Over the coming year, a massive social transformation is set to take place. Under the name of ‘Welfare Reform’, the government has declared all out nuclear war on the working class.
This ongoing process of destroying the welfare state is a catastrophe unfolding in front of our eyes. The consequences for hundreds of thousands of families and individuals are unimaginable. At a recent talk given by the local Citizen’s Advice Bureaux in Celtic Park, an audience of 200 was left gasping in shock and shouting in disbelief like some kind of horrific panto.
By summer 2014, we will live in a country devastated by the removal of the means of survival from some of the poorest and most vulnerable in the UK. Among the predictable results will be massive increases in crime-for-survival; increased abuse and violence; increased drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness and hopelessness; and people made internal refugees within Britain, unable to live in the places where they grew up and forced to move to poorer places, alongside a growing army of the homeless.
£18 billion has been snatched from the incomes of the poorest via benefit cuts, which is nothing other than redistribution of wealth, but from poor to rich.
JobCentre Plus is watching you
At the same time the government is also making a massive power grab. If you depend on benefits to survive, in the future this is going to be taken as an excuse to let the government have ridiculous levels of control over your life. Already, the sanctions regime has Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants living in fear of losing their benefits. On top of the official cuts to benefits, massive amounts are being cut through insanely harsh regime of sanctions which sees people being deprived of benefits for being 4 minutes late for example.
But many don’t realise that soon working people who receive benefits are also going to be made to sign on and prove what they’re doing to get off benefits. This is all to be monitored a snooping Jobcentre quasi-social network that is like Facebook but without all the good bits, just the evil ones.
All claims will have to be made online, when benefits claimants are the people least likely in society to have internet at home. As part of a drive to swell the numbers of people using Jobcentre services, the government are sacking all the staff and trying to get you to do as much of their work remotely as possible. Of course, if you have to go to the library to fill in the form, and you only get an hour on their computer, you’re out of luck – the DWP themselves say it takes 90 minutes to do one of their forms. (And you also know they’re going to be buggy as anything and break on library public PCs.)
Between sanctions, and the dependence on labyrinthine government IT projects that are likely to make signing on like the ‘Computer Says No’ sketch out of Little Britain, there are many more people who we can now predict with official figures who’ll be pushed over the edge financially.
Fantasies of work
The principle that underpins both Tory and previously Labour welfare reforms is that there is nothing more valuable for a person than to be in paid employment, and that whether its as a horsemeat chef or purveyor of the finest tat in Poundland, it’s better than benefits. The cuts aim to make sure that being in paid work will always result in more money than benefits. Since wages for working class people are largely frozen, this can only mean taking money away from those on benefits. Changes to the way its calculated already mean that housing benefit can’t cover rents in London, and that rising prices mean in fact the poorest are getting their money cut even if benefits go up.
It could easily be argued that right now is the worst time to be working class since the Second World War. Since the 70’s, wages have stagnated. According to a TUC report, while for a very few at the top wages have rocketed (judges, barristers and lawyers pay has gone up 100% since the 70s, for example), many working class jobs have actually seen wage falls since then (bakers by 1%, forklift truck drivers by 5%).
The union movement has still to properly adapt to a world where container ships shuttle stuff between the parts of the world with the cheapest workers, and the Tories put in laws that banned them from doing anything halfway decent, (which the ironically named ‘Labour’ government were quite happy to keep.)
Now there’s very few sections of the working class that have enough power to make bosses give them more pay. With work being moved en masse to poor countries, working people were told to be happy to get anything, and that if they complained too much there were peasants in China that would be glad of that job.
In Britannia Unchained, a right wing manifesto by a group of powerfull backbench Tory MPs, it says:
“The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”
Or as one of the authors, Dominic Raab, put it:
“We can all graft.”
So people who have jobs have had to work harder and harder for less money. Aware of the resentment that this breeds, governments and their allies in the right wing media have spent decades nurturing bitterness and envy within the working class itself, with a barrage of fictionalised tales of people living it up on benefits. The result has been mass outbreaks of negative solidarity – instead of standing together to improve everyone’s lives, people brimming with resentment who think that everyone should have it as hard as they do. “If I have to work and pay my rent, why shouldn’t these benefit spongers pay for an extra room?”
But work isn’t working. The tax credits system was an acknowledgement by the government that low pay isn’t enough to keep people alive, and so instead of raising the minimum wage they subsidised low pay by taking less off workers in tax.
In recent months, employment has actually been going up slightly, but people are accepting worse paid, crappier jobs, and so how efficient and productive our economy is actually going down.
The growth of services as the major part of the British economy is a fancy way of saying that the UK is increasingly a nation of baristas and telesales operatives; people forced into make-work jobs that produce little that’s of any lasting value, with all the hopelessness that comes from forcing yourself to do something pointless every day. With new technology constantly making more workers obsolete, we’ve accepted that we’re unlikely ever to see full employment again. That means there are millions of people in the world who are surplus to requirements as far as capitalism is concerned. There’s no way to find productive work for them, and they will never be able to make work a means of making a decent life for themselves.
Then of course there are the people who will always have a lot of difficulty competing for jobs because they are socially disadvantaged – by a world that values most of all people capable of being productive cogs. Two of the hardest hit by welfare reform will be lone parents unable to afford childcare or basic necessities, or people with disabilities unable to convince ATOS assessors that they are telling the truth. Calling disabled people skivers is particularly galling considering how many physical and mental illnesses are a result of the difficult and degrading conditions of work.
Time to pay attention
It’s shocking how complacent and not on-the-ball many left wing people have been in the face of all that’s coming. I admit it’s only in recent months that I’ve fully understood it myself. But this might be shaping up to be the biggest fight there’s been in my lifetime so far. If you start taking away people’s basic living income, we really are starting to see a government policy that treats much of the working class as people surplus to requirements, who the state will quite happily watch be made destitute. This is an issue of survival.
What’s also key is that all supporters of independence get how crucial this issue will be in swaying substantial numbers of those “don’t know” voters in polls. The only way to convince enough people to vote Yes in the referendum is to demonstrate that they will be voting to save the welfare state in Scotland. To do that, the Scottish government needs to be doing more now, rather than rhetoric and promises everything will be sorted out after the vote. They’ll only do that if we force them to.
The situation is desperate. But it isn’t hopeless. The welfare state was won in the first place by mass organisations of the poor and unemployed themselves taking radical direct action to demand the right to enough to survive. This is already starting to happen again. There are plenty of resources online that give a basic description of the changes the government are bringing to benefits. Plenty of others propose alternative government policies. The next few articles I’m going to write about the coming welfare apocalypse aim to give basic knowledge about the processes of welfare reform, but also about alternatives and resistance. Resistance means trying to find concrete things you can do right now to defend your income and home, as well as ways to prevent government surveillance of the poor and ways that people affected themselves can begin to develop alternatives.