Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Labour Shame

It's no revelation that politicians try to strike a balance between doing what they believe in and doing what will win them votes, the old see-saw between gaining power and being able to do something worthwhile with it. We've heard a lot lately about the 'comforts of opposition' and the 'responsibility of government', as if power were just about being considered important and not about actually doing things that matter. But in all my long years in and around politics, I have rarely seen so blatant or misjudged a bit of vote chasing as Johann Lamont's speech today. It's no wonder lifelong Labour supporters are shredding their membership cards in response. If Lamont's words are what the Labour Party has come to represent, there doesn't seem a lot of point, really.

So it is that, despite having spent all day working on conference planning and consultations, I feel I must return to the fray tonight, because certain things are being said that have been let go for far too long. Excuse me if I don't pull my punches. I'm quite miffed that Labour's policy people can't figure this stuff out by themselves.

Let's start with something for nothing. This is a slogan we've heard a lot lately, a favourite of certain red top newspapers and government ministers looking for scapegoats. The idea is that those of us in work will feel righteous fury at the notion that people who're not working should still be able to get by. It's easy to feel, on first hearing this slogan, that it makes a lot of sense. Why should those who do nothing deserve something?

The answer is this: everybody deserves something, because they are human. Everybody deserves to be safe from starvation, to have shelter, to be warm enough in winter, to have at least a basic level of health care. These truths should be self-evident. What's more, the truth is that they don't cost very much at all. Looked at over the long term, they can save us money, by safeguarding the investment we make in every citizen whilst they are growing up. Spending tens of thousands of pounds to educate somebody and then just letting them die would be stupid, wouldn't it?

There are actually not very many long term unemployed people in this country. There are a fair number of disabled people who are unable to work or can only work part time. There are other people who face unemployment in the short term during economic slumps like the one we're going through at present (when you hear Westminster Tories complain about a rising welfare bill, bear in mind how much unemployment has risen on their watch). But the vast majority of those in receipt of benefits are working. They are contributing to society. They receive supplementary assistance because what they earn is simply not enough to live on. That's not something they should be ashamed of. That's something society should be ashamed of. A legacy of bad policy-making and failure to regulate, by successive governments, has allowed too much money to accumulate in the hands of the rich at the expense of people like these. That's what we need to fix. When you're being stabbed you get rid of the knife rather than angrily discarding bandages because they fail to soak up all the blood.

So let's come to another one. Tough decisions. That's an interesting phrase, coming as it inevitably does between people who've never had to choose between eating and keeping warm enough to stop their toes turning blue. Let's get real, shall we? Taking money from poor people isn't a tough decision. It's easy - like taking candy from a baby (literally, in some cases). Poor people are an easy target because they're generally too desperate and exhausted to fight back. Mentally ill people having their disability benefits taken away often struggle just to fill out the paperwork they need to appeal - they're not exactly a political threat. Politicians know this and, sadly, some of them are not ashamed to exploit it. Perhaps they comfort themselves with the notion that families or charities will step in to fill the gap (I'll be talking about that one in an upcoming post - the short version is, we know it often fails to work). It is perhaps difficult for some middle class people to understand that poverty means having nothing to fall back on. When there's no money for food, you go hungry. When there's no money for rent, you're on the street. There's no-one you can call who will make it all go away.

In times gone by, we used to talk about the haves and the have-nots. Now we talk about the givers and the give-nots. It's insipid. 47% of American don't pay income tax, says Romney, so they can be written off as scroungers, and people are quick to buy into that idea in the UK too. It's bollocks, of course. That 47% includes pensioners who have worked all their lives and are enjoying a well-earned retirement. It includes children whom we almost universally decided, a few decades back, we ought to refrain from sending to the mills. And it includes an awful lot of people who are not paying income tax because they don't earn enough yet without whose hard work society would collapse. It's all very well to pretend that everybody who makes the effort can be saved through the miracle of social mobility. That's no substitute for social justice. It doesn't help the poor and it doesn't help society at large. In this faux utopia, party whips belittle police officers and presidential candidates pay so little heed to their staff they don't notice when they're being filmed. We blame the refuse collectors, the teachers, the nurses and the retail workers for being poor, as if they could ever escape that in those jobs, and as if those in the jobs we esteem could survive without the work they do. Day in, day out, it is the working poor, including those in receipt of benefits, who are the backbone of our society. They give more than many of our politicians will in their whole lives. They deserve our respect.

They do not deserve to be told we all have to give up something. There's another slogan that sounds fair on first hearing, but what does it mean? What has the recession cost you? A tenner is a tenner, you might say, no matter who gives it away. But the value of that tenner is very different depending on your general economic circumstances. If you're on benefits, the loss of a tenner a week means giving up at least two family meals or five days' heating. If you're earning a comfortable wage, it might mean you don't drink as much at the weekend. If you're earning a parliamentary politician's wage, you're unlikely to notice it (unless you can claim it on expenses). So let's stop pretending that we're taking from the poor, the ordinary and the rich on an equal basis. We're nowhere close to that. No politician who insinuates that we are should be trusted with any aspect of the nation's finances, since it is largely a failure to understand the relationship between money and value that has go the world into this particular economic mess.

Labour, one would think, would get to grips with these issues, stand up for the people who have long depended on them. Don't whine that there's no money left. We are a wealthy country. The problem we have is that the wealth is unevenly distributed. Sorting that out requires tough decisions. Labour do have to give up something, but it doesn't have to be their raison d'être. If they want support, they're going to have to get their act together, because the electorate won't give them something for nothing.

Get your house in order, Labour. Don't make me come down there.

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