Labour’s shadow DWP secretary just threw every claimant under the bus

Jonathan Reynolds and the DWP logo
Steve Topple

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.

In an overarching interview, several things stood out. The main thing was Reynolds’ comments on how he thinks the system needs to change. He said that:

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

“Idiotic”

Campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) broke down the huge problems with Reynolds’ statement. In an open letter to Reynolds, it called him “idiotic”. This, DPAC said, was because:

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

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

Factually inaccurate

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.

Steaming hypocrisy

Reynolds said:

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.

Complete ignorance

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.

Featured image via Wikimedia/Chris McAndrew and Wikimedia/UK government 

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  • Show Comments
    1. I despair!

      Labour has no excuse for this kind of attitude and if Shadow Ministers are that lacking in knowledge and experience they should not give media interviews until they know what they are talking about.

      Questions for Jonathan Reynolds, MP

      (1) How many briefing meetings has he had with representatives of benefit claimants such as Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and independent researchers like Philip Alston of the UN (a man I know personally and have a great deal of respect for) who have experience and/or data-driven factual knowledge about UC and legacy benefits and their impact on claimants?

      (2) How many parts of the country has he visited in person or via video link to speak directly e.g. with food banks, their volunteers, and the people depending on them? Has he done as much to ‘reach out’ to ‘ordinary people’ as Alston did during his visit to the UK? Ditto in reaching out to charities, NGOs, academics and policy think tanks.

      (3) What plans does he have to create advisory panels populated by representatives drawn from those mentioned in (1) and (2) which can lend him their expertise now, and in months and years ahead, so that he does not make policy up on the hoof like a complete dingbat (aka a Tory minister winging it through a pandemic) but presents plans that are grounded in reality and led from grassroots activism so that the DWP (or, ideally, the fit-for-purpose ministry that replaces it) serves the people instead of tyrannising over them?

      The same sort of questions should be put to the entire Shadow Cabinet – did we vote for Labour so you could sit in a ‘Westminster Bubble’, never venturing out of your comfort zone, cushioned by MPs’ privileges, while we are thrown to the wolves by Johnson and his austerity-obsessed party?

      Black Lives Matter. So do the lives of the poor, unemployed, sick, disabled, aged, women, children, and every other member of the human race. Right now, grassroots activists are marching to protest racism – risking sickness or worse. But not one British parliamentary political party has officially and in unison rallied to support them. Labour has lost its connection to those who used to vote Labour, and would again, but only if Labour offers leadership and organisation that can turn grievances into practical policies and promise to put those policies into action when elected to power.

      Labour has no reason to guess what to do about the catastrophe of DWP, UC, assessments and sanctions – there are millions of experts who can tell Labour exactly what needs to be fixed. Just ask anyone on benefits! But Labour leadership, the PLP and others backed by organisation and the resources to fight elections and win, have to (1) admit they do not know enough about living on benefits (2) go and ask those who do know (3) listen to what is said (4) write it into policy documents (5) refine by re-asking the grassroots experts (6) put it in a manifesto (7) campaign every day until the message gets through and voters trust it enough to vote for it.

      Labour seem to have learned nothing. In 2015, Miliband promised ‘more austerity’ than the Tories under Cameron, Osborne, and Ian Duncan-Smith. When I read the report in The Guardian I was physically sick. I literally ran to the bathroom and vomited. That year, for the first time ever, I did not vote Labour, I voted Green. Now Miliband is back and it seems like the Shadow Cabinet are living in 2015. Get out of your time warp and deal with 2020 reality! If you ignore this advice, expect Labour to follow the LibDems into oblivion. And good riddance!

      I am so furious, I might vomit again. Excuse me.

    2. I think as western economies collapse many people who wanted the government to be hard on benefit claimants will soon demand that shit stops when it becomes clear that to survive they’ll have to become benefit claimants themselves.

      I think that when many from the middle-classes lose businesses and well-paying jobs and maybe even their houses, not only will they no longer be reactionaries who want benefits to end, they may even become militant if they do end.

    3. All the Blair FBPE/PV/2ndRef SCAM worshippers, Galloway Gone Mad Vote Brexit Brigade those who smeared and lied about Corbyn 2015 to 2020, YOU DID THIS! YOU DID THIS TO ME, YOU DID THIS TO THEN MILLIONS OF DESPERATE, YOU DID THIS TO YOURSELF!
      You have no Excuse, we told you so over and over again and with good valid proof you chose to ignore it! Those not in a desperate situation that thought for themselves only I hope your inside dies a tiny bit with every premature and unnecessary death that you caused!

    4. Actually, the Victorians’ definition of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor is the precise opposite of that given in the article. The Victorians considered anyone able-bodied but unemployed as ‘undeserving’ and only those who could not work because of old age or disability were ‘deserving’.

    5. My InSite as a free voter what we are after happening
      Next G.E. time and are working on it now voter.

      Labour’s shadow DWP secretary just threw every,
      claimant under the bus.

      Well Mr. Keir Starmer (Labour leader) look like you have same problem
      Mr. Corbyn HAD Tory light party member still in you party on front bench
      now NOT looking after the right of unemployed workers that where made
      unemployed by C/19 Virus mess and the bosses sacking them all.

      Jonathan Reynolds, MP Should be sacked NOW and let him live off the
      Tory SCAM U-Credit benefit many be then he would show a bit more
      restraint in his words –in this article that is attacking the unemployed
      that need help by no fault of their own in most cases has they were sacked
      by the bosses using the C/19 Virus as an excuse to cut their worker wages bills down
      to save their firms cash only.

      Mr. Keir Starmer Labour party will Not win next G.E. nor will Tory party
      I will politely inform both Boris + Starmer main 2 party leaders
      A new foam of politic is on way where just one party will Not run our country now
      As we cannot no longer trust this way of Governing our country just for 2 mains
      Parties needs not us residents of U.K./Wales/N/Ireland/Scotland as well.

      To both main party leaders Boris+ Starmer I do inform you now new changes
      in Govt next G.E. will happen be you both like it ‘or’ not we voter will see to that now

      No more party MANIFESTOS contract with us voter you all brake just to soot your party needs not our country or us resident needs. I personally do think we need change in Govt (you may not like my words here)
      it is time voters to flush Tory party + Labour party down the toilet and out to sea before the U.K. sinks under their miss uses of power.
      Finally!
      We voter put parties into power to look after all resident of U.K./Wales/Scotland/
      N/Ireland (to serve our needs ONLY) this includes poor/disabled/Mentally ill/
      black or white Low paid workers within U.K. areas also not forgetting the Migrant
      people this country would not keep going without their help Boris + Starmer
      both you leader of Tory + Labour party are failing NOW to look after any of us now
      Not the rich party funder or the rich M.P./Minister within the parties only looking
      after themselves and making laws the help them get richer every day.

      So, voters what do you think about next G.E. let us have a new Govt party run
      by part of each party members were all parties in H.O. Commons have say on running our country together under 1 leader we voter pick not Govt members you can pick the Minister in their jobs but not the party leader we public+ voter will do that job.

    6. UPDATE to post 7.6.2020
      Posted on over websites
      https://www.thecanary.co/
      LINK to post 7.6.2020

      Labour’s shadow DWP secretary just threw every,
      claimant under the bus.

      Please voter No piss taking my post O.K.
      Just think about a new way of our elected Govt running our country
      to benefit us all of us not the elite or rich backer of parties in Govt

      One thing to come out of C/19 Virus lock- down to keep us safe it tells
      us Tory Govt failed us so did Labour party they also failed us.
      By not holding Tory Govt FULLY to account. for their mess in handling
      Of the C.19 Virus out-brake right.

      Therefore, if both main parties cannot solve a problem together (WHATS’)
      the point of having a one Govt party in power that fails us all????
      No point in my way of thinking voters So please reply with constructive reply
      Not piss taking my post.

      As we free voters are working on this problem now for next G.E. time frame
      IN addition, a collective party Cllr member of all parties in 1 party joined up,
      under 1 leader will also work better in local areas problems.
      We voter will pick the leader Not Cllr.

      I look forward to constructive reply ONLY please
      on this post as all you voters know Govt parties are failing
      To run our country right for us all now so something must change

      1. i have heard on u tube discussions and Q and A about a new party.
        its the ”workers party” and seems to be the initiative of george galloway. it was very interesting but i have not seen any follow up from that .

    7. Ah stammer the spammer will just carry on with the cull of those disabled mentally ill and sick even those on universal credits will feel the power of aktion t4 will effect all those claiming and corbyns words of wisdom become dust under these Tory lite

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