I am a traditional Labour supporter. I believe in fairness and equal opportunities for all. Just last night when interviewed by a market research company carrying out polling, I gave Labour maximum ratings as the party I am most likely to vote for in the General Election.
However I have become furious at comments made by Rachel Reeves in the Guardian.
The interview begins in fairly recognisable Labour territory, a pledge to reduce reliance on food banks. Now, food banks do fantastic work, that is indisputable, but one cannot turn their face away from the fact that it is the Coalition’s unrelenting ideological pursuit of austerity which necessitated their creation.
But, ensuring that people have enough to live on to purchase their own food restores their dignity and allows them to participate fully in society.
It was not the proposal to reduce the use of food banks that provoked my anger however.
Politicians of all colours have been at pains to suggest they support hard-working people. On the face of it this is a good thing, if you contribute to the country then you should be rewarded for your efforts.
However this drive to support the hard-working has had an unintended consequence, hostility towards the unemployed and those who cannot work. What this debate lacks in abundance is nuance and the ability to drill down into the many reasons why people cannot work.
In further comments, Rachel Reeves appears to pander to that hostility. In suggesting that Labour does not want to be seen as the party of the welfare state, she says;
“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 by working people.
However, in attempting to diffuse criticism that Labour is soft on the unemployed, you are saying that you do not care about vast swathes of the electorate. I find the assertion that Labour does not represent me insulting. Labour should be out to win not haemorrhage votes
It is little more than a betrayal of the strong socialist credo upon which Labour is founded to disassociate itself from the welfare state. Labour should be proud of the fact that it created a framework which helps the sick, and the vulnerable and most needy in our society.
More worryingly, it communicates to a huge proportion of the electorate the message that this politics business is not for them¸ that you just don’t understand how politics works, you proletarian oiks!
I felt small when I read Rachel Reeves’ comments. It reminded me of the visceral pain William Beech, the young hero of Michelle Magorian’s novel Goodnight Mister Tom feels when he is sent to the “baby” class as he is unable to read.
Having a disability does not preclude you from voting. Nor does it make you any less politically savvy than anyone else. I think that disabled people as a social group are much disenfranchised with their treatment at the hands of the Conservative led coalition and would gladly use their vote to help form a Labour led Government on May 7th. The comments of Rachel Reeves do feel like a betrayal
I voted Labour in 1997 because I saw politicians like Tony Blair as understanding of my situation. I saw John Prescott produce his pledge card on television, and felt he was a conviction politician who believed every word on that card – therefore I believed him too.
Things Can Only Get Better became more than a catchy campaign anthem (which should definitely be on Ed Miliband’s campaign playlist by the way). It became a state of mind for the British electorate, in economic conditions not altogether dissimilar to those we are currently experiencing. It offered real hope.
But today’s Labour seems hamstrung by two things, an ideological fight with the Conservatives, and a paralysis over economic stewardship. But I would invite Labour to think introspectively about who they are fighting the election for, or against. Are they fighting against the Tories, or for the voters?
When I first saw Rachel Reeves comments I thought they were crass and spiteful. Such commentary does not emerge from socialism, it emerges from a desire to be seen as ideologically tough on an issue which is costly to the Exchequer.
However, if you boast that you will be tough on welfare, then, although many benefit claimants are in work, you are also adding to the stigma that people such as those with mental health problems or disabilities face.
If I have noticed one thing living under the brutal austerity of the Coalition, it is a politics riven with a hectoring, bullying tone towards the unemployed. I know politicians might say that they are not talking about me, they are talking about people who can work who don’t. But do you know why I am not reassured by this placation? The public does not differentiate between different types of benefit claimants, nor their individual narratives, because endless games of divide and conquer do not afford such opportunities. Egged on by the Coalition, and now it seems by the Opposition, on the issue of welfare the electorate is enticed into a game of dog whistle Heroes (those who work) and Villains (those who don’t). But it is not that simple.
For behind the grandeur of social theory, there are human beings who will live out the costs of politicians’ ideological boasts. I find a delicious irony in an interview that on one level, wants to reduce food bank use that on another level simultaneously vilifies the unemployed without even a flicker of awareness. That is why I think the morals of making such pronouncements at best questionable
I will end with a reminder and a warning. It is not for politicians to dictate who votes for them, creating a false dichotomy between desirable and undesirable voters, or put another way, good and bad ones. The electorate can however, choose to vote for you, or consign you to the Opposition benches. Labour would do well to remember this today.