We used to be accustomed to watching Labour politicians while in power puff up and reel off a series of accomplishments.
In opposition, it is de riguer to rattle off apologies – for failing to spend every penny of public funds wisely, or regulate the city, or not ‘holding back immigration’.
But one place you will not hear that is in the debate around welfare reform. As detailed on Left Foot Forward, the government’s reforms are based on out-of-date understanding of who the disabled are and will effect the lives of tens of thousands of the most vulnerable people in our society – and are in large part built upon Labour’s legacy in office.
By contrast, the Liberal Democrats managed a full debate on the changes, despite being hamstrung as part of the coalition, with one disabled delegate receiving an ovation before she even started to speak. It is now Liberal Democrat policy to stand up to ministers on many of the changes.
Yet the disabled only received a cursory mention in the prosperity and work session of Labour conference yesterday, set aside for issues of the labour market and benefits system. Byrne promised that:
“If you cannot work, we will look after you.”
“To those in genuine need, who need extra help to live and live a full life; we say we will be your voice.”
That was it. There was also a mention of the letters sent out some benefit claimants about to face cuts, but nothing on the substance of the reforms.
One of the most ironic aspects was that while Labour member and disabled activist Sue Marsh was the focal point of the speech by the main mover of the motion at Liberal Democrat conference, the ‘voice of the disabled’ was nowhere to be heard at Labour’s get-together.
Not only is this the abdication of the party’s responsibility to defend some of the most vulnerable people in our society, but an amazing act of amnesia.
As mentioned above, the government’s disastrous welfare bill is building on Labour reforms.
It was Labour that brought in the work capability assessment that tests for flexibility as an indicator of whether you’re fit for work or not – even if, like Kaliya Franklin at the Broken of Britain you suffer from Ehlers Danlos, which essentially means you are double-jointed.
The error of this administration is not the implementation of some evil tory philosophy. It is the logical conclusion of a Westminster conventional wisdom that thinks it understands politics but has an all-too loose grasp on policy.
And when we say ‘politics’ too often what we mean is what plays in the Daily Mail – as was clear by Liam Byrne’s speech where he spent far more time attacking ‘shirkers’.
This, despite the fact that fraud is so law in the incapacity benefits system that it costs us less than the measures to fight it.
Labour still appears wedded to the conventional wisdom that the large disability benefits roll is down to former workers in heavy industries who were shoved onto the benefit to keep unemployment figures down. They are increasingly not.
The proportion of people on incapacity benefit are suffering from more serious conditions – suggesting they had these from birth and not through industry – is growing.
The former assumption leads to many of the cruellest aspects of the new bill – means-testing Employment and Support Allowance if you haven’t got a minimum number of years of national insurance contributions, removing benefits from 20 per cent of existing Disability Living Allowance claimants and time limits on employment support allowance.
Labour needs to fight this bill. But it can not if it continues to accept the Westminster conventional wisdom.
Maybe the party should apologise for the banks and the public spending. However, it should definitely say sorry to the thousands let down by the Westminster conventional wisdom that it took the lead in cementing – or at least mention it in a speech.
It could start by giving some very frightened people the sense that someone cared about them by truly giving them ‘a voice’.
• Yet another nasty in the welfare bill: Means testing support for the disabled-since-youth – Declan Gaffney, September 22nd 2011
• Disabled people fear further impoverishment as cuts begin to bite – Kaliya Franklin, September 1st 2011
• Help stop government cahnges to welfare penalising families with disabled children – Sam Royston, August 15th 2011
• The three things Cameron should know about sickness and disability benefits – Declan Gaffney, July 27th 2011
• The ‘inexplicable’ rise in Disability Living Allowance explained – Declan Gaffney, February 14th 2011