in 2003 the DWP introduced ‘Pathways to Work’, in which claimants – now labelled ‘customers’ – had to undertake a work-focused interview with a personal advisor. If they weren’t screened out by the interview, they would go on to mandatory monthly interviews where they would be encouraged to return to work and discuss work-focused activity. I can assure readers, from personal experience with Mrs Mike, that this activity remains a prominent part of the DWP’s sickness and disability benefit policy.
Mansel Aylward is no longer at the DWP, though. In 2004 he was appointed director of the UnumProvident Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research at Cardiff University (it has since dropped the company title from its name). Was this as a reward for services rendered in getting Unum and its practices into the heart of the UK government?
Let’s have a look at some of the ‘descriptors’ that are being used to determine a claimant’s – sorry, customer’s – fitness for work in what is now called the ‘Work Capability Assessment’. I am grateful to Helen Goodman, Labour MP for Bishop Auckland, who provided this information during yesterday’s debate on the Atos WCA in the House of Commons. She said a person who…
“Cannot mount or descend two steps unaided by another person even with the support of a handrail”;
“Cannot, for the majority of the time, remain at a work station, either…standing unassisted by another person…or…sitting…for more than 30 minutes, before needing to move away in order to avoid significant discomfort or exhaustion”
“Cannot pick up and move a one litre carton full of liquid”;
“Cannot use a pencil or pen to make a meaningful mark”;
“Cannot use a suitable keyboard or mouse”;
“Is unable to navigate around unfamiliar surrounding, without being accompanied by another person, due to sensory impairment”;
“Is at risk of loss of control leading to extensive evacuation of the bowel and/or voiding of the bladder, sufficient to require cleaning and a change in clothing, not able to reach a toilet quickly”;
“At least once a month, has an involuntary episode of lost or altered consciousness resulting in significantly disrupted awareness or concentration”;
“Has an epileptic fit once a fortnight”;
“Cannot learn anything beyond a simple task, such as setting an alarm clock”;
“Has reduced awareness of everyday hazards leading to a significant risk of…injury to self or others; or…damage to property or possessions such that they frequently require supervision”;
“Cannot cope with minor planned change” such as a change to lunchtime;
“Is unable to get to a specified place with which they are familiar, without being accompanied by another person”
… is “fit for work”.
A person in the following category is also deemed fit for work, if: “Engagement in social contact with someone unfamiliar to the claimant is always precluded due to difficulty relating to others or significant distress experienced by the individual.”
Kate Green, Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston, added: “My constituents told me categorically last week that they believe that the whole system was deliberately designed and operated to trick them — to make them incriminate themselves and to catch them out.
“They firmly believe that the system is deliberately designed, not to assess and then help them into work if they are fit for it, but simply to stop paying benefits wherever possible.
“There are far too many instances of trickery and misleading people and of distorting what they have done, said and reported and drawing conclusions from that. That is happening far too often.
“It is an absolute disgrace that we should run a public assessment process in such a discredited way.”
It seems to be a result of Professor Aylward’s work that the main influence on government welfare reform has been a perversion of a perversion of a theory that has not been shown to work. Authentic evidence is disregarded by those in power, who clearly continue to persecute the sick while feeding the profits of private concerns.
I wonder what he would have to say, if he were to be confronted by the evidence of what his policies have done to the sick and disabled of this country – as spelled out, in the House of Commons, by MPs from many parties.
Afterthought: It should be noted that Professor Aylward is on record as having expressed doubts about the Work Capability Assessment and the current system, as run by the government, with the caveat that he has not been involved for several years.
He told the Black Triangle Campaign: “I will make myself aware … but I think that I’m a man of integrity … and if I think that the Work Capability Assessment … test or whatever … is not proper … I will speak out against it.”
In the light of what happened while he was at the DWP, I leave it to readers to judge whether he will.
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