It’s time to change the terms of the debate on welfare

10th January, 2013 5:27 pm


By Lisa Nandy MP and Teresa Pearce MP

The Welfare Up-rating Bill currently before the House of Commons will have a disastrous effect on thousands of people, including many of our constituents in two very different parts of the country, who rely on benefits just to make ends meet. But the bitter political row over this Bill also presents an opportunity to change the terms of the debate about the welfare system, which is currently peppered with myths about the cost of the system and a culture of worklessness and often underpinned by offensive language used to describe welfare recipients.

George Osborne announced the Bill by identifying the so-called ‘strivers’ who are in work and the so-called ‘shirkers’ who are not. It is an astonishing distinction to make; not least because the majority of people who will lose from the 1% cap on benefit and tax credit up-rating over the next three years are people who are in work. But while this has been repeatedly highlighted, the fact that unemployment levels remain unacceptably high and surgeries like ours are packed with people desperate to work has been largely overlooked. We are MPs from very different areas, representing Erith and Thamesmead in outer London and Wigan in the North West, and yet we are both dealing with the same problems created by this Government’s failing growth policies. In Erith and Thamesmead there are 12 people on Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) for every vacancy advertised at the local Job Centre, whilst in Wigan there are 5 people chasing each job vacancy.

These people are not shirkers. In the last year we have been contacted by many constituents desperate for work. They have come to their local MP because they are at the end of their tether. In Wigan there was the father who won an apprenticeship with a rail firm that went bust, leaving him ineligible for JSA because he was theoretically still under contract and unable to find work elsewhere because he did not have the necessary qualification. Or the 27 year old who has been seeking work for three years with no success – overlooked for jobs that teenagers could fill more cheaply and struggling to persuade employers that his learning difficulty does not automatically rule him out for other work. Or the woman from Erith and Thamesmead recently made redundant from the public sector and struggling to feed two children, who is applying every day for jobs but failing to even get interviews and who recently undertook special constable training in the hope of filling a vacancy with the Met Police, only to find that they too are facing cuts. Back in Wigan, the vast majority of Remploy workers forced out of their jobs last year remain unemployed. These are Osborne’s so-called ‘shirkers’.

In reality the boundaries between these two groups – those in work and those out of it – are increasingly fluid. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights how quickly and easily people currently move in and out of work, finding no evidence that a culture of worklessness exists and high levels of commitment to work amongst the unemployed. Many of our constituents are on zero hours contracts, working for free or classed as agency workers, moving in and out of work on a constant cycle. The employment picture is much more complex than the Tories claim and it falls to Labour to explain this to voters.  The Tory mantra is that benefits should just be a safety net between jobs and not a ‘lifestyle choice’. Yet how can it act as any kind of safety net if they keep cutting holes in it?

That the Labour Party has rejected Osborne’s arbitrary distinction is important, preferring to guarantee jobs for those who can work and to recognise the worth, effort and value of people who are unemployed. To apply labels like ‘striver’ and ‘shirker’ to those who are respectively in and out of work is offensive and misguided. The Coalition should instead focus on creating jobs through public procurement, job-creation subsidies and investment in key infrastructure. They should also address in-work poverty by supporting policies like the living wage. Nobody in society wins by making the poor even poorer.

The parameters of the political debate should also recognise that targeting the poorest is wrong in moral terms, especially at a time when the wealthiest have had their taxes cut. The savage real-terms cuts imposed by this Bill will lengthen the queues at food banks and will have a particularly harmful effect on children. In both London and Greater Manchester nearly half of children are already living in poverty. Yet the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts a further million children will be growing up in poverty in the UK by 2020. This Bill will hurt both those children whose parents are currently in work and those whose parents are not.

Research recently commissioned by the TUC demonstrates that attitudes to welfare are largely based on ignorance; the people who know least about the benefits system are the most likely to dislike it. This shows that the framework in which the political debate about welfare is held is essential. This is a particularly important message for politicians and the Labour Party. As Jon Cruddas argued in 2010, “there lies political death for Labour. No language, no warmth no kindness; no generosity, vitality nor optimism. No compassion. If you seek to outflank the coalition from the right, you will turn Labour into a byword for intolerance… If Labour becomes the voice for this sour, shrill hopeless politics it will die. And it will deserve to.”

This is backed up by polling amongst young people which suggests that attitudes to welfare are less hardened because they believe they will need the welfare system at some point in their lives. On this basis, the Welfare Up-rating Bill could potentially become a watershed moment in British politics, where the prevailing myths about welfare that Osborne seeks to perpetuate are finally discarded. As the TUC poll shows, politicians who are prepared to lead and are driven by Labour values to defend the most vulnerable in society, rather than follow the prevailing narrative on welfare, can succeed. For the sake of the thousands of people who will lose out if the Coalition passes this Bill, we must do so.

Lisa Nandy is MP for Wigan. Teresa Pearce MP is for Erith and Thamesmead

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  • Lisa Nandy easily gave the best speech during the benefits cap debate. Really spot on, just the position that Labour needs to take. More of this please.

    • Absolutely. She actually knows about social security and unlike Frank Field, who is too much of a maverick, takes a recognisably Labour view

  • AlanGiles

    ” Back in Wigan, the vast majority of Remploy workers forced out of their
    jobs last year remain unemployed. These are Osborne’s so-called

    It is very sad that the Labour government started the dismantling on Remploy back in 2008 under Peter Hain. It is equally sad that James Purnell insisted on implementing the Freud reforms, especially as this was done after Freud became a Tory peer, and only months before Purnell was found out in the expenses scandal as an arch-fiddler.

    I am glad Labour APPEAR to have turned over a new leaf, but far too many Labour DWP secretaries of state were more than willing to allow the tabloids to label the sick disabled and unemployed “feckless” or shirkers. I never heard Purnell, Blunkett, Alan Johnson et al argue against this view.

    • Liam Byrne would still be saying that if it wasn’t for the change in party line. Need to isolate the Blairites who would surrender to the Tories yet again.

      • AlanGiles

        Yes Alex, I agree. I think it is essential, if Labour really are sincere that Byrne be replaced as shadow DWP minister, and very quickly.

        • But who would replace Byrne? Or perhaps more relevantly – is there a significant body of alternative opinion within the PLP from which a representative could be be drawn? I don’t think there is.

          Let’s face it, it was touch and go as to whether Labour would come out against the 1% benefit cap. And when they did it was dressed up as a defence of ‘strivers’ (those in work). Yet the most vulnerable people are those out of work.
          It seems Labour are too weak to defend those who are targeted by Tory failure and by the divisive vindictiveness of front bench Tory millionaires.

          • Amber_Star

            But who would replace Byrne?
            Angela Eagle.

          • I think that there has been a potentially significant change in the PLP since 2010. The traditional New Labour-era left opposition in the form of the Campaign Group seems to have died out (if it still exists it is irrelevant). But there are now more MPs who are prepared to take leftwing positions whilst possibly being pragmatic enough to accept promotions to the front bench. People like Lisa Nandy, Ian Mearns, Grahame Morris, Ian Lavery, Emily Thornberry and Jon Trickett. There have also been some great candidates selected in winnable seats at the next election.

            The left have always protested the abolition of the Broad Church under Blair, but they won’t get it back unless they reach out and claim their seats at the top table. This is where, IMO, people like John McDonnell are a bit wrong. By being confrontational to the point of even declining an invite to address the Compass conference (pre-Lib Dem farce) makes you irrelevant. You can never be anything more than a principled backbencher shouting from the sidelines.

            As for the shadow cabinet – kick out Twigg and Byrne. Promote Nandy to Education and get somebody – anybody – who isn’t a pseudo Tory to shadow IDS.

          • In my view it comes down to policy – the merry-go-round of personalities may have entertainment value but lit else.

            For example, in the NHS we have/had a widely valued One Nation institution but Labour are hopelessly compromised if they attempt to defend it from privatisation as, when in office, they were very busy turning the not-for-profit NHS into a profit grab opportunity for ruthless corporations*.

            Hypocrisy seems to be Labour’s only option if they oppose the Tories and perhaps that’s why, in opposition, they have been so timid.


          • AlanGiles

            Yes Dave that is a very fair point.

            Also, it seems Labour as well as Conservative and LibDem MPs don’t feel EVERYBODY should be restricted to 1% rises:


            Out of touch and in a world of their own – that applies to all three parties

  • To be classed as a “shirker” because I am not in work, due to being unemployable with a severe disability, full time wheelchair and requiring 3 carers to look after me during each day and night, makes me feel that I have been abandoned by this Government. I wouldn’t wish my “clinging on to life” situation on anybody, as it is a life made up of difficult decisions, constant pain, reliability on others for every function and movement. Try being hooked up to pipes and have rehab support for your posture, in a powerchair all day, every day, forever. Unable to move without electronic assistance, losing all your mobility, dignity and privacy; being washed and changed like a baby, and then see if you consider yourself a “shirker”, Mr Osborne….. Vote Labour – You know it makes sense. Bless you Lisa for being my MP…

    • Dave Postles

      Bless you for having the fortitude and for your post. Your life is one of striving; we should provide every support for your continued ability so to do. Love and peace.

  • IDS,McVey and Osborne are those responsible for a full frontal assault on those who have nothing.The Labour Party in their opposition to these measures should not concede even 1% in the argument.They can only be fought with the same ferocity.Lets not make any mistake here,the only class war in all this debate is coming from the tories.Sadly it appears they are winning.All is not lost though,a terrible vengeance awaits in 2015.

  • robertcp

    A very good article and much better than the awful Liam Byrne.

  • franwhi

    Yet remember Ed Milliband is able to discern an elective non-worker just by sniffing him out as he goes round the doors. Where do politicians get these superpowers from ?


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