My last post was about Conference season, written before Labour’s Conference. During the Conference I was reflecting on what I’d said about Labour in that post. The plan is to split this up into three posts. Otherwise it’s going to be a really long post and might not get posted until Spring Conference. I’m not looking at how Labour can deliver the promises it’s made and I’m going to limit it to some issues which are particularly important to me. I’m asking myself whether or not I can say “thanks Labour. You exceeded my expectations of the ideological position you would take in your policy announcements at Conference”.
A few hours after I saw that Ed Miliband was finally committing to the abolition of the bedroom tax on the Friday before Labour’s Conference started I watched the BBC’s 10 o’clock news and Newsnight and found the post-match analysis. Regardless of Labour’s reasons, the decision to scrap the bedroom tax is the right one but, as far as everything I said about what I want from Labour goes, the reasons matter to me. In fairness, Miliband did say that the bedroom tax is hurting people but the BBC coverage went on to suggest that he’s only making a commitment now because the bedroom tax polls so badly among Labour voters. Well, it’s true that it does and, yes, I think it’s also likely that the increase in overall opposition to the policy (from 51% to 59% since its introduction in April) added to his decision to finally stick his neck out. That and the fact that, if he didn’t, divisions within the party over the issue could’ve come to the fore at the Conference. The BBC also warned that he needs to stop there so Labour doesn’t come to be seen as soft on “welfare”. God forbid that should happen (a few months ago it was Newsnight who revealed the Tory-lite proposal of matching what people get out of social security to the level of their contributions but hey ho).
The bedroom tax was sold by the Government using the politics of resentment: the resentment of people who receive housing benefit and live in social housing by people who are financially better off yet unable to afford a home of equal size, whether to buy or rent. The Government wanted to financially punish people on housing benefit for having the audacity to live in the homes allocated to them by their social landlords. People came to see the underlying unfairness of this. A vocal campaign made that happen. Activists (particularly but not exclusively disabled ones), social landlords and some councils have made the running when it comes to changing public opinion. The result is that the public has been able to see past the figleaf of housing distribution that caused a lot of people to initially support it. More people see it for what it really is now they realise how spare rooms are defined and that there’s nowhere to move people to. They’ve seen it for what it is and they say “that’s wrong”. I don’t believe that the national Labour politicians have done a great deal to achieve that (but give some credit to Labour councillors). Other people made the running to change hearts and minds on the bedroom tax by putting it in the spotlight. In his Conference speech, Liam Byrne acknowledged the contributions that a variety of people make to changing public opinion. Obviously a large section of the public still support the bedroom tax but it’s progress. You might think it doesn’t matter how Labour’s new bedroom tax policy came about if the end result is the same but I’m thinking about whether Labour is proactive or reactive in setting policy.
Pundits on Newsnight went on to say that, while Labour might get away with talking about the bedroom tax, it ought to reaffirm its commitment to benefits uprating, although my understanding of Labour’s current stance on benefits uprating is that it’s warning the issue’s not at the top of its priorities as far as budgeting goes, rather than that the party thinks it’s an inherently fair measure. The BBC coverage does seem to be how it goes. One step forward then rapidly urged to take one sideways, to the right, and then back. The media acts like an over indulgent auntie telling Labour to just give the kiddies what they think they want, even if it’s dolly mixtures for breakfast, without necessarily stopping to ask the kiddies if they’d rather have something more healthy. On Newsnight uprating was called a popular cut. However, when I checked to make sure I hadn’t missed something new on benefits uprating in the Conference, I found a Labour List post saying Labour’s opposition to benefits uprating early this year had public backing. That post also made the same case for open dialogue with the public that I made in my last post. In the end, benefits uprating wasn’t mentioned by Miliband or Byrne at the Conference. I’m left wondering if the reason for that is that Labour’s concerned about being seen as soft on social security or whether it’s actually that the party doesn’t want to remind Labour voters of its wait and see policy. It could even be both, which is what’s irritating about the approach of selling only what people already know they want.
Saturday rolled round and Miliband had replied to the question “when are you bringing back socialism?” with “that’s what we are doing, sir” (which made me laugh because it sounded so like something the Tripe Marketing Board would tweet, but anyway). It made for fantastic headlines. Over the course of the weekend more policies were revealed, followed by Liam Byrne’s Conference speech. Looks good on the surface, doesn’t it? But what struck me was who was saying what and what wasn’t being said at all. Certain issues have been noticeably absent.
What were promised were easy policies. For example, a pledge to terminate Atos’ contract is a no brainer coming from Labour. It’s hardly cause for celebration. It’s another vote winner because, no matter what their views on payment of sickness and disability benefits generally, everyone has seen the stories of cruelty and incompetence related to Atos. Even the Daily Mail has published them, while continuing to push the argument that most recipients of ESA and DLA/PIP are up to no good. An unprecedented level of activism from disabled people has, I believe, put disability rights onto Labour’s agenda at the Conference. Byrne acknowledged the contribution disabled activists have made. I have a huge amount of respect for disability rights activists who haven’t given up in the face of everything from apathy to scorn and have continued to challenge Labour to stand up for disabled people. The steady pressure they’ve brought to bear has driven the unfairness of the bedroom tax and Atos assessments home to the public, despite a climate where disabled people are increasingly demonised as scroungers.
The proposal to introduce a specific offence of disability hate crime is also welcome. It should have been done sooner but it’s telling that it was Liam Byrne who made this announcement*. The creation of a new offence would be an announcement best left to Yvette Cooper, given the two hats she wears as shadow Home Secretary and shadow Equalities Minister. To me, including it in the shadow Work & Pensions Minister’s speech implicitly accepts the Government’s and media’s narrative that all disabled people are on benefits and legitimizes their agenda. It’s like saying it’s ok to have negative attitudes to disabled people, just keep it within the law. If they said that about other minority groups, I expect they’d be pilloried for it.
Byrne’s speech is a bit like one of those what’s missing from this picture puzzles. He says that there must be sickness and disability assessments, with or without Atos. That’s stating the obvious and people can interpret it how they want. It looks to me like the only thing Labour intends to change at the moment is Atos. I’m not holding my breath for a return to old medical assessments. He also says Labour will look at a better approach to the provision of health and social care but doesn’t mention the possibility of reversing the new criteria for disability benefits in the form of PIP. During consultation plenty of responses dealt with the question and in considerable detail. Was Labour listening? The April Labour List post linked to above cites a YouGov poll which found only 11% of people polled backed cuts in DLA so there isn’t public support for cuts per se but I’m not so sure about public opinion on medical criteria for entitlement, which would be telling. The stories of extreme hardship experienced by the most severely disabled and terminally ill people have gotten through but there’s a high level of public suspicion that claims are being fraudulently made. Maybe it’s too much effort to address the negative attitudes to disability benefits being pushed in the media. Maybe Labour just doesn’t believe people who will lose out under the new criteria. I found this footage from March where Milliband took a question from someone who will lose out. I found it a bit disturbing that, even as he was giving reassurances that DLA/PIP and motability would be looked at, he sounded like he didn’t really know much about it. Looking at it now, after the Autumn Conference, it feels like maybe Labour have just shelved the issue for now.
What else is missing from the picture? Byrne said:
“And the cardinal principal is this, full employment first,”
Fair enough. That should be the goal of any government: a job for everyone able to work. At Conference Labour talked about the minimum wage, inflation and even backed a living wage in a limited way but didn’t mention workfare. I get that Labour supports back to work schemes (well, back to work schemes that actually lead to long term employment) but how can Labour claim it stands for a fair day’s pay if it won’t commit to paying minimum wage under workfare? How can Miliband say it’s wrong for everyone’s favourite villains to pay minimum wage but it’s right for others, including large retailers, to pay nothing at all? As far as I’m concerned, silence on workfare is another sign that Miliband is looking for easy wins. There is so much resentment towards unemployed people now that short term slavery has become socially acceptable. He doesn’t have to do away with sanctions or work schemes completely to make a positive change but he’s not making the case for change at all.
As I mentioned above, there was no mention of benefits uprating, despite rhetoric about inflation and despite the fact that many people receiving benefits and tax credits are in work. The fact that Labour wasn’t prepared to go there, even after Byrne said:
“We’ll need a campaign for the living wage because it is wrong that we are spending the nation’s tax credits propping up low pay at firms with rising profits”,
is weak as far as I’m concerned. We get it. You’ve told us that there won’t be limitless cash in 2015. Couldn’t you at least commit to doing what you can?
I’m going to post separately on Ed Miliband’s Conference speech and the overall impact of the Conference on me but it’s fitting to end this post with a quote from his speech:
“We know what we’re going to see from these Tories till the general election: the lowest form of politics, divide and rule. People on benefits against those in work, people inside and outside unions, private sector versus public sector, the north against the south. It’s the lowest form of politics.”
I’m having some trouble seeing how Labour’s policy announcements prove they’re really going to strike out in a new, brave direction though. It seems to me that Labour gave potential voters what it was confident they already want when it comes to social security.
* since writing this I’ve read Yvette Cooper’s speech and gather from that that Byrne was actively involved in forming this policy which is even odder as far as I’m concerned, even if it does explain why he was the one to make the announcement