When I heard Ed was to give a “big” welfare speech, my heart sank. Not again, I thought. Those who follow these matters geekily closely like me will remember the “I met a man” speech that blamed the entire failure of the social security system on people who claimed incapacity benefit.
Over the next year or two, campaigners like me lobbied and emailed and met-with and cajoled and presented evidence, but it often seemed like we merely took one step forward to take two steps back.
Endlessly I pointed out that whatever focus groups of Worcester Mums and The Squeezed Middle said, people wanted more from a Labour Party. They wanted real solutions to difficult problems with hope and justice at their core. They wanted to believe that there was a better way than the slash and burn cruelty of Tory ideology.
But all too often, Ed and Liam and the Labour front bench just couldn’t resist the allure of “tough on poverty, tough on the causes of poverty” Tory rhetoric. Blaming those abandoned by a broken system rather than mending the system at fault. Disability denial was a terrible problem, with the party turning a blind eye to the very real problems of a sickness and disability system being taken apart brick by brick under the guise of a heartless and misguided Tory “scrounger rhetoric”. “Strivers not Skivers” damning all with the judgemental stories of the few.
If today’s headlines were to be believed, today’s speech would hold little of cheer, simply more of the same “Out Torying the Tories”.
Those, like me, who’ve argued for a more nuanced, intelligent response, will find, if they read the full speech, that there may actually be one lurking somewhere between the rather-less-regular-than-
We still need to throw out the comfort blanket of phrases like “hundreds of thousands of people in long-term idleness.” and “denial of responsibility by those who could work and don’t do so”.
They do nothing to convince Daily Mail readers that Ed is talking their language – nothing will. They simply serve to make those who may consider voting Labour at the next election doubt Ed’s sincerity to really make things better.
But today, those soundbites seem like kneejerk habits, hard to abandon completely, not the main thrust of the message.
An opening that states “Controlling social security spending and putting decent values at the heart of the system are not conflicting priorities” moves on to a welcome acknowledgement that “Today, people often don’t get paid enough in work to make ends meet.” with a strong commitment to a living wage. And the penny finally seems to have dropped that “Today the welfare state, through housing benefit, bears the cost for our failure to build enough homes. We have to start investing in homes again, not paying for failure.”
I like the emphasis on involving business in these plans – making them pay for better training, incentivising them to take on the long term unemployed, and doing more to insist landlords give tenants a fair deal. Let’s insentivise and encourage them to take on disabled employers too.
But as a disability campaigner, these are the lines I’ve wanted to hear for a very long time :
“We should also support disabled people. Those who cannot work…..
Towards the end of our time in government, we did introduce tests for the Employment and Support Allowance.That was the right thing to do. And we continue to support tests today. But when over 40% of people win their appeals, it tells you the system isn’t working as it should. And too often people’s experience of the tests is degrading. So this test needs to change.
It needs reform so that it can really distinguish between different situations. Disabled people who cannot work. Disabled people who need help to get into work. And people who can work without support.
The test should also be properly focused on helping to identify the real skills of each disabled person and the opportunities they could take up. I meet so many disabled people desperate to work but who say that the demand that they work is not accompanied by the support they need. So these tests should be connected to a Work Programme that itself is tested on its ability to get disabled people jobs that work for them.”
This won’t delight every last campaigner, but it will be music to the ears of those like me, who have been saying exactly this for over 5 years, at times, as though speaking to a succession of brick walls.
Don’t mis-quote or mis-understand me. There is still a very long way to go. There is still an un-healthy dollop of judgement and remote assumption about the speech. But there is ample evidence that Labour have actually started to listen. To hear what really needs to be done from those affected with actual experience of our failing systems.
For now, Ed assures us that a “Scrounger Rhetoric” is off the menu and help and support must be thought out and reasonable.
In three years, in politics terms, it’s a quite exceptional degree of positive change.