UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Douglas Alexander: Make Cuts More Slowly

On Friday Douglas Alexander Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions let the cat out of the bag. Labour, he said, is broadly supportive of the plans for the phased reform of housing benefit and stressed support for stricter incapacity benefit tests. (www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/nov/05/douglas-alexander-labour-welfare

Let’s remind ourselves what those changes mean.

Let’s take housing benefit first. Figures vary but according to a government impact assessment, the changes will affect 774,970 UK households. They will lose an average of £9 a week, but the impact is likely to be far greater in London and areas where rents are high, such as Cambridge, Edinburgh and Bristol.

Claimants, most of them unemployed or low earners, will face paying the same rents on lower benefits, meaning they must either make up the difference or move somewhere cheaper outside city centres.

They mean, according to Boris Johnston, the Tory mayor of London, an ethnic cleansing of London. According to The National Housing Federation's chief executive, David Orr, the housing benefit cuts are "truly shocking". He said: "Unless ministers urgently reconsider these punitive cuts, we could see more people sleeping rough than at any stage during the last 30 years. According to Alexander, Labour supports the principle. We all must have missed that debate at Labour Party conference this year. According to Alexander,

“If the Government produced a proposal for a staged and lower percentile reduction over the years that is something we could consider”.

Douglas really speaks the language of the common people but this seems to mean, don’t put hundreds of thousands out of their homes at once, and stagger it over a few years.

How heart-warming. Had Douglas consulted his Labour colleagues over this? Maybe not Jon Cruddas. "It is an exercise in social and economic cleansing," he said, claiming that families would be thrown into turmoil, with children having to move school and those in work having to travel long distances to their jobs. "It is tantamount to cleansing the poor out of rich areas – a brutal and shocking piece of social engineering," Cruddas added.

Then there’s the access to disability living allowance and testing the availability for work of incapacity benefit claimants. The last government – the Labour one - had already introduced new tests and subcontracted the testing to a privatised company for whom throughput of clients rather than quality assessment is the key. Already the system has been seen to be failing, if the percentage of successful appeals against the test is a measure. (Up to fifty per cent of those deemed fit for work is successful on appeal)

But deemed fit for work they will be, amid Tory predictions that at least half a million claimants can be job seekers instead. Truly even Mother Teresa would be proud of that rate of miracles. But the job market for disabled workers has always been tough with far higher rates of unemployment among the disabled, and with the funding for necessary adjustments and care services likely to dwindle is likely to remain so. Meantime, the current unemployment rate already sees around ten applicants for ever vacancy.

Clearly Douglas is sticking to the line set by his predecessor James Purnell- that Labour is the Party for hard working families, a striking division of those in poverty into the deserving and undeserving poor, much applauded by the Daily Mail and the Sun. Clearly the Party’s social conscience is taking a break, as its values of justice and equity are abandoned. The reasons for this are all too clear.

Neither Alexander nor his leader Miliband has the courage to tackle the dogma legitimising these cuts - the narrative that the deficit is too high and that the cuts are necessary. If that is so then the rationale behind this cautious policy is clear. Within the Labour Party the cautious view that the cuts were inevitable but should have been slower has won.

The Alternative Economic Strategy as endorsed by UNISON spells out that it is possible to maintain public spending in the context of fairer taxation and an end to tax avoidance, and that cuts that do count- cuts to Trident, to privatisation and to private consultants sponging off the private purse. UNISON stills maintains its belief in social justice and equality, in fighting unemployment and poverty. Can supporting a party that has lost its beliefs continue?