Category Archives: Welfare

Is Owen Jones right that Jeremy Corbyn has the same policies as Ed Miliband?

Is Owen Jones right that Jeremy Corbyn has the same policies as Ed Miliband?
by Ian Sinclair
29 August 2016

In his now infamous July 2016 blog ‘Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer’, Guardian columnist Owen Jones argued Corbyn’s policies are pretty much the same as those of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party at the time of the May 2015 general election. “It seems as though Ed Miliband presented his policies as less left-wing than they actually were, and now the current leadership presents them as more left-wing than they actually are”, Jones noted. “It’s presentation, style and sentiment that seem to differ most.”

This is a bold claim made by a very influential left-wing commentator. Therefore it is worth seriously considering the claim. With this in mind, I sketch out some key policy differences between Corbyn and Miliband below.

Economy

On the economy, Jones argues though “the Labour leadership now says it’s anti-austerity”, the fiscal rule accepted by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell means his economic policy is similar to that of ex-Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, “including a focus on deficit reduction”. James Meadway, the head of policy for Corbyn’s leadership campaign and former chief economist at the New Economics Foundation, notes Jones “is wrong to claim that John McDonnell is offering Ed Balls’ fiscal policy. He is absolutely not. He is opposed to cuts.” During the 2015 general election campaign Ed Balls “offered up cuts”, Corbyn explained to Jones before Jones wrote his blog. “To be clear, Labour is now an anti-austerity party opposed to the rundown and break-up of our public services”, notes Meadway.

Miliband’s Labour stated it “support[s] the principles behind the negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Treaty (TTIP)”, though was concerned about a number of issues including “the impact on public services and the Investor to State Dispute Settlement Mechanism”. Miliband’s Labour pledged to “ensure the NHS is protected from the TTIP treaty.” Commenting on Miliband’s position, The Guardian’s Political Correspondent Rowena Mason noted TTIP is “a key issue for many voters on the left” and “it does not look like this will satisfy those who view TTIP as a deal for big corporations and want it to be abandoned entirely.” Corbyn opposes TTIP outright.

NHS

Jones argues Labour under Corbyn “would reverse NHS privatisation: again, Labour at the last election committed to repealing the Health and Social Care Act and regretted the extent of NHS private sector involvement under New Labour.” However, though Labour’s 2015 election manifesto promised to repeal the Coalition Government’s NHS privatisation plans, it also saw a role for existing private firms in the NHS because it pledged to cap profits of private firms on NHS contracts. The manifesto had nothing to say about the hospitals built under the Private Finance Initiative policy instituted by Tony Blair’s Government. Earlier this month Corbyn confirmed a Labour Government led by him would cancel PFI contracts.

Education

Jones doesn’t mention any education policies. Miliband promised to reduce university tuition fees to £6,000 per year. The 2015 Labour manifesto did not mention the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) scrapped by the Coalition Government. Corbyn has promised to abolish tuition fees completely, reintroduce student maintenance grants and reinstate the EMA.

Transport

Jones says Corbyn’s plans to renationalise the railways “beefs up Labour’s pledge under Miliband’s leadership.” In actual fact the 2015 Labour manifesto only promised to “reform our transport system in order to provide more public control and put the public interest first.” If all this seems a little vague that’s because it is: “We will review the franchising process as a priority to put in place a new system… a new National Rail body will oversee and plan for the railways and give rail users a greater say in how trains operate. We will legislate so that a public sector operator is allowed to take on lines and challenge the private train operating companies on a level playing field.” This is not renationalisation.

Royal Mail

Jones doesn’t mention the Royal Mail. Miliband’s Labour promised to “safeguard the public interest in the [now privatised] Royal Mail, supporting the creation of a staff-led trust for the employee share, and keeping the remaining 30 per cent in public ownership.” In contrast, Corbyn proposes to renationalise the Royal Mail.

Welfare

Jones doesn’t mention welfare policy. Corbyn explained to Jones before his blog was published that Miliband’s Labour used “appalling language on the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions], on welfare systems”. Corbyn is presumably referring to comments made by Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary under Miliband, about how “We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work… Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people.” When she was first appointed by Miliband in 2013, Reeves said Labour would be tougher than the Tories on benefits. Similarly, a briefing from Labour’s welfare spokesman under Miliband led to the Daily Mail headline ‘Now Ed Miliband gets tough with onslaught against “evil” of benefits scroungers’. Corbyn voted against the Welfare Bill in July 2015 and is strongly opposed to benefits cuts.

Immigration

Jones doesn’t mention anything to do with immigration. During the 2015 General Election campaign Labour produced their UKIP-pandering ‘controls on immigration’ mugs, while Reeves announced Labour would extend the period for which EU migrants are prevented from claiming out-of-work benefits from three months to two years. “The plans take Labour further than proposals so far announced by the Conservatives,” The Guardian noted at the time. Corbyn has long been a defender of migrant rights.

Trident

Jones doesn’t mention Trident. Labour under Miliband supported the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system. Corbyn opposes the UK owning or using Weapons of Mass Destruction and is attempting to change Labour Party policy on this.

Foreign Policy

Jones asserts “Corbyn opposed the Iraq war; so did Miliband. The Labour leadership’s policy was to vote against the bombing of Syria, as it was under Miliband.” This is a particularly disingenuous argument from Jones. First, because he chooses to omit several significant foreign policy votes and positions – the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, the 2014 vote on the UK bombing Islamic State in Iraq and the British occupation of Afghanistan. All were supported by Miliband and opposed by Corbyn.

Second, Jones’s summary of Miliband’s position on Iraq in 2003 and Syria in 2013 (both opposed by Corbyn) is incomplete at best. In 2003 Miliband was teaching in the United States. Apparently he contacted people, including Gordon Brown, to try to persuade them to oppose the war. Speaking at the Labour leader hustings in 2010 Ed Balls labelled Miliband’s claim to be anti-war as “ridiculous” noting that Miliband “did not tell people” he was against the war. Even if Miliband privately lobbied Labour politicians, this misses a key point, as I’ve argued previously:

“There were numerous opportunities for Miliband to make a public stand against the impending war – which arguably would have had a far greater impact than his supposed behind the scenes advice – including speaking at the biggest protest in British history. That Miliband, at best, opposed the war in private strongly suggests to me that he was thinking more about his future political career than the welfare of Iraqis or the British soldiers being sent to fight in Iraq.”

In contrast, Corbyn was a key figure in the anti-war movement, speaking at hundreds of anti-war meetings and rallies. On the Syria vote, the parliamentary record shows the Labour motion tabled by Miliband was very similar to the defeated Government motion, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the more experienced foreign affairs experts in the Commons. “I can find no difference of substance or principle anywhere in the two offerings”, explained Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Foreign Affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats. Likewise, ex-Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind noted “virtually all” of Labour’s list of requirements for supporting military action “appear in the Government’s own motion.” In addition, Miliband stated that he would support military action against Syria without a United Nations Security Council Resolution – essentially agreeing with the Government again.

Jones versus reality

After considering the information above, one can only argue Corbyn’s policies are the same as the austerity-lite policies of Labour under Miliband if one chooses to ignore large swathes of policy areas or is ignorant of Corbyn’s and Miliband’s actual policy positions. That the analysis of Jones – a huge and influential left-wing voice in the mainstream media – is so pitiful and shallow is extremely concerning, and very damning, indeed.

Who is Owen Smith?

Who is Owen Smith?
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
29 July 2016

Labour leadership contender Owen Smith MP has stated he is “going to be just as radical” as Jeremy Corbyn. “Jeremy has been right about so many things”, Smith argued at the launch of his campaign. This pitch to Labour voters has been taken up by the Saving Labour group hoping to dispose Corbyn, with its supporters telling members of the public “there is no real difference… between Owen Smith and Jeremy”.

Is this true? How does this framing of the leadership contest fit with Smith’s actual political record?

Smith has already been criticised for his previous senior positions at Big Pharma corporations. “Smith worked for Amgen as its chief lobbyist in the UK for two years before becoming MP for Pontypridd [in 2010]. Before that he was a lobbyist for US drug firm Pfizer from 2005”, notes the Guardian. “While at Pfizer in 2005 Smith endorsed a Pfizer-backed report offering NHS patients easier access to private-sector healthcare”. According to The Times newspaper Smith stated in a press release “We believe that choice is a good thing and that patients and healthcare professionals should be at the heart of developing the agenda.” For Lisa Nandy MP (“a cracking Labour MP” – Guardian journalist Owen Jones) Smith’s senior role at Pfizer is a good thing because “having seen how a pharmaceutical company and capitalism operates from the inside is probably quite important, to be honest. If you are going to critique it, you need to understand it.”

Responding to questions about his position with Pfizer on the BBC Today Programme, Smith stated “I’ve never advocated the privatisation of the NHS” and “I believe in a 100 percent publicly owned NHS free at the point of use”. Nandy repeated this narrative in her interview with Owen Jones, replying “Yes” when Jones asked her to confirm Smith “wants an entirely publicly run National Health Service – no privatisation?”

In the real world, when Smith unsuccessfully fought the 2006 Blaenau Gwent by-election and he was asked about the involvement of the private sector in the NHS by Wales Online, he replied:

“Where they can bring good ideas, where they can bring valuable services that the NHS is not able to deliver, and where they can work alongside but subservient to the NHS and without diminishing in any respect the public service ethos of the NHS, then I think that’s fine.”

Asked about the controversial Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes introduced by the Blair Government, Smith responded: “We’ve had PFI in Wales, we’ve had a hospital built down in Baglan through PFI. If PFI works, then let’s do it.” In the same interview Smith sings the praises of New Labour’s introduction of academy schools, which was strongly opposed by the teaching unions. “I’m not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances”, noted Smith.

In July 2015 Smith abstained on the Government’s Welfare Bill, which the government’s own figures confirmed would push 330,000 children from low-income families further into poverty, with single mothers and ethnic minorities hit particularly hard. Now running for the Labour leadership, Smith told the BBC’s Andrew Marr his vote was a mistake that he now regretted. How sincerely he believes this is brought into question by his appearance on BBC Newsnight in September 2016 when he confirmed his support for the £26,000 benefit cap, saying “We are in favour of an overall reduction in the amount of money we spend on benefits in this country and we are in favour of limits on what individual families can draw down.” In March 2015 the Guardian reported the UK Supreme Court had “found that the effect of the policy [the benefit cap] was not compatible with the government’s obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child”.

Earlier this month Smith voted to renew the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons. Asked by Marr if he was prepared to “annihilate possibly millions of people” by firing Trident, Smith replied that “You’ve got to be prepared to say yes to that.” But wasn’t he once a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, asked Marr? When did he realise he was wrong? “About 15 years ago”, Smith replied. This doesn’t fit with a June 2006 Daily Mail report, which noted “Yesterday Owen Smith… came out in opposition to the Trident nuclear deterrent”.

Noting Smith entered parliament in 2010, the Guardian’s Zoe Williams argues he cannot be “tarnished by the Blair years and the vote on the Iraq war.” Indeed, though he was a Special Advisor to pro-war Labour Cabinet Minister Paul Murphy in 2003, Smith and his supporters have repeatedly highlighted his opposition to the war. However, interviewing Smith in 2006 Wales Online noted “He didn’t know whether he would have voted against the war”, with Smith arguing “the tradition of the Labour Party and the tradition of left-wing engagement to remove dictators was a noble, valuable tradition, and one that in South Wales, from the Spanish Civil War onwards, we have recognised and played a part in.”

As this suggests, even if he did oppose the war in 2003 Smith continues to repeat the delusional framing of the pro-war camp. For example, introducing the topic of Iraq in his campaign launch speech, Smith referred to the UK as “a country that has traditionally, patriotically intervened around the world to help impose and understand our values across the globe.” And again he tried to ride Corbyn’s coattails, noting “Iraq was a terrible mistake. Jeremy has been right about that.” The problem for Smith is this isn’t what Corbyn or the mainstream anti-war movement argue. Let me explain: if I slip on a banana skin – that’s a mistake. If I spill coffee down my shirt – that’s a mistake. If I spend months planning an illegal and aggressive invasion of another country that leads to the deaths of over 500,000 men, women and children and over four million refugees, then that’s a crime, and a massive one at that, as Corbyn implicitly suggested in his response to the publication of the Chilcot Report.

Corbyn, of course, also opposed the 2011 Libyan war – just one of the 2 percent of MPs who did. Smith supported the military intervention which steamrolled over peace initiatives being made by the African Union, enabled ethnic cleansing and the levelling of the city of Sirte, destabilised the country and region, increased the number of terrorist groups operating in Libya and exacerbated the refugee crisis.

Interviewed by the Telegraph in June 2006, Smith argued Tony Blair was a socialist. Asked if he has any policy differences with Blair except for the Iraq War, which he said was a mistake, Smith replied “No, I don’t think so.” The Telegraph’s take on Smith? “About as New Labour as you can get”. The Independent’s take on Smith for their report on the by-election was similarly blunt: “A dyed-in-the wool New Labourite.”

Big Pharma lobbyist? Radical? New Labourite? Socialist? Blairite? Corbynista without Corbyn? Who, exactly, is Owen Smith? Looking at his record of following the prevailing political winds, it seems Owen Smith will be whoever he needs to be for political gain.

*Buzzfeed journalist James Ball recently criticised a Twitter meme based on a similar article I wrote for Open Democracy titled ‘Who Is Angela Eagle?’. Comparing the selected points my article highlights about Eagle’s voting record with her overall voting record, Ball argued “can prove what you like with being selective with voting records”. As I explained to Ball, my article about Eagle – and this article – is about highlighting political differences between the challenger and Corbyn on key issues that may be of interest to Labour voters and the broader general public. It is not a complete record of Smith’s political career, obviously. I would hope readers don’t need me to tell them that Smith is not a moustache-twirling, Disney villain and has, I’m sure, made many positive contributions in his political career.

The Politics of Fantasy? Jeremy Corbyn and public opinion

The politics of fantasy? Jeremy Corbyn and public opinion
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
30 July 2016

A common refrain among the elite and mainstream media commentators is that “Jeremy Corbyn’s politics are fantasy”, as the headline to an Observer op-ed by Tony Blair put it August 2015. Similarly, just after Corbyn began his campaign to be Labour leader in June 2015 the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee argued the Islington North MP was “a 1983 man” and “a relic”. A vote for Corbyn “is ignoring the electorate”, Toynbee argued. Before she stepped aside in the current leadership contest, Angela Eagle went one further, arguing Corbyn “doesn’t connect with Labour voters”.

The latter criticism is easily dismissed – Corbyn was elected with the biggest mandate of any Labour leader in history, and a new YouGov poll finds Corbyn gets the support of 54 percent of the party’s members, with Eagle coming second on 21 percent and Owen Smith trailing on 15 percent.

But what about his politics and policy suggestions? How do they sit with British public opinion?

Like Corbyn, a 2014 YouGov poll for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) found “a majority of the UK public believes the gap between the rich and the poor is bad for society and the economy”, according to Steve Hart, the Chair of CLASS.

To tackle income inequality, in January 2016 the Labour leader suggested maximum pay ratios – a policy backed by 65 percent of people quizzed by YouGov/CLASS. He also pushed for all companies to pay a living wage – supported by 60 percent of people according to a 2013 Survation survey – and stripping private schools of the charitable status, a move the YouGov/CLASS poll found was backed by 55 percent of respondents.

Turning to health, in contrast to Owen Smith’s 2006 Wales Online interview supporting private sector involvement in the NHS, Corbyn believes in a publicly run NHS – a position supported by 84 per cent of the public, according to a 2013 YouGov poll.

In May 2016 Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell confirmed Labour’s plan was to build 100,000 new council houses a year. ‘More social housing’ was the top answer – given by 58 percent of respondents – when an April 2016 Guardian Cities poll asked people about solutions to the housing crisis. McDonnell also said a Labour government would give councils the power to impose rent controls – a policy supported by 60 percent of British people, including 42 percent of Tory voters, according to a 2015 YouGov poll.

Corbyn supports the nationalisation of the railways, a position backed by 66 percent of the public, including a majority of Conservative voters, according 2013 YouGov poll. He also believes the Royal Mail should be publicly owned, a position supported by 67 percent of the public, including 48 percent of Tory voters, according to the same poll.

On foreign policy, Corbyn was a key figure in the anti-war movement that opposed the deeply unpopular Iraq War, speaking to the biggest protest in British history on 15 February 2003. On Afghanistan, Corbyn opposed the war and supported the withdrawal of British troops. Polls from 2008 onwards consistently found the British public supported the withdrawal of British troops. On Trident, Corbyn’s lifelong commitment to scrapping the UK’s nuclear weapons is shared by a significant minority of the population – an impressive level of opposition when you consider the British establishment and three main parties have historically supported the retention of Trident.

On the issues Corbyn’s politics don’t reflect public opinion, arguably these are often surrounded by significant levels of media-generated misinformation. For example, polls note the majority of the public support a benefit cap of £20,000 nationwide – a cut Corbyn and many charities working on poverty strongly opposed. At the same time a 2012 TUC/YouGov poll found widespread ignorance about spending on welfare. Asked what percentage of the welfare budget was spent on unemployment benefits, the average answer given was 41 percent (the correct figure is 3 percent). Asked what percentage of the welfare budget was claimed fraudulently, people estimated 27 percent (the government estimate is 0.7 percent). The survey found that public support for the then Coalition government’s plans to cut benefits was highest amongst the most ignorant.

In conclusion, what all this polling evidence clearly shows is that many of Corbyn’s political positions command the support of large sections of the British public, often a majority. And importantly, the polls highlight that many of his positions receive significant levels of support from Tory voters.

However, a new London School of Economics study highlights the problems Corbyn’s Labour Government faces in reaching the general public. Analysing press coverage of Corbyn in September and October 2015, the survey found “an overall picture of most newspapers systematically vilifying” the leader of the biggest opposition party, assassinating his character, ridiculing his personality and delegitimising his ideas and politics.” Noting other left-wing leaders also received negative press attention, the authors of the study note “in the case of Corbyn the degree of antagonism and hatred… has arguably reached new heights.”

Whether Corbyn will be able to successfully articulate his popular politics and policies in the face of continuous attacks from the overwhelming hostile media, many Labour MPs, the Tory Government and wider British elite, and whether he and his own team is up to the job in getting the message across – these are different and difficult questions which we will find out the answers to soon enough.

Stella Creasy: beyond wishful thinking

Stella Creasy: beyond wishful thinking
by Ian Sinclair
22 December 2015

Stella Creasy. Labour MP for Walthamstow since 2010. She’s brilliant, isn’t she?

Her important work leading prominent campaigns against payday loan lenders and misogynist online abuse has had the liberal media and many activists and progressives falling head over heels in love with her. “In a field populated by career politicians guided by self-interest, Creasy is a rare thing: a woman of conviction”, enthused the Observer’s Elizabeth Day in 2012. “Creasy’s concern for her constituents goes beyond clever public relations or mere political rhetoric.” A year later the Guardian’s Esther Addley was singing her praises for making “one of the most striking and effective parliamentary debuts in recent times”. The Labour List website selected her as MP of the Year in 2012. Spectator magazine named her Campaigner of the Year in 2011. ConservativeHome has called her “Labour’s most interesting member of parliament.” Catherine Mayer, Time magazine’s Europe Editor, called her “Labour’s leader in waiting”. Creasy is “seriously clever but not… lacking in human understanding”, noted Meyer. “She’s engaged but not doctrinaire or tribal.”

Compare this gushing coverage to the following political record:

  • In March 2013 Creasy abstained on the vote about the Coalition Government’s Workfare programme, the scheme in which people on Jobseekers Allowance are forced to carry out unpaid work in order to keep receiving their benefits.
  • In July 2015 Creasy abstained on the vote for the Welfare Bill, which will cut tax credits, reduce the benefit cap to £20,000 (£23,000 in London) and called for £12bn more cuts. According to a leaked government memo, 40,000 more children will sink below the poverty line as a result of the benefit cap. Child Poverty Action Group noted “the majority of households affected by the benefit cap are lone-parent households and the main victims are children”.
  • In March 2011 Creasy voted in favour of NATO intervention in Libya, a chief cause of the ongoing violent chaos in the country which has destabilised surrounding nations, empowered extremists and played a central role in the refugee crisis.
  • In December 2015 Creasy voted with the Tory Government to authorise the UK bombing of Syria, tweeting just before the vote “Hilary benn’s speech has persuaded me that fascism must be defeated.”
  • In January 2015 Creasy voted to renew the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system.
  • Creasy, according to the Guardian, was one of a group of Labour MPs who “grew exasperated by [Ed] Miliband’s leadership and quietly identified [Blairite candidate Liz] Kendall… as having leadership potential”.
  • Creasy backed Blairite candidate David Miliband in the 2010 Labour leadership race.

What these inconvenient facts show is Creasy is very clearly on the right of the Labour Party – a Blairite, basically – when it comes to many domestic and international political questions. She has failed to oppose Tory Government policies that will push more children and poor women into poverty, she has supported a highly interventionist foreign policy that will likely led to more violence and civilian deaths, and she has supported the most right-wing leaders in Labour leadership contests.

So, what’s going on here? How can Creasy be lauded by activists, progressives and the liberal media with the voting record and political actions set out above? To get a flavour of this support, witness the extreme deference of Feminist campaigner Karen Ingala Smith’s reaction to Creasy backing UK airstrikes in Syria (an action, let’s not forget, that will likely kill women and children and increase the terror threat to the UK): “I didn’t agree with your choice of vote re Syria but I respect that you made the decision that you felt was best. I also appreciate that you’ll be more informed about this issue that [sic] me… I’m grateful to have you as MP and would proudly stand beside you in solidarity.”

Is Creasy’s positive image among many people who identify as “Left-wing” simply down to ignorance of her actual politics? Have they been fooled by her benign sounding official title of “Labour & Co-operative MP”? She is certainly a good communicator and comes across as a genuinely sincere, human person. Perhaps this has blinded people to the reality of her voting record?

I wonder too if Creasy’s popularity is down to what Owen Jones describes in his book Chavs as the Left’s “shift away from class politics towards identity politics over the last 30 years.” In support of his argument Jones cites a search conducted of the academic resource MLA International Bibliography from 1991 to 2000. “There were 13,820 results for ‘women’, 4,539 for ‘gender’, 1,862 for ‘race’, 710 for ‘postcolonial’ – and just 136 for ‘working class’.” I suspect for many of Creasy’s supporters Feminism is their primary concern – and Creasy has certainly done great, essential work on defending women’s rights. But are people confusing Creasy’s Feminist activist with a wider radical outlook, when the two do not necessarily go together – and certainly don’t with Creasy.

And do we need to expand our understanding of what Feminist analysis and activism look like? Responding to the Guardian’s endorsement of Yvette Cooper in the Labour leadership contest because “a female leader would be a plus in itself”, Selma James and Nina Lopez noted that as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Cooper abolished income support and extended Labour’s work-capability assessment for sick and disabled people. “The money that recognised unwaged caring work, and enabled mothers to leave violent men, and disabled people to live independent lives is now gone or under threat”, explained James and Lopez. “Better men against sexist austerity than women for it.”

To be clear, this is not just about Creasy but the propensity of a certain section of liberal and leftist opinion to be taken in by slick PR, meaningless platitudes, impressive rhetoric and media hype – see Barack Obama circa 2008, Tony Blair in 1997, 2010 Nick Clegg and Hilary Benn’s Syria speech earlier this month. It seems to me that meaningful progressive change in society will only come when we bypass this kind of media-driven wishful thinking and will be built upon an accurate understanding of the political reality we wish to change. And the unfortunate truth is Stella Creasy has some very ugly politics indeed.

Following or shaping public opinion? The Labour Party and the welfare state

Following or shaping public opinion? The Labour Party and the welfare state
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
7 August 2014

Speaking about the government’s proposed benefit cuts on the BBC Sunday Politics show last month, the interim Labour Party leader Harriet Harman announced “We won’t oppose the Welfare Bill, we won’t oppose the household benefit cap, for example what they brought forward in relation to restricting benefits and tax credits for people with three or more children”. Why was the main – supposedly left-wing – opposition party refusing to oppose the policies of a hard right Tory Government? Harman explained: “What we’ve got to do is listen to what people around the country said to us and recognise that we didn’t get elected again.”

As it happens 48 Labour MPs defied their party’s three-line whip on the Welfare Bill and opposed the government’s plans to slash benefits from the poorest in society. Of the four Labour leadership hopefuls, Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper all followed Harman’s lead and abstained on the proposed bill, while Jeremy Corbyn out right opposed it.

As an aside, Harman’s belief that public opinion sides with the Tories on welfare is arguably misplaced. Writing about the YouGov poll taken two days after Chancellor George Osborne’s budget, Ekklesia’s Bernadette Meaden noted that while a large percentage of people agreed with the general proposition that benefits are “too high”, questions about specific groups highlighted different attitudes. For example, asked about disabled people, 46 percent of respondents felt that too little was spent on them, nine percent felt that too much was spent and 28 percent felt that the amount was about right. Respondents views on what people out of work should receive was evenly split, with no majority saying they get too much. Regarding the cuts in general, 38 percent of those questioned said benefit cuts had gone too far, with just 24 percent saying they had not gone far enough.

However, for arguments sake – and there is plenty of polling evidence to support this conclusion – let’s agree the government’s proposed benefits cuts do have the support of a majority of the people and the public lean to the right when it comes to welfare. Does that mean that all progressives should simply accept this reality and sit back as the Tories decimate the welfare state? It sounds an absurd argument just typing it out but this is exactly what the Labour leadership is arguing.

First, it is important to remember public opinion is not magically created in a vacuum free from social, historical or cultural influence. We have, for example, an often rabid right-leaning national press and poverty porn television programmes like Benefits Streets, How To Get A Council House and, wait for it, Benefits House – Me And My 22 Kids. Cumulatively, all this anti-welfare state propaganda seems to have negatively influenced the public, with a December 2012 YouGov poll finding a huge amount of ignorance when it comes to welfare. Asked what percentage of the welfare budget was spent on unemployment benefits, the average answer given was 41 percent (the true figure is 3 percent). Asked what percentage of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently, people estimated 27 percent (the government estimate it to be 0.7 percent). In addition, on average people thought that an unemployed couple with two school-age children would get £147 in Jobseeker’s Allowance – more than 30 per cent higher than the £111.45 they would actually receive.

Importantly, the poll found that public support for the then Coalition government’s plans to cut benefits was highest amongst the most ignorant. “Voters who have a better grasp of how benefits work and what people actually get, oppose the government’s plans. When people learn more about benefits, support moves away from coalition policy”, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said about the survey. This is why it is so important the Labour Party challenge the government’s fact-free narrative on welfare and do not, for example, repeat the myth that people are better off on benefits than in work, as Burnham did during the BBC Sunday Politics leadership hustings.

More broadly, did I miss the meeting when we all agreed the right thing to do in the face of a dangerously uninformed public is to follow it slavishly? Luckily throughout history people have stood up to and challenged popular opinion on issues such as slavery, racism, sexism and gay rights – and through years of hard work eventually changed public opinion for the better. For example, in 1975 Ipsos Mori found just 16 percent of Britons thought gay couples should be able to marry. By 2014 – when gay marriage was legalised in England, Wales and Scotland – support had more than quadrupled to 69 percent. Gay people would still be waiting to get married if they followed Harman’s highly conservative political logic. As George Bernard Shaw once said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Surely politics should be about developing and staking out positions that one thinks will improve society and then attempting to persuade people, using evidence and rational argument, to support that position? And if people are ill-informed about an issue, then we should be educating them, not following their ignorant lead.

Returning to the Labour Party, the central question is this: who among the leadership candidates will challenge the dominant right-wing narrative on welfare and shift the debate into the realms of reality and who will blindly follow public opinion into a pit of ignorance?

Correction: Andy Burnham did not “repeat the myth that people are better off on benefits than in work… during the BBC Sunday Politics leadership hustings.” He failed to challenge the myth that people are better off on benefits than in work on the BBC Newsnight leadership hustings in June 2015.

The reality of the UK’s ‘generous’ benefit system

The reality of the UK’s ‘generous’ benefit system
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
August 2010

With the coalition government sharpening its knives in preparation for what the Institute for Fiscal Studies calls the “longest, deepest, sustained period of cuts to public services since World War II,” it was only a matter of time before the Con-Dems turned their attention to the benefits system.

“Tougher penalties for fraud” and “more prosecutions” were just two of David Cameron’s proposals in his widely reported recent “uncompromising” clampdown on benefit fraud. Predictably the Prime Minister’s rhetoric was amplified and twisted by the Sun into an attack on those who legally live on benefits. “The Sun is declaring war on feckless benefits claimants,” the newspaper warned earlier this month. “Hundreds of thousands of scroungers in the UK are robbing hard-working Sun readers of their cash. They cannot be bothered to find a job or they claim to be sick when they are perfectly capable of work because they prefer to sit at home watching widescreen TVs – paid for by YOU.”

Underpinning the Sun’s simplistic, hate-filled nonsense is the commonly held belief that the current level of unemployment benefit allows people to live a comfortable life. Even the Guardian, that shining light of British liberalism, is not immune. “He had, he said, a bad back. He wasn’t working and he wasn’t going to try, and nor was she,” said Jenni Russell about her childhood friends who had been living “at other people’s expense” for over 20 years. “The house is full of stuff – flatscreen TVs, Playstations, iPods.”

But how much money do the unemployed receive from the state? According to the Department of Work and Pensions Jobseeker’s Allowance for a single person over 25 is £65.45 a week. Those under 25 receive just £51.85. Of course this doesn’t include housing benefit or assistance with council tax, but how many people could pay all their bills, food, transport and leisure activities on just £65.45 a week? Certainly not former employment minister Tony McNulty, who admitted last year he wouldn’t be able to make ends meet if he lived on unemployment benefit, then £60.50 a week. His salary at the time was £104,050.

“Debts are inevitable,” Rev Paul Nicolson tells me when I ask him about the consequences of living on unemployment benefit. As the Director of the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, a charity that works with Britain’s most financially vulnerable citizens, Nicolson argues that the current level of unemployment benefit has a strong negative effect on the mental and physical well-being of those unlucky enough to live on it. “Poor maternal nutrition before and during pregnancy increases the risks of permanent developmental brain disorder, poor cognitive ability and even cerebral palsy in children,” he says. “How can unemployed women buy a healthy diet and other necessities of life when their income after rent and tax is £65.45 a week and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation minimum income food standard is £44.34 a week?”

Nicolson is referring to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s (JRF) annually updated and well-respected “minimum income standard.” Based on what members of the public think people need to achieve a socially acceptable standard of living, last month JRF calculated the minimum income standard to be £175.34 a week for a single adult, excluding rent and childcare.

It hasn’t always been like this. According to Jonathan Bradshaw, professor of social policy at the University of York, “when unemployment benefit started in 1912 it was seven shillings a week – about 22 per cent of average male earnings in manufacturing.” Today, because successive governments have tied benefits to the price index while real earnings have increased, Bradshaw points out that unemployment benefit is just 10.5 per cent of average earnings. His conclusions are backed up by JRF report Should Adult Benefit for Unemployment Now Be Raised? which highlights how “relative to the average level of consumption” unemployment benefit today “is only worth half what it was 30 years ago.”

And as with many other social indicators, Britain also trails behind the rest of western Europe in terms of unemployment benefit. According to 2006 statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – the most up-to-date figures readily available – Britain is far behind Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden in terms of the replacement rates for a single person living on unemployment benefits.

With no unions, powerful voices or mainstream newspapers defending their interests, the unemployed are particularly vulnerable to government and media attacks on their already precarious situation. Progressive individuals and organisations therefore have two key tasks to carry out – first, to defend the current level of unemployment benefit from the coalition’s immediate clampdown. Second, to fight for a significant increase in the level of unemployment benefit, so those who are unfortunate enough to be out of work are able to live a healthy life and participate fully in society.

Busting the myths about welfare

Busting the myths about welfare
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
June 2012

The idea that a generous welfare state reduces people’s work ethic is so ingrained in British political culture it has become axiomatic. So commonsensical in this view that many readers will no doubt be scratching their heads wondering why I just stated the bleedin’ obvious. For example, 69 percent of respondents in a January YouGov poll agreed that “Britain’s current welfare system has created a culture of dependency”. Similarly, a survey last year by the respected NatCen Social Research found 54 percent of respondents believed that unemployment benefits were too high and discouraged the unemployed from finding work. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith seems to stand with public opinion on this issue, warning recently that a 5.2 percent increase in unemployment benefits would make it less likely the unemployed would seek work.

But what if I was to tell you the evidence suggests the exact opposite is true?

I am referring to the very important but largely ignored research titled ‘Has welfare made us lazy? Employment commitment in different welfare states’ included in the 2009 British Social Attitudes survey. The author, Ingrid Esser, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Stockholm University, compares the generosity of the welfare state with employment commitment in 13 industrialised nations. Her conclusion? “Employment commitment is decidedly stronger within more generous welfare states”. She goes on to say “work morale cannot be described as being undermined by generous welfare states today. Social benefits do not appear to have made people lazy… it appears to be quite possible to maintain strong work morale within a generous welfare state.” Furthermore, she notes the few studies that were conducted prior to her research “have either found no clear relationship between employment commitment and welfare provision, or have found stronger employment commitment in countries known to have more generous welfare states.”

Not that you would know any of this from reading our supposedly progressive media. A quick search of the websites of The Guardian, Independent and BBC bring up zero mentions of Esser or her myth-shattering study.

For those sceptics who are thinking ‘work commitment’ is a vague term to define and measure, how about using employment statistics instead? As the level of benefits paid to the unemployed in the UK are among the lowest in Europe, the ‘welfare makes people lazy’ argument suggests the UK will have a corresponding low level of unemployment. In contrast, Sweden, Norway and Finland have the most generous welfare states in Europe and therefore should have higher levels of unemployment. Eurostat figures show the reverse to be correct. In January 2012 the UK’s unemployment rate was 8.2 percent, while Sweden and Finland’s was 7.6 percent and Norway’s was 3.2 percent.

The problem with the ‘welfare makes people lazy’ argument is that it is based on a narrow rational economic model of behaviour. This assumes people make rational and informed choices about whether to work or not, when there is considerable evidence to suggest many people have a poor knowledge of the complex benefits system. More importantly, it presumes that money is the primary motivation for work. Esser’s research strongly suggests factors beyond the purely financial are far more influential – such as whether there is any suitable work available, the level of support and training people get from the state and the affordability of childcare. A good illustration of these non-financial factors is contained in Karen Rowlingson’s and Stephen McKay’s 2002 book Lone Parent Families: Gender, Class and the State. The two sociologists note that while “It is common for those on the political right to argue that lone parenthood has risen because women have access to relatively high rates of benefits” the experience of the USA and Sweden contradict this popular view: “The USA has the highest level of lone parenthood in the Western world but its level of social assistance is among the lowest” whereas “Sweden has the largest proportion of lone parents in paid work but the benefit replacement rate is also the highest.”

As well as the negative effects on physical health, it is clear a stingy welfare state can also have a deleterious effect on an individual’s psychological wellbeing. “If people feel like the welfare state demeans them and signifies failure they will experience low personal worth and react against the system that oppresses them”, the left-wing Labour Representation Committee notes. “It is therefore entirely logical that more conditionality, more stigma, and a low financial reward will decrease work morale.”

With Job Seekers Allowance currently set at a depressingly low £71 per week for a single person over 25 and public support for the welfare state dipping, these arguments are very important to have – and win. Because we will only be able to raise unemployment benefits to an adequate living standard, build a more generous welfare state, and create a more humane society, if we nail, once and for all, the myth that a more generous welfare state makes people lazy.