Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Bashing benefit claimants does not sit well with traditional Labour voters, but it is a fact in neoliberal economies that people who are not economically productive - even if this is due to injury, bad health or caring responsibilities - must not be seen to go unfinished. Labour governments therefore tend to introduce benefit "reforms" with a mixture of savagery and soothing words.

This was what happened in 2008, when the DWP introduced Employment Support Allowance. Anybody who needed benefits because they could not work would now have to undergo a Work Capability Assessment - a set of yes/no questions related to physical functions such as reaching and bending. Depending on your level of functioning, you would either be assessed as fit to work or unfit to work.

The idea behind this, said the DWP, was to lift millions from a lifetime of benefit dependency". The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) would focus on the things people could do, rather than consigning them to long-term unemployment. Politicians cited research which stated that 80% of people with severe and enduring mental health problems wanted to find paid work, but felt that the system hindered them from doing so.

The real rationale behind ESA was rather less "nebaling" than the government claimed: it was to cut the benefits of people with long-term physical and mental health problems, and even people with terminal illnesses. Although the WCA focuses on physical functioning, it does not look at energy, stamina or illness. If you can bend down once, you are deemed to be fit to work, even though bending down 5 or 10 times may cause excruciating pain or exhaustion.

The result is that tens of thousands of people who know they cannot work have passed the WCA test. The Citizens Advice Bureau has published a report in which it says it has received 22,000 enquiries from people who are concerned that they have been assessed as being able to work when they are not. It tells the story of "an engineer in his 50s who had recently undergone a triple bypass for heart disease and was being treated for incurable stomach and liver cancer, who was deemed fit for work. During his assessment he said that he walked daily (as part of his convalescence regime) and that he was able to raise his hands above his head; as a result he was registered ready to start looking for work."

Another woman with severe ME was judged fit to work after she bent down to pick something off the kitchen floor during her medical assessment.

People with mental health problems have been similarly misassessed, for what the statistic above fails to note is that while a person may see a job as providing them with structure, confidence and contact with the outside world, the harsh realities of the workplace are often themselves the catalysts for a breakdown. People I've spoken to at work may want a job, but that doesn't mean they want to forego their benefits and work in a dead-end job without any support.

This insensitivity to the subtleties of people's fluctuating health is no accident. ESA was explicitly designed to reduce the number of people claiming benefits, and in particular people who claim the higher rates of benefit.

People who are unable to work get £108.55 a week in benefits; people who, with some extra support, could get a job of some kind (at least in the eyes of the DWP) get £89.80; and those who are completely work-ready get £64.30. It is easy to see why the DWP want as many claimants as possible to be judged as work-ready. To help it achieve this, the DWP has contracted out the medical assessments, which form such a crucial part of the WCA, to the private sector - in this case, Atos Healthcare. It has applied stringent targets to ensure that Atos assess the majority of claimants as ineligible for the highest rates of benefit. Atos's contract is incentivised on the basis of WCA results. And it has worked: according to DWP figures from October 2009, only 5% of ESA claimants were found to be eligible for the higher rate, with 68% being assessed as fit to work.

CAB's report shows that there is little medical basis to these results, but this has not deterred the DWP from their plan to apply the WCA to existing claimants of Incapacity Benefit or Income Support (where they are claiming due to disability). Whichever party wins, the post-election budget will squeeze benefits much more tightly and cut the number of jobs available. People with long-term health problems will be told they are fit to work, even if (a) they are not and (b) there are no jobs for them to apply for. And there will be no welfare state for them to turn to.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


...the choice is still clear: pick which side you are on, and fight.



Comment is Free has been hijacked by pedantic, ignorant philistines. But a comment written by a certain "Snapshackle" actually provides more food for thought than the rather anaemic contributions at the top:

In the moral and ethical la-la land inhabited by most Conservatives and neo-cons, workers should be eternally grateful for the crumbs thrown to them and should not under any circumstances strike, or demand more than their 'betters' think they should have.

Having said that I think Unions need to be more imaginative in their thinking and rather than contributing to political parties who just turn round and kick dirt in their face should use their money in other ways.

Are there any restrictions on Unions purchasing shares for example?

If Unions were to use their wealth to purchase shares in the companies their members work for it would turn the directors and CEO into employees of the Union. Now wouldn't that be interesting!

Wouldn't it just!

Friday, March 19, 2010


and by way of association

Sunday, March 07, 2010


"Socialism without public ownership is nothing but a fantastic apology." Michael Foot, writing in the Daily Herald, 1956.

The most touching tribute paid to Michael Foot is by his great-nephew Tom Foot, son of Paul and one of the editors of the Camden New Journal. He remembers how:

In my school years, he would package me off from his home with great works of literature – Shakespeare, Montaigne, Hazlitt, Wordsworth – all signed with curious messages of encouragement. He was both kind and supportive.

After university, I remember telling him I was thinking of trying to find some work experience on a news¬paper. He advised me to ring the Camden New Journal.

I will never forget the answer machine messages he left, in that unmistakable voice, after I notched my first few by-lines on some truly forgettable early stories.

“Ah ha,” he would begin, “can you put me in touch with the famous Tom Foot, whose articles I am reading all over the place? Please. Let me know. Ah ha. Right!” And then the receiver would smash down.

Those messages have continued every week ever since.

A warm glow pervades all of the tributes (both sincere and obsequious) from his friends and adversaries. Yesterday, one of my colleagues recalled walking across Hampstead Heath one day, and being startled by a scruffy, enthusiastic dog sniffing her leg. Its owner – who had only recently stepped down as leader of the Labour Party – rushed over, apologised profusely and talked as if they were long-lost friends.

Seamus Milne wrote a pretty good piece on Wednesday about the myths that surround Michael Foot. One of these is that Foot finally proved, once and for all, that Labour could never form a government on a left-wing programme. It is true that Labour did not lose that election because they planned to decommission nuclear weapons or nationalise the banks. Thatcher’s breast-beating jingoism won the day, her dispatch of ships to the southern Atlantic representing a last hurrah for a moribund world power. But the relationship between capital, government and workers had shifted from the early 1970s and early 1980s. Even before Thatcher came to power, Britain had been following a monetarist course, and by 1983 the balance of power was firmly in her favour.

To trace the roots of this shift, one must look back to the Labour governments of 1964-1970 and, in particular, 1974-1979. Labour actually won the election in 1974 with a far more left-wing manifesto than in 1983. Its centrepiece was the Alternative Economic Strategy, a response to the balance of payments of crisis of the 1960s and the position of organised labour in the early 1970s.

Since 1945, both parties had more or less adhered to the Keynesian principle that state intervention would increase growth in a capitalist economy. But during the Wilson government of 1964-70, this principle had failed. Wages had been held down, taxes were increased, and as a consequence Labour lost the 1970 election. The Tories tried to beat down the Unions, but were powerless in the face of a formidably powerful labour force. In 1974, Heath called an election, asking the question, “Who runs Britain?” The electorate decided that it was not him.

The Alternative Economic Strategy was a radical gamble on Labour’s part. It claimed that Britain must cut loose from global capitalism, arguing that (a) industry must be taken under public control to break the monopoly of a few leading firms, (b) that the large companies which remained private must adhere to a planned economy, and acquiesce to the state appointment of directors on their boards and the public acquisition of shares, and (c) a New Industry Act must be passed by Parliament to increase workers’ direct influence over company policy. Britain must leave the European Economic Community, control would be exerted over exports and foreign exchange and, by creating more investment and more demand, Britain would once again become a major industrial power.

This was heady, quixotic stuff, and it was just enough for them to win the General Election. But it quickly became clear that the old Labour formula of ‘Keynesian in one country’ (to quote Tony Cliff) was an anachronism.

As soon as Labour took office, inflation leapt, the balance of payments fell through the floor and unemployment trebled between 1974 and 1976. Instead of nationalising, the government bailed out failing industry; instead of a planned economy, companies took government money and sacked their workers; instead of reflation, the government cut services five times in 13 months, and fixed wage increases at 4.5% (at a time when inflation reached nearly 27%). The economy grew by an average of just 0.9% between 1974 and 1978, and real wages fell by an average of 1.6% a year.

Labour won in 1974 because the electorate decided that the capital-government-union nexus would run more smoothly with them as the middleman than the Tories. By the winter of 1978, this nexus had broken down. Callaghan had postponed the election until May 1979 – a grave error – and the Conservatives won by a landslide.

The Thatcherites stepped up attacks on wages and public spending, though they only intensified policies which they had inherited (Stuart Hall, recalling the Butskellite compromise of the 1950s, coined the phrase Howleyism to describe the monetarist consensus of Chancellors Denis Healey and Geoffrey Howe). The global economy had shifted irrevocably, and governments struggled to find solutions to combat a falling rate of profit.

In 1983, when neoliberalism had not yet won this economic struggle, Labour could theoretically have won the election, even with their “suicide note” manifesto. But they were seen (correctly) as divided where the Tories were united, defeatist where the Tories were bellicose, confused where the Tories were confident. Michael Foot had the job of unifying the Bennites, the Militants, the Gang of Four and the centralists in his party, and it proved an impossible job.

Fast forward to 2010, and it is implausible that Labour could win an election on a left-wing platform, less still implement one. Public opinion (especially on the economy) remains significantly to the left of the government, but there is nobody in the Parliamentary Labour Party who speaks for these views. The Cabinet is stuffed with privately educated policy makers and journalists; only a tiny handful of backbench Labour MPs represent working-class people. The Tories still complain that Labour is in thrall to the Unions, but after decades of defeat, dwindling membership and low worker confidence the Unions have almost no real influence on government policy.

Labour may hold onto power in May; I still think it more likely that the Tories will get in. But, in contrast to defeated Labour parties of earlier times, this one is unlikely to swing to the left once in opposition. Finally, it seems beyond denial that if there is to be any return to a democracy in which working people can even a moderate contribution, it will not be delivered by the Labour Party.