Saturday, 7 January 2012

Liam Byrne's approach to 'welfare' is reactionary nonsense

Let me start by telling you a story - once upon a time there was a party in the UK called The Labour Party. It arose from the trade unions and working class struggle. Its focus was social justice, and its agenda was about decent healthcare, jobs, housing, worker's rights, and education. After World War II, in 1945, The Labour Party won a spectacular election victory, and came into power with a mandate which produced what became known as the 'Welfare State', the NHS, better (council) housing and educational opportunities for all. It aimed to protect people from the vagaries of the market, and it succeeded. Millions of ordinary UK citizens, like me, were lucky enough to benefit from those changes.

Now, The Labour Party is a hollowed out shell, filled with middle class career politicians and MPs who have been parachuted onto the green benches of parliament, because they are Ed and Tony's cronies, replacing most of the working class antecedents who once filled many of those places. It is a party in thrall to the market, a centre-right party promoting the most reactionary kind of right-wing populism. The last Labour government, which preferred to be called  'New Labour', eagerly adopted the 'benefit scrounger' stance promoted by right-wing propaganda sheets such as the Daily Mail, and Minister James Purnell introduced measures to bash benefit claimants and the unemployed.

Step forward in 2012, Liam Byrne, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to give us Labour's latest welfare vision. Byrne talks about William Beveridge whose report, published in 1942, paved the way for the Welfare State. Beveridge proposed measures, which I outlined above, to fight the five - "Giant Evils' of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness". This was to be achieved by the concept of 'Social Security', in which ordinary people paid National Insurance so that when they became ill or unemployed they could rightly claim benefits from the state.  Those 'benefits' were not 'something for nothing', they were entitlements which people paid for. It was a great system and it worked, especially in the context of governments which aimed to create full employment, as Byrne concedes in his article.

But what Byrne goes on to say is pure 'free' market orthodoxy and a continuation of New Labour's 'benefit scroungers' stance, which is all about blaming the victims of the market for their pitiful situation. It is reactionary nonsense. Those unfortunate enough to be unemployed in an economy where the 'free' market has failed to create anything like full employment are to continue to be battered and forced into some kind of workfare programme, which is simply unwaged-slavery, where people are forced to work for corporations for nothing. I have no doubt that a decent bloke like Beveridge would be horrified by the way in which the concept of Social Security has been deliberately twisted and undermined by neoliberal parties like Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Tories, and the shameful way in which the unemployed, disabled and poor are now treated. But what is most shameful is the fact that the Labour Party has helped to destroy what it created, kicking people when they are down, so that the corporations and the rich can benefit from unwaged-slavery and tax cuts.

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