The John McDonnell Column
The debate over the Welfare Benefits Bill was of immense significance for several reasons.
The first reason is that this was a stark and fundamental debate over who should pay for the economic crisis and the Coalition lost control of the debate.
The Welfare Benefits Bill was the clearest of statements from the Coalition that any recovery is to be built on the backs of the poor. Alongside it, the tax cut for the top rate taxpayers put it beyond doubt that the rich are to be protected. The role of the Coalition Government is to ensure that it is the working class that pays for the crisis and that the rich and the corporations (i.e. capital) are protected from bearing the cost of the recession they created. What has knocked the Coalition back on its heels is that not only did it lose its usual control of the debate, it also brought into being a wide ranging alternative coalition of opponents. This alternative coalition included not just the left and trade unions but a large section of civil society organisations, media commentators and, more importantly as shown by a number of polls, a majority of the people.
The second reason the debate over the Welfare Benefits Bill was significant is that for the first time, as a result of concerted pressure from the left in particular, a key decision was taken by the Labour leadership to vote decisively against a Coalition Bill that attacked the poor.
Up until now the Labour leadership has been frightened of voting against Coalition austerity measures that cut benefits, wages or pensions for fear of being accused of being deficit deniers or on the side of so called “skivers” – that disgusting term which harks back to the debate two centuries ago on the Poor Law. It is worth reading again the early book of J L and Barbara Hammond which describes the period of that Poor Law debate as “The Bleak Age”. This book describes how in those debates the poor became the culprits and not the victims of the poverty caused by early capitalism. The trajectory of that debate institutionalised the stigmatisation of the poor in the form of the workhouse. The modern ideological onslaught against the poor is being institutionalised in workfare.
Up until now the Labour leadership had been fearful about voting against the Housing Benefit cap, had refused to oppose the cut to pensions caused by the shift from RPI to CPI in upratings and had even supported the pay and pension cuts for public sector workers. Ed Balls brought forward his embarrassing and disgraceful proposals for workfare for the long term unemployed as part of the spin associated with Labour’s media strategy for dealing with the Welfare Benefits Bill. But this fig leaf of cover for the residual elements of New Labour was swept aside by the wave of enthusiasm for being on the right side of this moral argument and directly opposing an attack on the poor. Consequently the overwhelming tide of Labour MPs, and frontbench public statements and speeches, against the Bill were based upon opposing its attack on the poor while the rich and powerful were not just spared but financially rewarded. This was the result of a clear position of principle being taken by the left from the beginning, and support for that position being mobilised at every level in the movement.
The third reason for recognising the importance of this debate is that it has demonstrated that the left can set a new agenda and motivate political shifts just at the time when we are seeking to bring into focus the issues of poverty pay, trade union rights and cuts to local council services.
As the economy looks as though it will soon enter a triple dip recession, the most precarious workers will be hit even harder by a combination of pay cuts and price rises. At the same time the new devolved system for Council Tax collection will mean that many of the poorest in our society will be forced to pay the Council Tax for the first time out of benefits that have already been cut. Even Patrick Jenkins, the Tory Minister who introduced the Poll Tax, has warned the Coalition about the potential backlash this new Poll Tax will provoke. Local council services that are stretched as it is will be cut even further by loss of government grants and loss of revenue from a new uncollectable Poll Tax. The LRC has a critical role to play in putting these issues on the political agenda, in mobilising the opposition to local council cuts and the new Poll Tax and throwing ourselves into the direct action and industrial campaigns against the exploitation of precarious workers.
One such example is the ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ initiative, driven by women activists, to target the payday loan industry following International Women’s Day in March.
There is a new feeling of confidence and solidarity building for us to seize upon.
John McDonnell is MP for Hayes and Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and the Labour Representation Committee.