John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

How did Communist parties handle issues of internal discipline and democracy in Lenin’s time? The recent intense discussion within the British Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and beyond has heard claims that the SWP rests on the traditions of democratic centralism inherited from the Bolsheviks.

John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Some extended thoughts about Stephanie Bottrill, the woman who committed suicide because of the bedroom tax.

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the killing of Blair Peach by the police. David Renton looks back at Blair Peach’s life as a poet, trade unionist and committed antifascist

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

Bunny La Roche of RS21 on Nigel Farage's visit to Kent

Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

Financial Appeal

We're up and running! An appeal for funds to kickstart the IS Network

Financial Appeal

Some arguments about the UK government's welfare reform programme - No-one asked for welfare

 



16. No-one asked for welfare

The British working class, whether at the heights of class struggle or in the depths of defeat, has rarely, of its own motion, sought out a welfare solution for its needs. In the English Revolution no demands were made for a better Poor Law. Insofar as the labouring classes made their demands heard, through the Levellers and Diggers for instance, they were demanding land, or the use of it, to allow them their independence. The battles in the 18th century were against enclosures or the Game Laws, against restrictions on class independence. The struggle against Chadwick’s New Poor Law of 1834, though near insurrectionary at times, was couched in terms of the defence of traditional perquisites, and against an unprecedented degree of state control - and were soon subsumed into the aggressive class demand for the Charter. Passive resistance to the New Poor Law however never went away - a resistance unto death in many cases: Mayhew, Marx and Dickens all noted how the working class would often rather starve than surrender to the ministrations of the workhouse. Unemployed struggles from the 1880’s onwards were primarily demands for employment - Work or Dole - while the shape of actual provision was determined by would-be liberal benefactors from the Webbs onward. The welfare rights movement of the 1970’s - my background - acquired some popularity only as a result of the defeats and demoralisation of the 1980’s, with backing from Labour local authorities. The miners’ demand however was Coal Not Dole and one of the greatest achievement of the strike was the implementation of a mass welfare system - run by miners provisioned by supporters - against and in place of the state system which denied most help.

Perhaps most strikingly the disabled people’s movement, beginning with the Union of the Physically Impaired against Segregation (UPIAS) in 1974, was formed precisely to distinguish itself from liberal campaigns like the Disablement Income Group (DIG) which were proposing more state support, by demanding instead the right to independent living and the assertion that disabled people, if set free and given the means, could decide their own destiny.

In short, if there is a red thread through the history of UK Poor Laws - and there is - it is the demand for independence and the resistance to - the loathing of - dependency, means testing and state intrusion into people’s lives. This is why Tory propaganda against welfare dependency can strike a chord - and why that propaganda is the most monstrous hypocrisy coming from a government which seeks only to deepen and extend welfare dependency.

There is relevant recent history here as well. The Brown wing of the Blair governments attempted two major welfare reforms - Tax Credits and Pension Credit - designed to make an impact on child poverty and pensioner poverty respectively. They were genuine attempts to address real issues through a variety of social engineering. Ultimately they failed - because social engineering which does not engage the people affected or take their experiences seriously must always fail.

Tax Credits were introduced precisely to avoid the stigma of claiming benefits - a stigma Labour were at the same time systematically strengthening - having an effect on children. They represented a real shift of income towards low income families with children and might even have proved popular but for the disastrous decision to make the provision under tax law, rather than benefit law which resulted in horrendous complexity, incomprehensible decisions and the near universal experience of massive overpayments, all of which could be, were, and still are clawed back. As a result not a word was said, or perhaps could be said, in defence of Tax Credits when Universal Credit was proposed to replace them.

Pension Credit was Brown’s equivalent attempt to address pensioner poverty - and can be credited with eliminating the most acute deprivation for the over 60’s (60 was the initial age limit, since raised and still rising). Brown was never to get the credit for this however because, again, he insisted on burying the real improvements under a complex means test - with the result that they were not noticed. What were noticed were the miserly rises, at the same time, in the near universal state retirement pension (SRP) which unlike Pension Credit was a popular institution:

There were one or two poorer couples, just holding on to their homes, but in daily fear of the workhouse. The Poor Law authorities allowed old people past work a small weekly sum as outdoor relief; but it was not sufficient to live upon, and, unless they had more than usually prosperous children to help support them, there came a time when the home had to be broken up. When, twenty years later, the Old Age Pensions began, life was transformed for such aged cottagers. They were relieved of anxiety. They were suddenly rich. Independent for life! At first when they went down to the Post office to draw it, tears of gratitude would run down the cheeks of some, and they would say as they picked up their money ‘God bless that Lord George! (for they could not believe that anyone so powerful and munificent could be a plain ‘Mr’) and God bless you, miss!’ and there were flowers from their gardens and apples from their trees for the girl who merely handed them their money. Flora Thompson - ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’, 1939

The Tories have taken due note and, anxious for now to retain the pensioner vote, have made a new, increased but flat rate, SRP the centrepiece of their pension reforms (the main aim of which however is to boost the private pensions industry).

It may be possible to take a hard headed, economist’s, view of welfare - as transfer payments - under which all that matters is the distributional impact of welfare policies: but not when you are actually receiving them. Then the terms and conditions under which you are paid matter. Humiliation matters. Having to provide every possible detail of your life and what has happened to it to get help is humiliating. Dependency matters. Being made to feel guilty about claiming, bad about not working. Complexity matters. When it is impossible to understand what you receive, or what anyone else receives, then resentment and misinformation can thrive.

On the other hand simple, universal benefits are popular - people value them, over and above the money, for their simplicity and reliability. Child Benefit - which they have begun to means test - State Retirement Pension - which will be next - to a lesser extent Disability Living Allowance - which they have abolished for new claims - and Carers Allowance. It is the degeneration of British welfare into universal means testing, the erosion of universality, actively promoted at every stage by the Tories, never opposed by Labour, that has allowed the Tories to indulge in a hate campaign against claimants; a campaign whose effect is to deepen the dependency it claims to combat.