The Labour Party’s new Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) shadow secretary of state has sparked controversy after sharing his views on the social security system. But moreover, he’s shown he doesn’t have a clue about the job Keir Starmer has given him.
Labour and the DWP
Jonathan Reynolds, MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, is Keir Starmer’s shadow work and pensions secretary. On 5 June, PoliticsHome published an interview with him. It outlined Reynolds’ views on social security, Universal Credit, and how he thinks the system should work. But far from being in touch with disabled, sick, and unemployed people who claim welfare, Reynolds did little more than display his ignorance.
We need a system where everyone feels it’s available to them. When people put in, they get the right amount of support out of it. And if you put more in, you get more out of it. But it genuinely is there for everybody. And at the same time gives dignity and respect to people with disabilities who won’t be able to participate in the labour market in the same way
If you take your statement to its conclusions in terms of policy, these are the outcomes that you get:
1) Higher Rate Taxpayers should have higher benefit entitlements
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2) Women, who, as is well established, not only earn less (‘the Gender Pay Gap’), but through their caring responsibilities both for children and family members save the government many millions of pounds. In simplistic terms therefore they pay less tax, so should have lower benefit entitlements.
3) BAME people, who earn less (‘the BAME Pay Gap’), and therefore pay less tax, should have lower benefit entitlements
4) Young adults who have had less time to accrue tax payments, and therefore should have even lower benefit entitlements than they do already
5) Disabled people who face huge barriers in terms of discrimination and lack of access, who have great difficulty in accessing any work at all (‘the Disability Employment Gap’), and therefore pay much less tax, should receive much lower benefit entitlements
6) Disabled People who, due to their impairments, do not have the capacity for paid work ( however much they want to work, they simply can’t), and who pay very little tax should receive no benefit entitlements
Moreover, PoliticsHome said that Reynolds believed Universal Credit “is a system designed for high employment”. This is demonstrably false. Iain Duncan Smith’s think tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), designed Universal Credit in the aftermath of the 2007/08 financial crisis. As the original policy document Dynamic Benefits noted:
With the likelihood that more than 2.5 million Britons will soon be officially unemployed, the need to reform the benefits system is more pressing than ever. To ensure that the number of workless people reduces as quickly as possible after the recession, it is imperative that we do not repeat the mistakes of previous downturns. Large numbers of claimants cannot be consigned to long-term worklessness by making it pointless for them to return to work.
The Tories created Universal Credit specifically to address high unemployment. The idea was that it would force everyone who could to work. This is because the more money you earn, the less benefits you get.
But there was also huge hypocrisy at the heart of Reynolds’ interview.
Stupid poor people
He said that Universal Credit:
is a system predicated on a very kind of Victorian attitude to poor people. The ethos of it is mean, it is something almost predicated on the idea that you’ve got to hit people with a stick, to get them back into work.
He was kind of right. The Tories belief with Universal Credit was that poor people are stupid. They can’t manage their own lives, therefore they can’t stay in work – and that’s why they’re poor. But it wasn’t based on the notion of ‘hitting people with a stick’ to make them work. It was based on the other Victorian idea of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. As I previously wrote for The Canary, the Tories designed Universal Credit thinking:
To stop poor people being stupid and making themselves destitute, the government needed to shake up the benefits system; to nudge everyone possible into work, and those in work into more work; making welfare reliance impossible. And anyone left? It’s their own, stupid fault.
The digitised workhouse
As the UN’s Philip Alston neatly summed up, Universal Credit is a “digital and sanitised” version of the Victorian workhouse.
If you’re able to work, then the idea is you won’t be on Universal Credit that long, because you’re the ‘deserving poor’. Everyone else is ‘undeserving’. In Victorian times this would have been “pauperism with its attendant vices, drunkenness, improvidence, mendicancy, bad language, filthy habits, gambling, low amusements, and ignorance”. Now in 2020, it’s lone parents, disabled and sick people, and those who struggle to work for a myriad of reasons.
But the hypocrisy Reynolds shows is that his notion of putting more in to get more out is exactly the same as the Victorian deserving and undeserving poor rhetoric.
One of the reasons that support for social security has diminished amongst parts of the country is the sense that people put into the system and they don’t get anything out of it. In a way, if you look at eligibility for Universal Credit, people are not wrong. You can make significant contributions to the system and find that actually, you’re not really eligible for any major support if you need it, even in a crisis like this one. I think you’ve got to recognise that that’s a big problem for working people in the UK.
By saying that the middle-class worker, now sick but who has paid income tax all their adult life, should get more support than the single mother, now going to work for the first time but unable to find any, is classist, sexist, and divisive – the very Victorian attitude Reynolds bemoans.
Moreover, this doesn’t address the fundamental reasons why, as Reynolds said, public support for social security has diminished.
Years of propaganda
The reduction of the welfare state to a shackle around ‘hard-working’ taxpayers’ necks has been a long time in the making. As Robert McAuley wrote in his book Out of Sight, in 1990 controversial American sociologist Charles Murray:
argued that the modern welfare state was a harbinger of social disease. Unemployment relief, Murray (1990) argued, cultivated cultures of crime within communities worst hit by deindustrialisation
Tony Blair broadened this theme when he said in 2002 that:
there are hundreds of thousands more who could work, given the chance. It’s right for them, for the country, for society. But with the chance, comes a responsibility on the individual – to take the chance, to make something of their lives and use their ability and potential to the full.
Essentially, Blair paved the way for Universal Credit by saying that individuals, not the system, have to bear some responsibility for why they don’t work. As I previously wrote, the CSJ believed that:
poverty and welfare dependency were not due to capitalism’s inequalities. But that poor people and their reliance on welfare existed due to ‘pathways to poverty’: ‘family breakdown, education failure, economic dependence, [welfare] indebtedness and addictions’. Solve these, and everyone has ‘the chance to climb the ladder’, as the report put it.
Then the financial crash happened, Tory austerity was ushered in, the welfare bill became a burden, and our TVs were filled with programmes like Benefits Street. The idea that it’s people’s own faults they don’t work, not the entrenched and systemic inequalities of capitalism and government policy that go with it, is now mainstream.
By saying that people’s negative attitudes to welfare stem from a sense that you don’t get anything back from paying in, Reynolds has shown his complete ignorance of decades of propaganda that have turned people using social security into ‘scroungers’ and ‘benefit cheats’.
Thinking that giving wealthier people more money when they need to claim welfare is some sort of solution is just ludicrous. It will merely further entrench the deserving and undeserving poor rhetoric that pervades society. What Reynolds should be doing is questioning why we live in a world where so many people are systemically unequal, why the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has exposed the faults in our systems of employment, and why in 2020, some humans are seen as less deserving of a place in society than others. But of course, that would mean questioning corporate capitalism itself. And that’s something clearly not on Reynolds’, or Labour’s, agenda.
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