The contrast with the content and style of Liz Kendall’s talk to the Fabian Society, at the headquarters of Scope in Islington last week, could not be more striking. For many citizens, hardworking or not, Ed Miliband was finally beginning to show ‘green shoots’ in his leadership. His conference speech in Brighton was professionally executed, and it largely made sense given what we know about his general approach to the markets and State. Amazing then it took fewer than a few weeks for his reshuffle to ruin all that.
Parking aside how Tristram Hunt MP had changed his mind about ‘free schools’ such that they were no longer for ‘yummy mummies’ in West London, Rachel Reeves MP decided to come out as a macho on welfare. She boasted on Twitter that she was both ‘tough and fair on social security’.
Rachel Reeves’ article was immediately received by a torrent of abuse, and virtually all of it was well reasoned and fair. Yes, that’s right. In one foul swoop, we managed to conflate at one the ‘benefit scroungers’ rhetoric with an onslaught on ‘social security’.
Being ‘tough and fair’ on the “disability living allowance”, in the process of becoming the ‘personal independence payment’ is of course an abhorrent concept. I only managed to be awarded my DLA after a gap of one year, after it had been taken away by this Government without them telling me. At first, it was refused through a pen-and-paper exercise from the DWP. Then, it was successfully restored after I turned up in person at a tribunal in Gray’s Inn Road. This living allowance meets my mobility needs. My walking is much impaired, following my two months in a coma. It also meets my living requirements, allowing me to lead an independent life.
I don’t want to hear Reeves talking like a banker, as if she doesn’t give “a flying fig” about real people in the real world.
For once, the outrage on Twitter, and the concomitant mobbing, was entirely justified. I had to look up again what her precise rôle was – yes it was the shadow secretary for work and pensions, not employment. Many members of Labour were sickened.
However hard Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham manage to convince battle-weary voters that Labour is “the” party of the NHS, certain voters will not wish to touch Labour with a bargepole.
The sentiment is accurately encapsulated by Laurie Penny here:
A spattering of people, would-be Councillors in the large part unfortunately, didn’t see what the fuss was about. They reconciled that ‘the sooner we face up to this problem, the better’. The media played it as ‘the hard left of the Labour Party are upset’. The “Conservative Home” website played it as a sign that the Labour Party were belatedly adopting the Conservatives’ narrative, but it was too little and too late. Like Ed Miliband being booed at conference, a backlash against Reeves’ article can euphemistically be indicative of Labour’s success at ‘sounding tough’.
At yet, this is ‘short term’ politics from a national political party. The social value of this policy by Labour is not sustainable. In the quest for instant profit for headlines, it will actually find itself with no income stream in the long term. For all the analysis with Labour marketing must have done through their ‘think tanks’ and ‘focus groups’, it is striking how Labour have missed one fundamental point. That disabled bashing in the media is not populism from the Left, actually. Conversely, it could LOSE them votes from their core membership. If they learn to love disabled people, they could WIN votes.
So what’s the fuss about? She didn’t mention disability. Well – precisely. Disabled citizens of working age are known to form a large part of the population, as Scope reminded us this week in their session on ‘whole person care’ with Liz Kendall MP, so why did Reeves ignore them altogether?
Is it because she has only been in a brief only a few days? Some of us in life have taken the bullet for incidents in life which have lasted barely a few minutes.
What will it take for Labour to ‘get it’ on disability and welfare? Possibly, the final denouement will be when Labour finally realises it can’t ‘out Tory’ the Tories.
The Twitter defenders of the indefensible cite that ATOS are being ‘sacked’ – well, yippedeeeday. ATOS, who were appointed by Labour, are finally being sacked. When negotiating a contract in English law, the usual procedure is to ensure that there are feedback mechanisms in place to ensure the contract is being performed adequately? You can bet your bottom dollar that Labour wishes to do a ‘Pontius Pilate’ on that, in the same way PFI contracts were poorly monitored at first.
This is a disastrous start by Reeves, but ‘things can only get better’. It’s not so much that Rachel Reeves is Liam Byrne in a frock that hurts. It’s the issue that shooting the messenger won’t be the final solution in changing Labour’s mindset on this.
It is all too easy to blame the ‘subeditor’, but the subeditor didn’t write the whole piece. Any positive meme from Reeves, in a ‘well crafted speech’ to “out-Tory the Tories” (such as scrapping the ‘Bedroom Tax’), has been instantaneously toxified by the idea of people ‘lingering on benefits’. The most positive thing to do was to explain how people might not be so reliant on benefits, such as work credits, if we had a strong economy. Reeves chose not even to mention pensions, which is a large part of her budget. Because the article was hopeless from the outset, it could not even get as far as how to get the long-term unemployed (or the long-term sick) safely back to work. It was an epic fail.
It is, in fact, an epic fail on all three planks of Ed Miliband’s personal mission of ‘One Nation': the economy, not recognising the value of disabled citizens of working age to the economy; society, not recognising disabled citizens as valued members of society; and the political process, totally disenfranchising disabled citizens from being included in society.
Somebody better stop Reeves triangulating (but to the Right), before she brings the whole Labour Party down with her before May 7th 2015.