What we think
New Labour attacking our vital benefits
Gordon Brown’s government is weaker than ever before. The smog of sleaze that pervaded Blair’s government has now settled over Brown’s with the resignation of Peter Hain over illegal financial donations and allegations against Alan Johnson. The seemingly never-ending revelations of lost discs, lap-tops and stacks of paper containing the personal information of half the population, has forced Brown to sound the retreat on compulsory ID cards.
Most damaging of all for Brown, who has always prided himself on his reputation as a safe pair of hands on the economic tiller, Britain is now facing a looming economic crisis. Brown’s reaction, as befits a big business politician, is to try to make sure that it is working-class people who pay the price.
Public-sector pay restraint and cuts in public services are the order of the day. In addition he is competing with the Tories to see how ‘tough’ Labour can be on some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society – those claiming incapacity and other benefits.
Brown’s ‘tough targets’ include stopping 20,000 claiming incapacity benefit by introducing tougher medical tests. Most incapacity benefit claimants are older workers, who having paid national insurance all their lives, are now unable to work as a result of workplace-related injuries and illness. It is not a coincidence that the highest rates of incapacity claiming are in ex-mining areas.
The government has also reconfirmed that they intend to make lone parents seek work when their youngest child is seven years old. In fact, 57% of lone parents are in work, and the figure rises to 69% of those whose youngest child is twelve or over. Contrary to the tabloid image of teenage lone parents, their average age is 34, and only 2% are teenagers.
However, whatever your age, bringing up children is a time-consuming and onerous task and the choice of when and whether to go back to work should lie with the parent. Nonetheless, there are undoubtedly many lone parents who would like to work, but the prohibitive costs of childcare – now an average of £8,000 a year – and the low paid jobs available make it impossible.
The provision of high-quality free public childcare, including after school clubs, combined with an increase in the minimum wage to at least £8 an hour, would do more to help lone parents work than any number of punitive measures.
The final prong of New Labour’s latest offensive against the poorest sections of working-class people is the introduction of supposed ‘new apprenticeships’ to provide the unemployed, particularly the young unemployed, with training as part of a ‘welfare to work’ programme.
With one in five young people in Britain currently unemployed, the introduction of high-quality apprenticeship schemes on a living wage would be widely welcomed. Instead, however, the government is offering young people ‘Mcjobs’.
The minimum wage in these ‘apprenticeships’ will be a measly £80 a week. The bodies that have so far been given permission to give apprentices official ‘qualifications’ are Network Rail, Flybe, and McDonalds . None will be under any obligation to provide permanent employment at the end of the so-called apprenticeship.
While New Labour dresses up its proposals in ‘progressive’ language; in essence they are no different to Tory Margaret Thatcher’s slave-labour Youth Training Scheme which was instrumental in driving down the wages and conditions of young people in the 1980s.
The implementation of every aspect of the government’s ‘welfare to work’ proposals is going to be parcelled out to the private and voluntary sectors.
As the PCS civil servants’ union has pointed out, the government has cut 40,000 jobs from the civil service, mostly from the Department of Work and Pensions. This means the public services they provide have been cut to the bone and the staff does not have the time to assist people in finding work.
An immediate reversal of the job cuts in the civil service would be far more effective in assisting the unemployed find work than passing the task to the private sector – which, as has been shown by other privatisation of public services, will only be interested in making a quick profit.
New Labour argues that it has limited money, so welfare spending has to be cut. Yet they have spent £25 billion to try to rescue Northern Rock bank. This is the biggest bail out of a private company ever, by any government worldwide.
And while demanding public-sector pay restraint and welfare ‘reform’, this government is continuing to cut tax on financiers and big business.
They do not need to be short of cash. On the contrary, the economy may be entering crisis, but Britain’s super-rich are still making unprecedented sums – City traders got £7 billion in bonuses at the end of 2007.
Since 1997 New Labour has presided over a vast increase in the gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us. The anger that exists against this has been partially muted because of the availability of cheap credit, and continued economic growth.
In the coming period this will no longer be the case. As the cost of living increases workers will be forced to fight back to defend their pay and conditions. An important part of this struggle will be campaigning for the right to decent training for young people.
Another aspect will be the struggle for living benefits, available to all as an essential safety net as and when they are needed. And socialist ideas need to spread, in particular the need for the main companies and banks to be taken into public ownership and run as part of a socialist planned economy. This would place their wealth in the hands of the majority in society, for it to be spent according to democratically made decisions.