This is the kind of piece that delights Liam Byrne. It is an article of faith for the Blairite true believer that, the louder the left squeal, the more confident you should be that you’re doing the right thing. Another vindication is if the swivel-eyed hard right knuckle-draggers of the Daily Mail applaud you. So I’m sure that Byrne was chuffed to read the headline ‘Now Ed Miliband gets tough with onslaught against ‘evil’ of benefits scroungers’. After all, the hard work of him and his team had paid off: it was an article based on their private briefing, after all. According to a ‘source close to Liam Byrne’: ‘Decent Labour voters see their neighbours lie about all day and get benefits while they are working their socks off, and say, “Why should I vote Labour when they let this happen?”‘ I wonder how many people join the Labour Party to cynically exploit prejudices about (and among) some of the poorest members of society in the pages of the Daily Mail. A tiny number, thankfully, but Byrne is among them – and I am ashamed to share the party card as him.
I will be accused of playing the man, not the ball here, but Liam Byrne is an interesting case study of the worst elements of New Labour. In a party founded to represent working-class people, New Labour increasingly became over-run by hacks whose professional background showed no evidence of any commitment to the values of the labour movement. Byrne is a typical example: a former management consultant-turned-merchant banker.
He is perhaps most famously known for the hair-grabbingly stupid decision to leave a note for the Tories in the Treasury after the election boasting that ‘I am afraid there is no money. Kind regards – and good luck!’ Here is a concise summary of the utter failure of New Labour to challenge the Tories’ narratives. The political genius of Cameron and his allies in the media was to transform a crisis of the market into a crisis of public spending. They were aided and abetted by the failure of New Labour to push the reality – leaving arch-critics of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown like myself in the bizarre position of having to defend a large chunk of their economic record against their supporters.
But Liam Byrne is also a prime example of the utter shamelessness of the British political elite. He is a politician who fuels prejudices about welfare ‘scroungers’. It takes one to know one. After all, he himself systematically milked the system, leached off the taxpayer – whatever you want to call it. He claimed £400 a month off the state for food, despite having a salary which comfortably placed him in the top 5% of the population. He rented an apartment in County Hall overlooking the Thames to the tune of £2,400 a month – paid for by you and me, of course. He attempted to submit room service bills to the fees office, which proved even too much for them (and, at the time, that’s saying something). His food bill alone was over a hundred quid more than the maximum Jobseekers Allowance payment.
His shameless hypocrisy is but a mere gripe compared to his real offence, however. The Tories are currently hacking large chunks off the welfare state, and it is Liam Byrne’s job to oppose it. After all, this is a government planning to drag cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy from their hospital beds to undergo assessments to see if they can work. It has sent letters to 700,000 terminally ill patients informing them that they may lose their benefits. It is introducing a benefits cap that will provoke one of the biggest population movements since World War II, which one Tory minister has compared to the Highland Clearances. Even Boris Johnson hyperbolically made references to Kosovo-style social cleansing.
But – with a few mealy-mouthed, heavily caveated exceptions – Liam Byrne is not leading the charge against this unprecedented onslaught. Instead, he is himself arguing for more punitive treatment of people on benefits, drawing on a completely distorted interpretation of William Beveridge’s thought.
There are a whole number of arguments that Byrne should be making. Despite the obsession with benefit fraud, the Government estimates it is worth just £1.2bn a year – or less than 1% of welfare spending. Compare that to the £70bn lost to the Treasury’s coffers through tax avoiding businesspeople.
Indeed, a far bigger problem is what could be called ‘benefits evasion’. A whopping £16bn worth of benefits go unclaimed every single year.
Byrne argues that Beveridge ‘would scarcely have believed housing benefit alone is costing the UK over £20bn a year. That is simply too high.’ Of course it is, but Byrne fails to explain the reasons why: the scrapping of rent control and the failure of New Labour to build council housing, forcing millions of people to rent from unscrupulous landlords exploiting the lack of affordable housing to charge extortionate rents. It is, after all, the landlord – not the tenant – who pockets housing benefit.
But the real travesty of conjuring up the ghost of Beveridge is that we currently live in a society blighted by mass unemployment. As George Eaton points out over at the Staggers, ‘Beveridge’s welfare state was designed for a system of full employment.’ The clue was in the title of his second report, Full Employment in a Free Society. But in Cameron’s Britain, there are 23 people chasing every available job. In some communities, it’s even bleaker than that. In Hull, for example, there are 18,795 jobseekers for just 318 jobs. There is simply not enough work to go around.
Byrne argues that, for Beveridge, ‘”idleness” was an evil every bit as insidious as disease or squalor. So he would have been horrified at the long-term unemployment breaking out all over Britain, with over a million young people out of work, and appalled at the spiralling cost of benefits.’ But this has nothing to do with ‘idleness’, with its implications of laziness on the part of the individual. Firstly, it is to do with the destruction of industry under Thatcherism: entire communities never properly recovered (including under New Labour) and were left bereft of secure, well-paid jobs. Secondly, it is to do with the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s. Thirdly, it is to do with the most drastic cuts since the 1920s. Mass unemployment is not an individual fault; it is not the product of millions of people ‘choosing’ to go on benefits out of a ‘lifestyle choice’; it is not the consequence of people failing to look hard enough for work. It exists because – to repeat myself – there is simply not enough work to go around.
The political rights and wrongs aside, it is a politically suicidal strategy. Byrne is fuelling prejudices about people on benefits that the Tories will always be trusted most to satisfy. The whole justification of Byrne’s strategy is that Labour voters felt that the party was too soft on ‘scroungers’. But New Labour could hardly be accused of such ‘softness’, either in policy or rhetorical terms. The Tories are building on the foundations laid by New Labour predecessors, including James Purnell who talked of people on benefits ‘having miserable lives where their universe consists of a trip from the bedroom to the living room.’ New Labour did increase the issue of so-called ‘benefits scroungers’ in people’s minds and fuelled the media narrative – and still ended up with the Tories most trusted to deal with the issue, and ever will be it thus.
Defenders of Byrne will look to the recently published Social Attitudes Survey, which revealed hardening attitudes towards the poor and unemployed, and argue that there simply is no choice. But these prejudices have flourished in large part because of the legacy of Thatcherism and the failure of Labour to challenge it. Attitudes have shifted in a relatively short space of time, and they can be shifted back again – if there is sufficient courage and determination. ‘We have to move this country in a new direction, to change the way we look at things, to create a wholly new attitude of mind,’ Thatcher told her party after her 1979 election victory. That’s exactly the approach the Labour leadership needs to take.
The fundamental aim of every Labour activist is to turf the Tories out of Number 10. We will not achieve that by ceding the argument to them or engaging in a competition about who can kick the poor hardest. Byrne has capitulated to the Tory deceit on mass unemployment and benefits. That doesn’t mean we all have to.