Currently between readings in the House of Lords is the Welfare Reform and Benefits Bill, the second piece of legislation introduced by the Labour government is part of the British bourgeoisie’s attack on the British welfare state (the first being the cuts in benefit to single parents last year).
This new Bill voices the determination of ‘our’ bourgeoisie to make the British economy more competitive – and enlarge their own profits ever more – by ridding themselves of the ‘burden’ of caring for those who are no use to them – the sick, the disabled, the elderly and the chronically unemployed in particular. As capitalism inexorably drives larger and larger numbers of proletarians into destitution for the sake of increasing the wealth of the fabulously rich and their courtiers, henchmen, hangers-on and political representatives, millions of people are adversely affected by these cuts.
The destitute millions far outnumber the bourgeoisie, and can turn nasty, so the art of bourgeois government in snatching away benefits from the needy is to do so in such a way that no effective protest is raised. Too crude an attack, such as Thatcher’s replacement of rates by the poll tax, leads to resistance. The cost of quelling the unrest outstrips the amount of money snatched from the proletariat, defeating the object of the exercise. Therefore successful attacks must be slow and cautious, though sustained. The motto is one slice at a time – the so-called salami tactics.
Besides caution in advancing the attack, the bourgeoisie must also work to divide those who are the object of their attack. It is much easier to succeed in attacking the disabled if they can be isolated from the rest of the proletariat. Other sections of the proletariat can similarly be isolated and attacked at a later date.
For this a propaganda war against the disabled must be conducted, which the Labour government does with the same alacrity as its Conservative predecessors, as typified by Blair’s announcement that the legislation is aimed at getting rid of the ‘Something for Nothing’ culture.
We deal below with some of the details of the bourgeois media’s propaganda efforts along the same lines.
The proposed legislation
What is to happen is that disability benefit is (a) to be means tested, rather than given as of right to those who are disabled, as at present, and (b) it is to be withdrawn from those who have not paid a national insurance stamp in the previous two years (i.e., the poor), including everybody who is permanently unable to work.
To avert the outcry that would arise if all the thousands of disabled people dependent on welfare benefit were, backs to the wall, forced to take action in defence of their meagre livelihoods – people who manifestly could never work because of major incapacity – the Bill is only to apply to new claimants, not existing ones – at least for the time being. This enables benefit to be phased out gradually. The ones who will suffer are those who are not yet disabled, and they, of course, cannot defend themselves, and obviously cannot be used to mobilise the sympathies of the millions of decent people who would be outraged if existing disabled people were all suddenly to be left destitute.
This tactic of preserving the rights of existing claimants was discovered by Blair in his first sally against the welfare state – the cutting of lone parent benefit – where he faced a backbench rebellion until some bright spark hit on the idea of preserving the rights of existing claimants, a concession sufficient to prevent any ‘left’-winger in the Labour Party doing anything that might in the slightest embarrass the government in doing its job of forwarding the interests of the bourgeoisie. This tactic, it seems, has now become standard.
The propaganda war
Snatching the already meagre means of subsistence (£67 a week) away from disabled people would, one would have thought, been virtually impossible to justify in the eyes of decent people. Yet the bourgeoisie has at its disposal paid hacks who are pretty skilled at such distasteful jobs. One such is Dr Theodore Dalrymple. Writing in the
of 23 May, these are some of the arguments he advances:
“Of all the many paradoxes of modern British life, one of the most paradoxical is the fact that, while the population grows ever healthier, the number of people claiming disability or incapacity benefit grows ever larger. Three million – more than double the number 20 years ago – now claim sickness payments … If medical progress continues at this rate, we shall all be to ill to work.”
The clear implication of this – an implication that Dr Dalrymple goes on to state explicitly – is that a large proportion of benefit claimants are not really sick or disabled and ought really to be at work. Dalrymple does not cite the evidence in support of his statistical claim that we are all getting healthier, which seems dubious at very least. But suppose that, whatever it means, it is true: it would still not necessarily mean that most claimants are not genuinely entitled. It might mean that more people with disabilities are living rather than dying. It might mean more people having to claim as a result of longer waits for operations that would cure them. It might mean greater general impoverishment which forces people to claim who would not previously have thought of doing so.
Also, when Dr Dalrymple says
: “we are all getting healthier
“, he leaves out of account mental health. He does not believe that those suffering from stress, depression or alcoholism should be classed as disabled. The fact that all these conditions genuinely DO make people too ill to work, and ARE illnesses on the increase because of the increasingly inhuman conditions in which widening sections of the proletariat are forced to live, is simply ignored. The fact that under present benefit
rules “psychological conditions are not to be differentiated in any way from physical ones”
is, in Dalrymple’s bigoted opinion, “
a malingerer’s charter.”
In the midst of his tirade aimed at showing that most of the disabled aren’t disabled or deserve to be disabled, and should be left to starve, Dalrymple lets slip an unguarded truth:
A lot of sick people can’t possibly afford to work. Recovery is not economically viable for them. Being on the sick opens up the world of housing and other benefits for them, without any danger of their ever being withdrawn, so long as they do not make the cardinal error of ever feeling better. They would have to be fools to recover.”
In his anxiety to argue that claimants of disability benefit are not really disabled, Dalrymple has inadvertently blurted out an embarrassing truth: the ordinary benefits paid to the unwaged do not produce enough to live on, and neither do the wages that many of them might expect to earn if they did go to work. By comparison, disability benefit, meagre though it is, does yield a little more. If at all possible, therefore, people who are unemployed and have no prospect of obtaining a job at anything like a living wage, will claim disability benefit. 20 years ago it may well have been less hard to find a job at a living wage. But the poor have got poorer – hence the pressure on disability benefit.
Dalrymple implies throughout his article that taking away disability benefit would force ‘scroungers’ back to work. To the extent that he is correct, he is talking of people being forced to take jobs at wages worth less than disability benefit, i.e., starvation wages. Disability benefit, however, is also being taken away from people who have no chance of finding work even at starvation wages.
Under capitalism there are no jobs for those who are slower than the average, or more expensive to employ because of their disabilities, or less reliable because of recurrent illness. Such persons are discarded like a consignment of faulty cogs. It is only in communist society, where profit has ceased to be the one and only purpose of production, that jobs are available to everybody to make whatever contribution they can to the wealth of the society on which they depend for their wellbeing. Until we succeed in establishing a communist society, the disabled should be entitled to require of the bourgeoisie that since it won’t provide them with jobs, it should at least provide state handouts so that the disabled can live.
Critics of the Welfare Reform Bill have raised the question that means-testing disability benefit will discourage people from saving – their savings will take away benefit entitlement. Dalrymple disagrees with this point:
The poor do not save in this country because they regard the taxes that they pay as an IOU signed by the Welfare State to be honoured when they need it, while the disability benefit does not figure in the calculations of the better off at all.”
While we agree with the general point being made here, we cannot see why the poor have to be treated to such a slur, as though only ‘scroungers’ would imagine that having paid taxes and national insurance, albeit not voluntarily, to fund the welfare state, that they too might expect to benefit should the need arise! Geoffrey Lean, writing in the
Independent on Sunday
of 23 May, himself disabled for several months following an accident that left him totally unable to move, quite rightly comments:
Launching the Bill which includes the cuts, Tony Blair pronounced it the end of ‘the something-for-nothing culture’. Many of the 335,000 people expected to be affected by these changes to incapacity benefit over the next 10 years will have paid much more than something – but get nothing in return”.
The small detail that Dalrymple failed to make, even though it supports his case that the poor do not save much, is that the poor cannot afford to live, let alone save for the future. This is not a reason for condemning them.
Cost of incapacity benefit
The means-testing of incapacity benefit is, according to the spin doctors, supposed to redistribute benefit from the relatively well off to the truly destitute. The impression is given that those to be denied benefit because of entitlement to an occupational pension are relatively wealthy middle-class people who could well afford to do without the paltry £66.75 a week which might mean so much to someone else. The truth is exposed by Geoffrey Lean:
The axe starts to fall when … pensions yield £50 a week: enough with the incapacity benefit to provide the princely sum of £6,041 a year. From then on benefit is reduced by 50p in the pound and is stopped altogether at a pension income of £9,542 (still less than half the average wage). These, presumably, are the ‘relatively wealthy people’ to Mr Levitt (parliamentary salary £47,008 a year).”
Moreover, it is clearly a straightforward lie to suggest that the money snatched from the poor is to redistributed to the very poor, even. This is proved by the fact that the government expects to ‘save’ £750 million a year with these cuts. Who benefits from this ‘saving’? The answer can only be those who would otherwise have to pay higher taxes. In other words, those who benefit are people whose income is sufficient to warrant paying tax. Hence at the end of the day, the redistribution of wealth is, as ever, from the poor to the relatively rich, and especially to the very rich – those who benefit most from lower rates of income tax.
Finally, the government, on behalf of the bourgeoisie, pleads its own poverty as an excuse for slashing the benefits of the poor. If the government is short of funds, however, it is because the fabulously wealthy and the extremely well-to-do, who could well afford to pay more tax, actually for the most part pay very little relative to their incomes and their wealth. As Polly Toynbee, writing in the
of 21 May points out:
“The truth is we don’t spend too much on social security. Set to rise at around 2% more than inflation, it level pegs with our rising GDP. If it was taking a growing slice of GDP, there might be reason to worry. Even then there is no ignoring demographics showing how more old people will live longer and more disabled, costing more. No problem. If we followed other European countries we could and should be more generous.”
Thus even by the standards imposed by capitalism, the British bourgeoisie is incredibly stingy! And to the extent that the British bourgeoisie succeeds in slashing the social wage in this country, it will tend to ‘force’ the bourgeoisies of the rest of the world to do likewise, as otherwise the capitalists whose proletarians are better off will be at an ‘unfair’ disadvantage.
The House of Lords may possibly reject the Bill, since ‘Old’ Labour worthies are now Life Peers and dominate the party at that level. They were accustomed in their heyday to distributing crumbs from imperialist superprofits to buy off the revolt of the proletariat, and have not for the most part succeeded in adapting to their bourgeois masters’ new requirements. Times have changed: on the one hand, economic crisis has critically sharpened competition among imperialists, forcing them to cut costs in order to maintain profitability. On the other hand, the collapse of the USSR has for the time being diminished their fear of proletarian revolution. In the interests of maximum profit, the bourgeoisie now feels it can afford to be mean! Be that as it may, if the peers do hold up the passage of the Bill, it can only be a temporary reprieve.
The working class must take advantage of any such respite to organise against this Bill. Just as the poll tax was defeated, the attack on welfare benefits can be defeated too.