The intervention by Gordon Brown, together with the campaign being run by the Daily Mirror to stop Universal Credit, exposes how weak Labour’s policy is on this area and benefits in general. Labour's policy on Universal Credit is “pause and fix”, which means: opposing the latest cut to tax credits that is being rolled into universal credit; reducing the waiting period and making it easier to opt for the housing element to be paid direct to landlords.
At conference it was also announced they would scrap the punitive sanctions regime but no promise has been made over “claimant commitment and conditionality” (the punitive and coercive element of Universal Credit). But would leave universal credit intact, paid in arrears and incorporating many of the cuts already made. Labour's policy would mean a narrower and more punitive benefit system than that which existed in 2010.
Gordon Brown likened the impact of the fully rolled out Universal Credit as similar to the poll tax. I do not think this is hyperbole.
Currently Universal Credit covers about 1.1 million individuals — mainly childless people of working age and some disabled people. It has already resulted in massive increases in rent arrears, debt and use of food banks. Starting in July 2019 Universal Credit will be rolled out to the much larger group of people currently receiving tax credits. When they migrate over to the new benefit they will suffer a major cut in their income.
The Resolution Foundation says up to 3.2 million households will be hit by a cut of up to £200 a month. According to the Times, the Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey has told the cabinet that half of lone parents and two thirds of all couples with children of working age would be hit by the cut. Due to in-work conditionality hundreds of thousands of part-time low-paid workers will have to demonstrate to the Department of Work and Pensions that they are looking for more hours or higher paid work.
Unite Community has done good work around sanctions but it is also fully signed-up to Labour's policy of “pause and fix”. There are some small campaigning groups but these are often mainly focused around housing with Universal Credit as a secondary focus. The GMB has done some good work in educating its reps on the issue but it too is committed to “pause and fix”.
Corbyn and McDonnell make broad and moralistic attacks on Tory cuts, often quite effectively in PMQs or conferences, but they don’t really get the detail. Maybe this is a hangover from coming from the Bennite left. In its long years in the wilderness this left tended to focus on what it considered socialism — public ownership, Workers' rights, Trident and international issues. It was content to take the soft left's lead on what it considered social-democratic issues, like the NHS and welfare. Most of the campaigning around welfare is being done by NGOs, charities, churches etc.
Due to the long period of defeats over the last 40 years the left's influence is weakest among the poorest parts of the working-class. The only organised-left presence many people encounter is a Labour councillor doing casework. More often then not this is totally divorced from any wider sense of political engagement.
The cleverer people on the right of the party have noticed this weakness on the left. They now see campaigning on such bread-and-butter issues as a way back to political relevance. All the better if they can portray their concern as standing up for something which directly affects working-class families and contrast this to Corbyn who they want to portray as obsessed with “ideological" or "middle class” causes like Palestine, public ownership or tuition fees.
Owen Jones has written in the Guardian calling for a national movement like the Anti Poll Tax Federation to bring local groups together: “A similar movement focused on UC must now be founded to prepare for the mass protests and civil disobedience that must be the response to a deliberate Tory attempt to drive millions into hardship.”.
So far so radical. But what Owen doesn’t do is call on the Labour Party to change its policy to outright opposition to Universal Credit. Yet committees should be set up in every town and these should include Labour Party members, trade unionists, Momentum, campaigning groups. All need to build for a loud public campaign on this. But first let’s get Labour to stand up for the people it was founded to represent and call for the scrapping of Universal Credit and its replacement by a social security system that’s not about forcing people into low-paid work but is a tool to abolish poverty and squalor and give a decent life to all.