MPs will today vote on a welfare budget cap, setting an arbitrary cash limit on how much the government can spend in vital areas of social security without consideration for claimants’ needs nor the real root causes of increased welfare spending.
Though the proposal is largely in line with what many have come to expect from our Conservative-led coalition, which pays undue attention to welfare spending in its proclaimed mission to mercilessly slash the deficit, left-wingers without interest in participating in the demonisation of the poor will be ashamed to hear the Labour Party subscribing to the plans with apparent glee.
When a BBC interviewer suggested to the shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves this morning that her party had signed up to Tory policy on benefits, she pointed immediately to Miliband’s calls for a welfare cap as early as last June. Charged with usurping the ground of the UK’s centre-right, Reeves somehow found it appropriate to first claim full credit for the policy.
In an article for PoliticsHome, she goes further, mustering the audacity to link the welfare cap to “strengthening the minimum wage and encouraging more employers to pay a living wage”. The connection is tenuous; supporting this thoroughly Conservative welfare cap serves primarily to reinforce a media-backed drive to force vulnerable people to bear the brunt of the austerity agenda, and does nothing to further the meaningful change she promotes in lifting wages and reducing rents.
More likely, the move to back the Tories is an attempt to placate the right-populist tide sweeping England and Wales – an effort to keep a firm grasp on working-class voters who are being slowly seduced by Ukip’s anti-immigration rhetoric and British nationalist approach to politics.
The moral soundness of this blatant politicking is questionable, but its consequences are more concrete: Labour will lend credence to the myth that government spending is out of control, and grant legitimacy to the mainstream media’s vociferous channelling of public discontent towards immigrants and benefit claimants, among the most vulnerable people in our society.
A report published today by the Mental Welfare Commission indicates that giving into the right’s ongoing effort to shift blame for this economic crisis onto our sick and jobless is not harmless. It highlights the case of a woman whose Work Capability Assessment (WCA) found her fit for work, having scored zero points on the graduated assessment scale – despite her history of depression and the significant medication she was taking. Less than a month later, she took her own life.
In preparing the 41-page report, the MWC embarked on comprehensive research that unearthed at least one sensational figure: after surveying psychiatrists, they found that 13% reported at least one of their patients attempted suicide as a direct result of the government-mandated assessment process.
And the Work Capability Assessment is the perfect microcosm of Labour welfare policy: a loathsome, bureaucratic device of oppression that was devised not by the Conservatives, who have admittedly wielded it so well as a weapon against workers, but by the late Labour government under Blair and Brown.
In opposition, Labour urge the abolition of the Work Capability Assessment (while remaining eerily quiet on what ‘fairer’ replacement they’d prefer) and the end of the Department of Work and Pensions’ contract with Atos Healthcare – conveniently forgetting that Blair’s government originally hired that French multinational, now conducting WCAs, in 2005.
Meanwhile, Labour combine this new-found opposition to their own policies with support for a Tory welfare cap, proving that Miliband’s outward appearance as new standard-bearer of the Labour left is little more than a façade for a party that remains as distant now from its founding principles as it did when Gordon Brown bailed out the banks.
There will doubtlessly be rebellion in the Labour ranks when MPs vote on the welfare cap today, but it will be a half-hearted protest from politicians who have served the needs of Labour’s right for almost two decades now. They know Tony Benn is dead and the notion of a socialist Labour is rapidly disappearing with him.
Under Miliband, Labour’s claim to the mantle of ‘party of the working class’ is shaky as ever, especially when Tory attacks on social security are hammering so many in the UK. Over the past three and a half years, Miliband has simply proven his party remains without credibility on the subject of welfare policy, and function as Tory apologists in both government and opposition.