Is there an underclass of welfare dependents?

One question that always surfaces in my mind when the words “welfare reform” are used: “Where are all the jobs going to come from?”

Presumably, there will be new jobs created in the private companies which will be allowed to run services currently provided by Job Centre staff. Which might allow some sacked Job Centre workers to effectively get their job back – on lower pay.

But where are all these jobs going to come from – the ones that the sick and long-term unemployed are to be trained for?

Is the government planning some kind of new green deal which will create millions of jobs in manufacturing and agriculture? I doubt it, they can barely even get the banks to lend money to small businesses, never mind fund an expansion of the economy…

Which leads me to believe that the “real deal” with these welfare reforms is to redirect the beneficiaries of the welfare state from workers, pensioners, the sick and the unemployed, to big businesses.

Benefit claimants – and indeed, all of us – should recieve a basic Citizens’ Income in place of other welfare payments.

We should not demonise the unemployed, but the capitalist system which is throwing people onto the dole and out of their homes.

No doubt New Labour’s plans will be passed into law – a backbench rebellion meaning it will go through with Tory support. Given that the labour movement has united against these reactionary proposals, there should be deep questioning of why trade union money is still funding New Labour. If the labour movement wants to see Tory policies implemented, why not fund the Tory party?

Read this article, dispelling myths about the “something for nothing” culture, from Socialist Worker:

Labour’s nasty attacks on benefit claimants
by Siân Ruddick

Labour and Tory politicians have been falling over each other to prove that they are the toughest on those who claim welfare benefits.

Work and pensions secretary James Purnell was to unveil a raft of draconian new plans in the Welfare Reform White Paper on Wednesday – details of which were flagged up in last week’s Queen’s Speech.

From lone parents to people suffering from long term illness, the government proposes to cut access to financial support and use increasingly punitive measures to force people into work.

New legislation will include a harsh sanctions regime for those claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA) payments.

This will include cash penalties for those who miss appointments or fail to adhere to “contracts” detailing training and other steps to prepare for work.

Harder

The new raft of “welfare reforms” follow recent similar attacks on incapacity benefit claimants that were also designed to make benefits harder to claim and to push more people into work.

Purnell has said that lone parents with children as young as one may be forced to look for work or training and report to a job centre every fortnight.

Quite apart from the attacks on parents’ choices and quality of life, the government doesn’t offer free nursery places until the age of three – so most lone parents would be forced to find costly private childcare just to be able to look for work.

And it’s not just parents who will be on the receiving end. The majority of disabled people would be required to actively seek or prepare for work before receiving benefits.

In a nasty attack that panders to the worst elements of the tabloid press, the government says it will roll out lie detector tests at job centres across Britain.

This will feed the myth that people claiming benefits are intrinsically untrustworthy or dishonest.

Some 25 councils already use such tests in relation to assessing housing benefit claims.

The continuing demonisation of people on benefits has become a hallmark of New Labour policy. Headed up by Purnell, “welfare reform” has become a stick to beat and frighten people with.

Both Labour and Tories say they want to stop a “something for nothing” culture of welfare dependency.

Disposable

But life on state benefits is far from a holiday. On average, over 25 year olds get about £60 per week. This is not disposable income – it is supposed to cover all utility and food bills, as well as money for clothing and household goods.

The government is demanding that people should try harder to get a job.

But with unemployment rising, people with years of experience in skilled jobs are joining the dole queues. In most job centres decent long- term jobs are hard to come by.

The government’s plans will be delivered by expanding the role of private companies contracts.

It is likely to award contracts on the basis of meeting targets for getting people off benefits – increasing the pressure on “advisers” from private firms to push people into work or training, even where it is unsuitable.

Benefits are a vital part of the welfare state. We should defend the idea of a collective responsibility for ensuring people’s welfare.

At a time of economic crisis these arguments can become sharper. We must resist the scapegoating of those in receipt of benefits.

Is there an underclass of welfare dependents?
The conviction of Karen Matthews for kidnapping her daughter, Shannon, has led politicians and the media to denounce the supposed “underclass” of benefit claimants that exists in Britain.

According to the Sunday Times, the case has demonstrated “the perverse consequences of the welfare system”.

Predictably, the Sun went further: “Vile Karen Matthews is a product of the sink-estate underclass of chaotic families that loaf away their days on easy welfare benefits.”

These assertions have helped to fuel a picture of council estates filled with work-shy layabouts who refuse to “integrate” into respectable society.

In reality there is no such thing as an “underclass”. The idea that there are whole streets and communities in Britain where no one works is a myth.

Even on Karen Matthews’s street in Dewsbury – now held up as the classic sink estate – the Guardian found this week that almost every household had someone in work.

Areas where poverty is common do of course exist, but repeated studies have shown that poverty is a threat across the working class.

Many of those in poverty are families surviving on minimum wage or low paid jobs with little to show for it at the end of the month.

A 2002 report called Poverty and the Welfare State: Dispelling the Myths, by social policy expert Paul Spicker, attacked the notion of an underclass and took Labour to task for its attacks on “welfare dependency”.

The report found that although certain groups – such as young people, those out of work, or pensioners – are the most likely to be poor, no group “is immune to poverty”.

Throughout the 1990s some 60 percent of the population spent at least one year in the bottom 30 percent of income distribution.

Spicker concluded, “Poverty is not the moral, cultural or social problem of a permanently excluded underclass, but an economic risk that affects everyone.”

So for those truly concerned about the sort of society children are growing up in, the urgent question should be how to address the scandal of poverty.

The concept of some sort of “underclass” conjures Victorian-era notions of the “undeserving poor”.

These ideas inform much of New Labour’s “reforms” including its approach to welfare, crime and education.

The Tories refuse to be outdone by New Labour and have proposed that benefit claimants should have to disclose their family history.

Those whose parents and immediate family have been on benefits “long term” will be scrutinised, including their child’s performance in school.

The demonisation of those who receive benefits does nothing to address the real problem of poverty.

No nukes or prescription charges for Scotland, free school meals and social housing instead!

[Tuesday]

If the British ruling class have any plans to back the US in bombing Iran over its nuclear energy programme, they should think again. It could cost the Union…

The SNP/Green Scottish government is keen to push for nuclear disarmament, which is actually a stated aim of the UK Labour government.

First Minister Alex Salmond is seeking support from the international community in his campaign to rid Scotland of nuclear weapons.

He has written to representatives of 189 countries signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Mr Salmond is asking them to back his bid for Scotland to have observer status at future treaty talks.

Labour MP Eric Joyce said the letter could “potentially damage our national security interests”.

[…]

Mr Joyce, the MP for Falkirk, said that the UK had very complex relationships with some countries such as Iran and Zimbabwe.

Ah yes, complex relations. In the case of Iran, the British government has in the past intervened with the US to depose a democratically-elected government; as for Zimbabwe, it is a former colony to which the UK government did not meet its commitments and has helped cripple its economy with sanctions.

But neither state threatens the interests of any of the nations in the “United Kingdom”…

What are the other objections?

David Cairns, the Scotland Office minister, says that Alex Salmond should be sorting out the free personal care instead of “cavorting across the world stage with his discredited loony-left policies” and giving comfort to our enemies. Well, they are also his loony policies, since Labour is still formally committed to pursuing “multilateral nuclear disarmament” under a defence policy which dates from the late 1980s.

Well, it looks like the matter of freebies hasn’t escpaed the Scottish Health Secretary:

Charges for prescriptions are to be abolished within four years, Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon has pledged.

The deputy first minister said some people were being forced to go without vital medication because they could not afford to pay.

And there’s more:

Primary pupils are starting to receive free school meals as part of a pilot project in five parts of Scotland.
The scheme for all children in the first three years of school is under way in Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire.

They will be followed in the coming days and weeks by schools in East Ayrshire, Fife and the Borders.

The Scottish Government has invested £5m in the pilot scheme, with about 8,500 additional pupils expected to take up the offer in Glasgow alone.

The city already has free fruit, milk and mains-fed water coolers in its schools.

The six-month pilot has been set up to see if providing a nutritious lunch for all children could help improve their diets.

It all sounds very “Old Labour”, doesn’t it? Okay, the SNP are objectively a party of big business, but they are committed to winning independence for Scotland, and to this end will push the limits of devolution and provide reforms for working people to win them over to independence…

With measures like this:

The SNP government will consider a ban on the sale of new council and housing association homes.

A Scottish Government source said it would consult on the option, which would only affect those tenants moving to new-build homes.

The option will be contained in the government’s housing green paper, which should be published in coming weeks.

Now, this shows two things:

1. Socialists north of the border need to work together to ensure that these progressive reforms are implemented. This means some kind of conciliation between Solidarity and the Scottish Socialist Party.

2. Devolution can stall the neo-liberal agenda and allow a return to social democratic politics and reforms to benefit working people, which is why socialists should back a parliament for England.

Here endeth the lecture.

John4Leaving?

[Monday]

I have been wondering for some time: will John McDonnell jump ship? His latest article for the Morning Star was published on Saturday.

I doubt that there will be any movement from McDonnell or others on the Labour left until after the general election (which, I expect will be held in November – unless Brown bottles it).

Still, the gist of the piece is that “Reclaim Labour” is a dead-end; the focus should instead be on building a “movement of movements” – green activism, rank-and-file unionism, campaigns for council housing and workers’ rights. Where does this lead, I wonder?

AFTER the events at the TUC and Labour Party conference, it is time for the left to take a hard-nosed look at where we go from here.

First of all, we have to face up to the harsh realities of the new political world in which we are operating.

The historical path of the left stems from working people coming together in the workplace and discovering their strength through solidarity. Nourished by socialist ideas, they recognised that, if they wanted to exercise power beyond the workplace, they needed political representation. So the Labour Party was born.

Democratic party structures were established to develop the policy programmes to be implemented when power was achieved.

This week’s vote to close down democratic decision-making at the Labour Party conference and Gordon Brown’s first speech as leader demonstrated that the old strategy is largely over. The conference is now virtually irrelevant and its replacement, the National Policy Forum, is a behind-closed-doors exercise of centralised control of party policy-making.

Brown’s speeches at both the TUC and Labour conference demonstrated decisively how much he fundamentally believes in the principles of neoliberalism – the dominance of the market, flexible labour and privatisation.

Even if there was the potential to use what is left of the party’s structures to attempt to influence him, it is clear that the overall political direction of the Brown government is non-negotiable.

The left has the difficult task of accepting and explaining to others that the old routes into the exercise of power and influence involving internal Labour Party mobilisations and manoeuvres have largely been closed down. We have to face up to the challenge of identifying and developing new routes into effective political activity.

The contradiction is that the more undemocratic the Labour Party becomes, the more it cuts itself off from the real world at a time when new social movements are emerging.

People may be increasingly giving up on political parties, but they haven’t given up on politics. They still want to challenge the injustices they meet in our society and they are devising a multitude of mechanisms to do so, from independent media and climate camps to affinity groups organising direct action.

New social movements have mobilised on a vast array of issues ranging from climate change, asylum rights, to housing and arms sales. Many trade unions have also rediscovered their roots as social movements themselves in their new campaigns on everything from private equity to the exploitation of migrant workers.

New alliances are being forged and, where trade union leaderships have been incorporated as supporters of the status quo, rank-and-file activity within their unions is re-emerging and organising.

The difficult task for the left now is to appreciate that new strategies, new coalitions of forces and, above all else, a new dynamism are needed to deal with the new political environment where the traditional routes have been so narrowed.

The left needs to open itself to co-operation with progressive campaigns within our community, learning from them, treating them with mutual respect, rejecting any patronising or sectarian approach and, where needed, to serve as the catalyst to instigate and facilitate campaigning activity. Creativity is also needed to stimulate the analysis, debate and discussion of the ideas and principles which we may share in our wish to transform our society.

The main political parties are increasingly seen as irrelevant to the real-world issues facing our communities, resulting in declining participation rates and election turnouts and deepening scepticism.

This doesn’t mean that people are apathetic. Far from it.

There is a growing radical nature to our times and an opportunity for a period of exciting, frenetic activity capable of creating a climate of progressive hegemony which no government could immunise itself from no matter how ruthlessly it closes down democracy in its own party. [Emphasis added]

From Sedgefield to Southall

[Friday]

New Labour has held Sedgefield in the by-election sparked by Tony Blair’s departure as a Member of Parliament – though the turnout was twenty percent lower than in 2005 and the majority was substantially reduced (by 11,493 votes).

There was never any possibility that they would lose Sedgefield, it is a safe seat, so much so that a corpse in a red rosette would be victorious over all adversaries. (The political corpse of Tony Blair is in Portugal, for a Quartet meeting, by the way.) The candidate, Phil Wilson, was a Blairite candidate, groomed by the Liar to take his place.

The comical fascists of the BNP came fourth, the easy treatment in the media allowing them to pass as a Euro-sceptic “common sense” party and thus gaining a vote that might otherwise go to the Tories. But this is Durham in the north east of England: anti-Tory territory. The fascists used an advertisement that appeared in the local paper to tout their credentials as the party that could offer the electorate a protest vote that would have an impact.

The speech after the results by the BNP candidate, a leader in the fuel protests seven years ago, bigged-up Ukania and ended with a cry of “God Save the Queen!” Wilson and his Tory rival left the stage as the fascist began to speak, which was an odd thing to do considering that his mishmash of British nationalism and closeted racism would not have been out of place in either party.

Cameron’s Conservatives came third behind the Liberals, but as I said, this is the north of England, so they’re not shedding tears about the result. The fight for second place in safe Labour seats is difficult for the Tories as their supporters are apt to vote tactically for the Liberals. This complication is one of the failings of the first-past-the-post system, but the Tories are stubborn defenders of it at a national level.

The real victor of the night was not Phil Wilson of New Labour; it was the Abstention and Apathy Party: two thirds of registered voters in Sedgefield did not participate in the election. Sadly, there is no mechanism for the disinterested and disillusioned to speak, although two-fingers would suffice…

*

It was a death that triggered the Ealing Southall election, another safe Labour seat, but the election campaign was a little livelier than Sedgefield. A scandal involving the Tory candidate, Tony Lit, made the national press and embarrassed David Cameron.

Lit was pictured with Tony Blair at a fundraiser one week before he joined the Tories at the behest of Cameron. This led the literature to feature the party leader more prominently than the candidate – which means that in comparison with David Cameron, the handsome businessman lacked credibility. That’s really saying something. Cameron’s name was even on the ballot paper at the Tories billed themselves as “David Cameron’s Conservatives”!

In the end, Labour’s Virendra Sharma held the seat, though again with a reduced majority (6,370 votes lost) – the Tories came third, which will leave Cameron humiliated and brings his leadership into question yet again.

Sir Menzies Campbell will suffer similar disgruntlement from within his own party – I expect he was praying that a by-election victory would kill off complaints about his leadership and reduce the number of ageist jibes made by members of the Fourth Estate.

The vote in both by-elections was unaffected by the reputed “Brown bounce”, with Labour’s vote rather drastically reduced in terms of numbers – though this was not because of Blair’s departure, which if anything was the reason that Labour’s poll ratings increased. I wonder though, if the dope had any effect on the electorate, for it has done nothing for the cabinet… Please understand: I am not talking about Gordon Brown.

Interestingly, the Greens came fourth in Ealing, to the chagrin of Respect, who came fifth, winning half as many votes as their leftish environmental rivals. Not good.

The lack of a total disaster for Labour in these by-elections increases the probability of Gordon Brown calling a snap election in coming months. The Tories have been bumped into third place and the Liberals have failed to win a by-election (since 1989 they have won all by-elections in seats in which they were previously second-place).

Any bad news this might be for the parties will be overshadowed by the inevitable result of the cash for honours police investigation – no charges will be pressed against anyone. Hey ho.