Who will speak for the worst-off?

Submitted by Matthew on 16 October, 2013 - 12:23

Just don’t get any ideas! That is the message from Labour’s new people appointed to front-bench positions.

Rachel Reeves, the new work and pensions front-bencher, who in another life spouted about “challenging neo-liberalism”, told the Observer that on welfare benefits:

“We would be tougher [than the Conservatives]. If they [unemployed people] don’t take it [the offer of a job] they will forfeit their benefit”.

She claimed that “there will also be the opportunities there under a Labour government”, and Labour would “get tough on the causes of unemployment and rising benefit bills: low pay, lack of economic opportunity, shortage of affordable housing”, but all that was vague.

Tristram Hunt, the new shadow education secretary, who wearing another hat wrote a sympathetic biography of Frederick Engels, started by apologising for his previous criticisms of the Tories’ “free schools” and saying:

“If you are a group of parents, social entrepreneurs and teachers interested in setting up a school in areas where you need new school places, then the Labour government will be on your side”.

Remember the facts.

School spending is squeezed, and regular community schools are losing out because money is transferred to Academies and free schools. Teachers’ and other school workers’ wages are being cut in real terms.

By 2014-5 the average household will have lost £760 a year through the Tories’ benefit cuts. The cuts are not about a mythical army of “scroungers” who choose to luxuriate on the dole even though they could get jobs.

The majority of those who lose through the benefit cuts are working, but on low pay. The unemployed are unemployed because there aren’t jobs, and the government is furiously axing even more jobs in the public sector.

The benefit cuts hit the worse-off harder, and the disabled hardest of all. They are a major engine of the spiralling social inequality which, on another day, the Labour leaders piously deplore.

Labour’s leaders want to reverse, or at least limit, that inequality spiral? But at the same time be “tougher than the Tories” in pushing major policies which increase inequality?

Against the “tougher-than-thou” consensus among mainstream politicians, who will speak up for the worst-off?

Who will dispute the myths about “scroungers”? Who will tell the truth about the escalating increase in child poverty, which goes on despite legislation in March 2010, supported even by the Tories, which theoretically commits the government to reduce child poverty to low percentages by 2020-1?

Who will stop people forgetting the findings of a study by the conservative Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) in May this year: “Tax and benefit reforms introduced since April 2010 can account for almost all of the increase in child poverty projected over the next few years”?

Who will help the low-waged, the insecurely-employed, and jobless organise and fight back?

In the first place, the socialists must do that. If ever we think that “it’s all hopeless” or “nothing we do makes a difference”, we should remember that the first step in every great movement of change is the action of those who tell things as they really are, who denounce the crimes and abuses which others gloss over or dismiss.

In the second place, we must transform and mobilise our trade unions, the fallback organisations of the working class, to speak up for the worst off and help them organise.

Too often trade unions get hunkered down in defending the terms and conditions only of the (usually slightly better-paid, slightly more securely-employed) workers where their organisation is strongest.

That is wrong, and anyway short-sighted. Trade unions must be made to speak up for and organise the whole working class. If we do that, we can win. We can win some gains even now.

At the Labour conference at the end of September, Labour leaders promised to abolish the bedroom tax, to repeal the Health and Social Care Act, to freeze energy prices, to give councils power to take building land left idle by developers, to create job offers for all those unemployed a long time, and to do something (they wouldn’t quite say what) to promote the Living Wage.

The Tory press responded with volleys denouncing Ed Miliband as “red”, “Bolshevik”, and set on pursuing the Marxist vision of his father, “the man who hated Britain”.

That has made the Labour leaders so nervous that they are anxious to “balance” things with promises to be “tough” about benefits and “on the side” of Tory-style “free schools”.

The Labour leaders are also, no doubt, worried that if they promise anything much, then working-class people will “get ideas” and start demanding more. The promises made at Labour conference, feeble though they were, were the first time since 1996-7 that mainstream politicians had offered anything noticeably to the left of the government of the day.

In 1996-7 it was Tony Blair promising things like the minimum wage. He was anxious at the time to balance that by insisting that he would rid Labour of any taint of not being entirely “pro-business” and that he would keep “the most restrictive [laws] on trade unions in the western world”.

Nevertheless, even the minimal promises of things different from the Tories created a new wave of hope and a somewhat higher level of confidence in the working class. Blair had made quite sure he could stamp on it, but it was there.

Campaigning by socialists and unions has forced the Labour leaders to shift on issues like the bedroom tax. We do not rely on their promises, but we do fight to hold them to account. More campaigning can force more shifts. The duty of socialists is to lead the way.

The campaign to commit the Labour Party to abolish the bedroom tax has succeeded. Under pressure from a campaign by tenants, community, trade union and Labour left activists, Ed Miliband has said he “wants to be known as the Prime Minister who abolishes the Bedroom Tax”.

However this is not much relief for hundreds of thousands of tenants who have been deemed to have vacant bedrooms, have had their benefit cuts and now have rent arrears.

The majority of Labour-led councils, along with other councils that still control their own council housing and Housing Associations, are implementing the bedroom tax. Some are already threatening tenants in arrears with eviction. Their expressions of sympathy look hollow to tenants facing eviction.

Councils and housing associations should follow Renfrewshire council’s lead and adopt a firm no-eviction policy.

Councillors Against the Cuts has put out a statement for Labour councillors to sign calling for no evictions

Another foul coalition policy, which could also force hundreds of thousands of people into rent arrears and into the courts, is the cut in council tax benefit. There has been a 10% cut in central government funding for council tax benefit. Councils have been left to decide for themselves how they chose to “manage” this. With few exceptions councils have chosen to pass these cuts on to households.

Labour Party-commissioned research estimates around 450,000 individuals have been summoned to court over council tax arrears. Some anti-bedroom tax activists — “Hands Off Our Homes” in Leeds for instance — have been campaigning around this issue as well.

As we get nearer a general election it is increasingly unlikely that the government will change tack on these two policies. The Tories’ electoral strategy is going to rely heavily on stoking up hatred and fear against benefit claimants and the poor. Disgracefully, Labour, apart from on the issue of the bedroom tax, has chosen to compete with Tory for “being tough” on the poor.

Action by the Scottish and Welsh governments, by councils, by housing associations, in support of the victims of the bedroom tax and council tax changes, could make them a dead letter. We need to keep up the pressure.

Socialists, activists, trade unionists, and tenants need to organise now to defend people from the threat of eviction.

In Manchester, Renfrewshire, Birmingham, and elsewhere evictions have been stopped by militant campaigns — sometimes even stopping bailiffs at the garden gate or on the doorstep.

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