Liam Byrne and Punishing the Poor

24 Jan

Here are some notes about Liam Byrne’s speech last night at the LSE – I’m afraid I didn’t take the best notes as I was sitting there getting angry so it was hard to focus, but I will listen again to a recording of the lecture, which they put up on the LSE website, and fill in the gaps.

I just arrived home after attending Liam Byrne’s lecture on the welfare state – I’d been very interested in what he has to say on this issue after reading his appalling comments in the Guardian about the ‘something for nothing culture’ – a ‘culture’ that if he knew anything about poor people he would realise didn’t actually exist, firstly as everyone does contribute in some way to society, and secondly because it seems rather generous to refer to our present benefits system as ‘something’ – the reality of living on JSA is more like nothing. I was all primed to heckle and to challenge him on his and his party’s demonising of the unemployed which for me is a very personal issue. My mum brought me up as a single parent mother and felt the stigma of being ‘unemployed’ despite her more than full time job brining up an incredibly stubborn and difficult child. I am now on JSA after completing my master’s degree. I checked my email when I got indoors after Byrne’s stylistically engaging talk – of which the actual content was quite disagreeable – and saw an email from a job I had applied to. I’d actually received an email – this was really promising. I started to get really excited. If I’ve got this job, I’d better get some new blouses for working in the office – I actually pictured myself in my new blouses in my new office doing the interesting research that this job involved, no more Job Centre visits where you are treated with suspicion and punished for not finding a job that doesn’t exist. I opened the email and it was a rejection. It’s my first rejection as usually you don’t hear back at all from the place which you have spent so much of your time and energy writing to. I actually felt distraught this time. It is now becoming incredibly demoralising to make applications in which I do put a great deal of effort and enthusiasm and to receive a rejection. And to know I’ll have to return to the Job Centre which is a depressing thought. I’m sick of the joke of ‘job seekers allowance’ – being forced to job search in such a climate as this one. I almost want to refuse to job search until there are actually any decent jobs out there.

So what did Liam Byrne have to say about all this and the welfare state? As I said above, he was quite a stylistically pleasing speaker – he had a certain rhythm to his talk, but it was a little hard to focus as I was sitting there trying to get over the rage I felt at his comments on ‘something for nothing’ and trying to move beyond this rage to form a coherent comment and question for him afterwards about workfare, the current discourse/demonisation around the unemployed, and the framing of the current welfare debate in which both parties are attacking an ‘undeserving poor’. In his discussion of Beveridge’s eponymous report he actually referenced the Levellers – which I’m sure they would not be all too pleased about from my understanding (which to be fair is little) of the Levellers. He also emphasised ‘rights and responsibilities’ for a welfare state today. This is another way of him phrasing his idea of ‘something for something’. It does sound harmless enough and so it was a little hard to heckle him – he didn’t say anything that sounded too outrageous, but that’s politics I guess – disguising agendas through the clever use of language? Beneath his language there is a punitive agenda towards what they perceive to be the non-working poor. Whilst he did highlight the failures of the Tory government’s Work Programme, this again was perhaps more politics – having a go at the government in power rather than a genuine belief that the Work Programme is morally wrong, as well as economically – I can imagine him rolling out the exact same Work Programme if he were in power. Indeed, he spoke of the need to ‘enforce’ the responsibility to work and when asked to elaborate on what ‘enforcements’ he envisaged, I actually missed them, or perhaps he avoided the question (I’ll listen to the recording of the lecture and get back to you). He did say that he wanted to move the framing of welfare away from the neocon style of the Tories and to one which supported people to fulfil their potential, but surely this is undermined by his emphasis on enforcement. In a rather confusing moment he declared – ‘we sold all our council housing and we forgot to build any more’. I hope this was a weird joke, but I’m not sure. He seemed to be saying this seriously…surely it was tongue in cheek though? ‘We forgot to build anymore’………? Seriously…..how do you just forgot to BUILD HOUSES? Well actually even this PATHETIC excuse is a lie, if you read Anna Minton’s fabulous book Ground Control, the reality is a lot more sinister. Rather than merely ‘forgetting’ to build houses, the government engaged in a process whereby market forces were encouraged to enter the housing market and public money was given to private companies who knocked down perfectly good housing to build swish new apartments. His emphasis on ‘rights and responsibilities’/ending something for nothing, without any comprehension of what the reality of being poor is like, is also challenged by the magnificent film War Horse, to throw some popular culture into this discussion. Sometimes the individual cannot be held ‘responsible’ for their actions which are beyond their control. In the film, the father’s addiction to alcohol is kindly explained by his loving wife as a result of the horrors and pain he experienced in the Boer War. We watch the family’s turnip crop get destroyed by bad weather. Marginalised people cannot always take responsibility – it is often beyond their control and it is wrong and demonising to suggest that they should take responsibility.

OK, I’ll be kind to him – he did emphasise the need to create jobs – but said nothing on what kind of jobs these would be. Frankly, I don’t want his capitalist-soul-destroying jobs anyway.

There were some good questions by the audience – A disability rights activist questioned how they would support those who were unable to commit to work in the sense of which he spoke. One woman highlighted the privatization of the health service and how multi-national corporations are failing to pay the living wage. Another man spoke of the need to stop pitching the working poor against the unemployed. I was unimpressed by his responses to the most sensible comments of the evening. I am utterly disenchanted by all politicians and sick of being punished for not being in work.

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