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A responsible approach?

June 14, 2011 1 comment

Last year, as a trade unionist, I voted for Ed Miliband to be leader of the Labour party. Well, I marked him first in the list of five candidates – can’t remember where I put his brother, maybe 4th? And so it came to pass that Ed was voted in and I was pleased and had hopes that the party that I increasingly had no choice but to vote for would rediscover some old values and become a party that I wanted to vote for.

Blairite neo-liberalism turned Labour into a party that embraced the markets, not the people. It brought in ‘initiatives’ such as PFI in the health service and Arms Length Management Organisations in housing that did not serve the people in need of those services but were the first step towards marketisation of essential public services. Central government introduced Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and targets more geared to the way private businesses are run. A new style of management emerged in the public sector where being seen to achieve the abstract KPIs and targets is the be all and all above and beyond the practicalities and real issues of delivering services to the public. New levels of well paid managers and consultants were created to facilitate this, drawing much needed funds from the business of providing services. And in the financial sector, well, we have seen where the worldwide lack of regulation has brought us. New Labour was part of that, towing the dominant neo-liberal line of Western governments in their slavish reverence of the market place.

Yesterday Ed gave his ‘responsibility speech’. In his speech Ed did indeed make several attacks on big business and the financial sector, and these are to be welcomed. He admitted that Labour stood by and let Rome burn while MP’s fiddled; that they did not do enough to address the greed of those at the top which lead to the financial tsunami crashing on shores all around the world.

Also welcome were his attacks on the disingenuous attempts by Cameron and Clegg to portray their dismantling and selling off of the welfare state as being in the interests of British people when they are anything but. The proposed plundering of public assets by private companies heralds not a Big Society, but public services subject to the whims of the market place – take a look at the utilities and the railways to see where that has got us. As Ed pointed out, we are already treated as commodities by big business – under the proposed Tory reforms, this would be more so. And we know what happens to unprofitable commodities.

But (and you knew there was a ‘but’ coming) despite all this Ed’s speech sits very uncomfortably with me. As well as his attacks on those at the top he also chose to engage in the type of Tory rhetoric which rather than inspire us all to take responsibility, only serves to demonize, divide and create a culture of distrust. Ed’s paean to the ‘squeezed middle’ so beloved of politicians and media opinion formers conflated the people responsible for the worldwide financial collapse with the bloke down the road claiming benefits. These are the people we need to put right, he suggests, they are the enemies of a truly responsible society.

Two examples of individuals were given: Fred Goodwin, and a bloke that Ed met whilst canvassing for the local elections. Goodwin, we all know about: a man responsible for the collapse of a bank which became emblematic of the financial games and chicanery which lead to the mess we’re in.

But what of the other bloke? All we are told is that due to an injury sustained at work he is incapacitated to some extent and has been claiming benefits since his injury. From this brief description Ed has drawn the conclusion that, despite said chap being a good sort and doting father, “I was convinced that there were other jobs he could do”. Two birds killed with one stone, not only benefits claimants as a whole, but also the subset of those who claim sickness benefits. We are not told exactly what the problem is with the benefit claimer, or what sort of job Ed feels would be suitable, merely that “it’s just not right for the country to be supporting him not to work, when other families on his street are working all hours just to get by”. If he is to make such claims I feel it only fair that Ed shows us his workings out.

Ed then went on to posit that the allocation of social housing should incorporate an element of social contribution rather than being solely based on need. As a housing professional I feel that this cannot work under current circumstances, and again serves only to stigmatize those in need of essential assistance. There is a huge problem with the lack of social housing available, but the two main causes of this have been the Right to Buy (RTB) scheme and the artificial inflation of house prices to serve the needs of the financial markets. The former has decimated social housing to the extent that we now have nearly a million fewer properties than before RTB was was introduced as a thinly disguised gerrymandering policy by the Tories in the mid 80s. The latter has lead to a housing market where it is extremely difficult to buy a property, hence the explosion of an extremely profitable and under regulated private rental sector where tenants have little hope of saving as rents are so high. The combined effect has been to create ever growing waiting lists as people seek to escape the overpriced and often inadequate private rentals they have been forced into. Focusing on these problems rather than implicitly scapegoating those in need of social housing would serve more purpose.

In using this reactionary trope of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, Ed provides succor to the current government who have reveled in its use in their attempt to encourage a distrust of those who, for whatever reason, must rely on state services. It serves only to create an ‘us and them’ divide where anger is turned on neighbours and people we see in the street rather than being aimed at those who have been truly responsible for the state we’re in.

I agree that we as a society need to be more responsible for our actions towards each other, that there are people who act unthinkingly without realising how what they do affects others. The cult of “I’m alright, Jack” had been with us for a long time before being ramped up by the in it for yourself policies of the Tories in the 80s. But this is a matter of changing a society wide philosophy, including those in the sacred middle, not merely a question of economics. Targeting those at the bottom is not the answer, they are not responsible for the bigger issues we have to resolve in terms of finance and housing. In his speech Ed rightly objected to the demonization of people, however, in using a sledgehammer to crack a nut in much the same way as the Tories are doing, he has done just that.

For further, more nuanced reading on those affected by the welfare cuts I highly recommend the following blogs:

Diary of a Benefit Scrounger
The Broken of Britain

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