Has the Labour party’s approach to sick and disabled people shifted?

Liam Byrne’s Beveridge2 speech yesterday has attracted a lot of attention. Here, three writers on disbility and social security issues give their reponses:

Kaliya Franklin: Yesterday’s speech on disability and benefits from Liam Byrne was a bit like travelling back in time. Had it been given in 2006 it would have passed quietly and unremarked, but after two years of politicians of all parties using  ‘dis a disabled’ rhetoric it was so surprising to hear talk of actual rights for disabled people that many weren’t sure what to think (see some of the reactions here). Some strongly criticised the lack of concrete policy ideas, others were understandably suspicious that it was all just talk, but it was the language of that talk which was so important – it signifies the start of a shift within the Labour party’s approach to sick and disabled people and the welfare issues we face.

The language choices of politicians and media since 2010 have been very deliberate:  to push through such devastating changes to the welfare system would have attracted far more public opposition had the explanations been couched in terms of blind people, or those with cancer not qualifying for benefits.  But with the public convinced that it was ‘all just scroungers’ the coalition could claim massive public support. The welfare reform bill is now an act, and the contentious work capability assessment demonising people the public would usually perceive as ‘genuinely deserving’ provides near daily fodder for the local press. The continued use of derogatory language grates against increasing awareness of the human misery and cost of these ‘reforms’. By simply changing the way they describe and speak about sick and disabled people, Labour can position themselves to make it much more difficult for anyone else to continue doing so. This won’t mean any rapid change, all that Labour are promising is to consult properly with people and formulate policy upon that basis, but that in itself is a major step forwards for disability rights.

Kaliya is the author of the Orwell Prize nominated Benefit Scrounging Scum blog.

Ben Baumberg: Sweet nothings, or the promise of a real relationship?  This is the challenge in interpreting Liam Byrne’s speech yesterday.  Byrne has made positive noises before, and yesterday went onto the front foot in attacking ‘contemptuous Conservatism’. But where is the recognition of the barriers disabled people face, in an impatient and intensified world of work?  Where is the recognition that disability impacts differently on already-disadvantaged people?  These are the words that could lay the foundation for a radical strategy. Instead, Byrne spends much of his time attacking the Tories and red tape. More excitingly, his views chime with leftwing wonk circles that are abuzz with talk about job guarantees and the contributory principle – and these are clearly the foundations of a revitalised welfare state.  Yet as I previously argued on LFF, these often offer little in transforming the situation for disabled people, and rarely present a convincing narrative on the barriers that disabled people face. What makes this worse is the paucity of ideas on the left about disability. What we need but don’t have are thought-out, radical proposals, like a commitment to delivering the right to work for disabled people, and a real-world incapacity test that recognises disadvantage.  Without policies to seize on, the danger is that Byrne never goes beyond good intentions. So these are some of the right words.  But we need much more than this.

Ben co-edits the Inequalities blog and lectures at the University of Kent

Declan Gaffney: You would never know from most media coverage, but disability and caring now account for two thirds of long term benefit receipt. So when Liam Byrne said yesterday ‘we on the left believe this is a mainstream not marginal issue’  that can be read as simple realism as much as an expression of solidarity.

Does this shift in language, if that’s what’s happening, matter? For me, the answer is ‘yes’, the political language around welfare is important, and not just as a vehicle for values and ideas.

In a recent report commissioned by the TUC Kate Bell and I argue that the words of politicians also play a key role in shaping the public understanding of social security. Most people do not claim out-of-work benefits and most people live in areas where claimants are a small minority of the population. Non-claimants also have limited knowledge of the reasons people are claiming. Kate and I argue that under these circumstances, the statements of politicans can be as important a source of information as people’s own personal experience – not because people take what politicians say as gospel but because what politicians say has a big impact on media coverage, including on the language that is used.

Governments’ endless announcements of ‘crackdowns on benefit fraud’  trigger waves of newspaper headlines about ‘cheats’ and ‘scroungers’, reinforcing  the distorted perception that benefits are subject to massive abuse. This plays out not just in reduced support for social security but in public attitudes towards claimants that take suspicion and grievance as default settings.The coalition’s strategy in pushing through its ‘reforms’ (in fact cuts, as Liam noted) has been premised on influencing the language in which people discuss welfare.  A Yougov survey for Prospect showed recently, if you ask people whether ‘welfare levels should be reduced’, 74% agree. But if you ask whether disability benefits should be reduced, only 11% agree.

To date, Labour’s response has been extraordinarily weak, driven by a fear of being on ‘the wrong side of the debate’ rather than any ambition to change that debate. If Liam’s speech is the first step in moving the debate on to territory where real issues get discussed, it is to be warmly welcomed. There are disagreements to come as Labour develops its position, but if those disagreements are on substantive issues about how we support disabled people and rebuild social security – rather than on how to outflank the right on territory that belongs to them –  that alone will be a major step forward.

Declan Gaffney blogs here.

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