‘Sanctioned’ by Dani Lafez. Dani’s artwork is for sale here – proceeds go to arthritis research.
The blind faith of the right
(and what’s left for the Left)
Dani is a very poorly lady. Severe rheumatoid arthritis is attacking her spine, she has a snapped lumbar ligament, and last week after a gruelling eight needles were injected into her vertebra, an x-ray revealed that a hoped operation to fuse two of the disks in her back wouldn’t be possible because the surrounding disks have disintegrated too much.
At the age of 26 she is facing the rest of her life taking morphine, by 40 she is likely to be in a wheelchair, and she has been told that the prospects of her body being able to bear a child are almost non-existent.
But these aren’t her only troubles. A month ago she was sanctioned by the DWP.
It’s been a tough month. Dani’s been handed around from person to person, with vague explanations given, such as her partner being in ‘full time work’ now (it’s an apprenticeship and he’s on £3.25/hour) and a so-called administrative error in which a ‘change of circumstance’ application Dani had to fill out didn’t have a due date on it. By the time she had gathered the masses of personal medical information the DWP required, only five days later, it was too late. No benefits for a month. At the next ‘infringement’ the sanction will be for 13 weeks.
Dani is one of an alarming number of people with disabilities up and down the country whose lives have got that much tougher lately. People she’s working tirelessly to bring hope to through volunteering at the Samaritans, and through her artwork (above) which she sells to raise money for fellow arthritis sufferers.
Under Iain Duncan Smith’s direction at the DWP, claimants have endured the humiliation of multiple reassessments to prove their own conditions, and suspicion from staff on performance targets to enforce sanctions and reduce benefits allowances. In a Radio 4 ‘File on 4’ special in January, a DWP whistleblower said that staff were “encouraged to view the ‘customer’ as the lowest of the low…to target people, set them up to fail, sanction them, make life difficult for them”.
Long-term sufferers have lost some or all of their support in the DLA-PIP switch, or wrongly been deemed fit-to-work and forced into compulsory unpaid work schemes just to get access to benefits (and off the unemployed figures). In January it was revealed that every day 100 people suffering with mental health issues are sanctioned by the department, despite being declared unfit to work by their doctors.
People with disabilities can no longer draw benefits while waiting for their appeal to be processed, which can take six months, and in at least half of cases, reveals the person should never have lost their benefits in the first place. The whole miserable experience has been made tougher for the poorest people by the removal of Legal Aid and cuts to local authority social care budgets, and in June the Independent Living Fund will be taken away further compounding the pain.
“My life is in the DWP’s hands completely,” Dani tells me. “I genuinely feel I’m being punished for being disabled. I’ve always had at least one job ever since I was 15 and I’ve paid taxes. To lose my job was a big thing, but now because I can’t pay tax I feel like I’m punished. I know it’s not personal but it feels personal”.
I try not to let political discussions get personal. It gets ugly, it can damage relationships, and normally doesn’t achieve anything anyway.
But there’s something in the air at the moment that means I just can’t get past the personal when it comes to politics. An uncomfortable aching sensation began on the evening of May 7 which just won’t clear, and in this malaise frankly I’ve been looking at certain people I know in a different light.
It’s not just that I’m a sore loser. It’s not just that they voted Conservative. It’s because of what, in the process, they chose to endorse.
By bringing the Conservative party back in, the public has wilfully chosen to continue an agenda of making disabled people like Dani beg and bow for state support, or cut them off completely. They have chosen to allow the NHS to continue to be underfunded, riddled with false economies, ground down, broken up and sold off to the private sector.
It was a firm vote to go on with an abusive relationship; to do nothing as individuals in the City face no personal legal action for a string of gigantic white-collar crimes that have cost the economy billions, while the most vulnerable are sanctioned, evicted and imprisoned for miserably minor infringements.
It was a willingness to carry on turning a blind eye to local authority budgets being squeezed and public services forced to do more for less. To keep tuition fees at £9,000 a year and drop another generation deeper into debt. To allow the gaping loopholes in our tax system to remain.
And most sickening of all, to allow a false narrative to prevail. The narrative that it is fair to make the most vulnerable pay for the crimes and recklessness of a privileged few.
It’s no coincidence that the people who have already paid dearly for this sham are some of the people least democratically represented in modern Britain. They are the public sector workers who have endured pay freezes and cuts; the disabled, unemployed and working poor, and the vulnerable who have had their legal aid cut. And let’s not forget small businesses in the North and Midlands (translation = Labour seats) which are still paying absurdly high business rates tacked to pre-crash rental levels, thanks to the government’s decision to defer the 2013 revaluation. I could go on.
It wasn’t Dani, or the thousands of British people with disabilities, who demanded a £1.3 trillion bailout at gunpoint in 2008. It wasn’t the working poor, or pensioners, or nurses, doctors, teachers, armed forces or the unemployed who caused the deficit to grow by £120 billion pounds in the space of two years.
It was a financial industry that was and is driven by greed and wicked aspiration. The very people that spent years dining out on the proceeds of false markets driven by phoney assets and a million insanely over-leveraged deals, that fucked the whole thing up and then came begging to the state for the biggest handout in human history.
But it is the victims who are being blamed, and paying the price. All to reduce a deficit they didn’t create, and help boost UK plc’s covenant to the foreign investors and stock market speculators in which certain people put so much blind faith.
It’s all especially galling when you think back to the Tories’ time in opposition. When Cameron and Osborne approved every penny of Labour’s public spending up until 2008. And let’s definitely not forget that Cameron, right up until the crash, was slamming the government for regulating the banks too much.
In fact just three days before Northern Rock was given emergency funds in September 2007 and the whole house of cards started to wobble, Cameron actually said that the world economy was “more stable than for a generation”.
“That debate is now settled. Over the past 15 years, governments across the world have put into practice the principles of monetary discipline and free enterprise. The result? A vast increase in global wealth. The world economy more stable than for a generation”. David Cameron, September 10, 2007.
Or just a little further back:
“The lessons from the City are clear. Low tax. Low regulation. Meritocracy. Openness. Innovation. These are the keys to success. Many on the left-of-centre still seek to solve problems through more taxes, more laws and more regulations…But we, on the centre-right, prefer to step out of the way of business”. David Cameron, June 22, 2006.
But then why bother being honest about the past or the future, when people will vote for you anyway? And why bother to tell the truth about public spending – that we spend the least on healthcare of any country in the G7 for example, or that 10 times more welfare goes to low-paid workers than it does to the unemployed – when you can scapegoat the wrong people and still win votes?
The blind faith of the right in the last election was such that the Tories plucked votes like low-hanging fruit without even giving details of how another £12bn will be cut from spending, nor where the £22bn of ‘efficiencies’ in the NHS are going to come from (did you know that that’s the hidden caveat of the extra £8.5bn we’ve heard so much about?).
How straightforward to be conservative. With so very little soul-searching, to believe in a crudely simplistic notion of the world, that business is righteous, state intervention is sick, and the people who depend on it are worthless scroungers.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with an old school friend some years ago (here’s the bit where I admit I went to a private school). I’d dared to bring up politics, and to a row of rolling eyes, make some naive comment about inequality. Luckily my friend – another private school graduate, and owner of a flat in North London courtesy of generous parents – was there to explain it. “Oh Cooper”, she said. “It’s just Darwinism, that’s the way it works”. Silly me.
But how ruthless you must be too. To re-elect a government that instructs the DWP to remove support from people with disabilities. To be able to dismiss the views of the medical profession with the insulting platitude that ‘a strong NHS requires a strong economy’, without even understanding the hugely complex and wasteful ‘reforms’ that have been forced on the service.
To live your life every day ignorant, or unwilling to accept, that this heartless form of government is costing lives. To be able to deny that austerity is driving the most vulnerable people to further pain, paranoia, depression, shame, loneliness, isolation and suicide.
I doubt any of this troubled the minds of the people who spent the day after the election bingeing on £100 million worth of luxury London property. Or the City traders, who got down to a frenzy of activity within hours of the result.
“How the City rejoiced”, wrote investment and trading site Interactive Investor’s Lee Wild. “…there was a very clear election effect, relief mainly that the City will not now have to work under left-wing leader Ed Miliband. Cut the Square Mile in half and inside it’s blue – a Tory administration always goes down better than any other here”.
And which sectors of the blue City were most rejoicing? Outsourcing beneficiaries G4S, Capita, Babcock, Serco – the latter of which has since announced it is pulling out of an NHS contract because of lack of profits. All saw a surge in share price. As did listed London estate agency Foxtons, utilities Centrica and SSE (free from the threat of price caps), bailed-out banks RBS, Barclays and Lloyds, and bookies William Hill and Ladbrokes, all of which are breathing a “collective sigh of relief”, said Wild.
And what of the pin-striped Mayfair agents? What fun. “My mobile lit up like a Christmas tree from the early hours, vibrated and flashed all day,” Gary Hersham, managing director of London agency Beauchamp Estates, chortled to City AM. “[It] didn’t stop until it ran out of juice late on Friday night”.
In the week after May 7th, deVere Mortgages reported a 50% increase in the volume of mortgage enquiries in the UK, most of which, the company cheered, were from overseas buyers. “It appears that investors held off in fear of a left wing government taking power”, said deVere Group international investment strategist Tom Elliot.
Investment advisory London Central Portfolio (LCP), which focusses solely on the prime end of the Capital’s resi market, in a gleeful post-election press release, quoted one of its Hong-Kong-based clients who thought that Britain would have been headed “down the toilet, so to speak” if Labour had won. “Investors”, it continued, “breathed a collective sigh of relief on Friday”.
How did Dani feel on that Friday morning?
“In one word, doomed,” she says. “I’d never been so disappointed in my life. At the sheer ‘I’m alright, I’m not disabled so I’m not bothered’ attitude. There are people who I know voted Conservative, who have said, ‘But you look fine!’, or, ‘Can’t you just get a job sitting down?’.
“The same people that call us sore losers, ignorant of the fact that many of us will lose our homes and independence during the next five years”.
What’s happened to this country? How can it be that we have sleep-walked into system which in one electoral swoop allows outsourcing companies, luxury property investors, banks, utility giants and bookies a “sigh of relief”, while the most vulnerable take a sharp intake of stunned breath and brace for yet bleaker times ahead?
How is it that in the sixth largest economy in the world, 3.5 million children now live in poverty, the majority of which are in working families – a number expected to increase by another 1 million by 2020. How is it deemed acceptable that food bank dependency (at the Trussell Trust alone) has increased by 2,651% in five years, to the sneers and denials of MPs. All this in a country which rolls out the red carpet for Saudi and Chinese capital, free to roam the globe, but where disabled people are made slaves to sanctions and prisoners to procedure.
I try not to mix politics with personal feelings. But there’s something about this Conservative win that is just so fundamental. The stark contrast between who benefits from the system we live in, and the injustices it allows, has never been so clear.
Socialism has always been about protecting the poorest and most vulnerable people, and an acknowledgement that as part of a society we are all connected, with a duty, and an interest, in helping those people. But with only centrist candidates coming forward to lead Labour, advised by an eager new class of smooth-tongued, self assured SPADs from the Blair Academy whose time has finally come, what’s left for the Left and the people we are meant to stand up for?
Well, I believe, the Labour party needs to stop treating the leadership campaign as though it was a re-run of the election, and accept the fact that we are in opposition now for what politically is an eternity.
Within this void we must rediscover serious grass-roots action. We need more community engagement over policies not politics. We need to link up with groups like the People’s Assembly, the unions, independent community projects such as foodbanks, support for victims of domestic abuse and people with disabilities, co-operative social enterprises, women’s equality and LGBT rights campaigners and dozens of other activist organisations which, frankly, have done a better job of engaging on single-issues. (Update: Please see A Guide to UK-based Free Domestic Violence Helplines by Oliver at Rehab 4 Addiction)
Rediscovering this and having the courage to stand by our convictions should be a long patient process of building from the bottom, of being more visibly involved with communities. Not for party political gain, but because it is the right thing to do.
At least, that’s what people said to me on the doorsteps before the election. Time and again, it was issues and policies, not politics, that came up in those conversations.
Policies like the future of the NHS. On this urgent concern, we need to be more active in movements like 999CallfortheNHS, and local protests such as the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign, which took on the government and won in 2013. There is a major network of health campaigners out there – such as the National Health Action Party, whose members didn’t have enough faith in Labour. We need to win those people back.
We must once and for all counter-attack the smears against us with three bold statements. Ed made these during the campaign but was shut down by the Tory-supporting press which accounts for 80% of the readership in the UK:
1) Labour did not cause the financial crisis
2) Labour was not profligate in government. To quote Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman: “In 2007, government debt as a percentage of G.D.P. was close to its lowest level in a century (and well below the level in the United States), while the budget deficit was quite small”. And public spending was at the same levels as under Ken Clarke’s time as Chancellor.
3) The Tories would have matched Labour’s public spending Pound-for-Pound and would have regulated the banks less, not more
If the government with its paper-thin majority is going to continue along its heartless line, we have no choice but unilaterally to take justice to the people who need it. We need to tap into the spirit and energy of the great Chartist and union movements of the mid-19th century, that ultimately led to the birth of the Labour Party, while embracing the unique challenges of 21st century Britain.
We need to speak for a broader spectrum of business. Call for fair economic growth by cogently advocating the benefits of a balanced economy based more around manufacturing, industry and exports, not just the fickle finance and low-wage sectors that dominate today.
And this must be stopped from being jeopardised by catastrophic cyclical crashes that suck all of the entrepreneurial energy from the rest of the economy, or the flagrant flaws in the tax system that stifle its national revenue. We need to enforce genuine discipline in the financial markets. I’m not so naïve as to think investment could happen without them – but for growth to be more equitably distributed we need to nurture a more responsible, long-term culture of investment and asset management outside of only the prime locations.
We need to be open to radical ideas, and listen, not preach to working class peope who have found a home in less compromising organisations like the Greens, the SNP and UKIP. As a genuine opposition we need to stick it to this government at every possible opportunity: every shabby deal, every piecemeal privatisation of the NHS, every failure of outsourcing, every injustice in the welfare system, every ruthless eviction, every time a person with a disability is denied the proper support. Otherwise, what is the point in Labour?
If we don’t, it won’t just be the Labour Party that loses the last semblances of social justice that Ed tried so hard to cling to, it will be Britain as well. And we might just win back the trust of the people we claim to represent.