Reeves rhetoric risks riling disabled voters

Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves pronouncement that Labour is “Not the party for people on benefits” is alienating and stigmatising of disabled people says Ruth Patrick.

With just under 50 days to go until the General Election, Rachel Reeves, Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions has been sharing her vision for ‘welfare’ with The Guardian. Mixed in with some welcome thoughts on the need to address the exponential rise in use of food banks and sanctions, Reeves had one very clear message for the electorate:

We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work. Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people.

Reeves’ insistence that Labour will not and should not be seen as the party of benefit claimants is galling. It shows the extent to which ‘welfare’ and those who rely on benefits for all or most of their income are now suffused with negative connotations and seen as inherently problematic. Labour, once the party of social justice and greater equality, is now running scared of any suggestion that they be smeared as soft on ‘welfare’, as a party prepared to stand up and protect the interests of out-of-work benefit claimants. Their policy rhetoric is shaped by an unsightly race to the bottom, and set against a backdrop of increased condemnation of those reliant on working-age out-of-work benefits in the popular media, and via ‘reality’ television shows such as Benefits Street.

This is a damning indictment, both of the state of the Labour Party and of the new common sense on ‘welfare’. The hardening of public attitudes towards benefit claimants leaves Labour – in their desperate scramble for votes – unprepared to take a principled stand in support of those who need out-of-work benefits to survive. In case we are in danger of forgetting, this includes disabled people, young people making difficult transitions from care to independent living, those fleeing domestic violence as well as those seeking, but currently unable to find work. Indirectly, it encompasses many thousands of children and people making important contributions as volunteers, carers and parents. Out-of-work benefit claimants have a right and a need to support and it is shameful that The Labour Party is seeking to distance itself from them in this way.

While Reeves went on to promise that she would be careful in the language she used if she was elected, never speaking of ‘strivers’ and ‘scroungers’, her narrative is just as damaging as these stigmatising caricatures. In claiming to be a party of working people (and not of those out of work), Reeves sustains the myth of two distinct groups of hard working families and welfare dependents. Lived realities are – of course – far more complex, with people frequently moving in, and out of work, particularly common for the many hundreds of thousands stuck in the low-pay, no-pay cycle.

Will, Labour support those struggling to get by on a zero hour contract? But then stop, when the contract is terminated and the individual has to sign on? And what of the young adult working hard in a pressurised job, who has a breakdown and then needs to claim benefits? Does Labour’s support start and end with their engagement in paid employment?

What is more, many millions are in work but still receive ‘welfare’ whether through Child Benefit, tax credits or Housing Benefit. There’s an argument we should widen are understanding of ‘welfare’ broader still to incorporate access to education and health care, as well as fiscal welfare in tax relief and incentives, something which many very rich workers depend upon. And then, of course, there’s the many millions of pensioners, the only ‘welfare dependents’ which every party wants to represent. Reeves’ simplistic statement ignores all this, instead painting an emotive, inaccurate and simplistic illusion that pits workers against those reliant on out-of-work benefits. In doing so, Reeves and her party are furthering the exclusion and stigmatisation of those currently reliant on working-age benefits.

As the General Election nears, Labour must be careful not to completely alienate some of its traditional bases of support

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