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A revolt against benefit cuts

Print edition : Dec 27, 1997 T+T-

The political debacle over the cutbacks in the benefits for single parents will be seen in future as a defining moment for Tony Blair and his New Labour project.

MIKE MARQUSEE

ON December 10, while the British Parliament debated the fate of welfare payments to some of the poorest people in Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair staged a soiree for millionaire-celebrities at 10 Downing Street. Later that evening, his Government was joined by the Conservative Party in voting through a measure that will cut weekly disposable income for unemployed and low-waged single parents by 5 to 10 per cent. Forty-seven Labour members of Parliament joined Liberal Democrats and Scottish and Welsh Nationalists in opposing the cuts; another 40 Labour MPs abstained. One Minister and four junior members of the Government resigned in protest.

The Government won the vote by 457 to 107, but suffered major political damage. Coming on top of the Formula One fiasco (Frontline, December 12), and mounting criticism of the Government's pandering to big business, the single-parent benefits debacle will be seen in future as a defining moment for Tony Blair and his New Labour project.

By British standards, this was a major parliamentary rebellion, larger than any that afflicted Tory Governments throughout their party's 18-year tenure. What is more, it has erupted from the heart of a political machine that was vaunted for its discipline only recently. In the lean years of opposition, unconditional loyalty to the Labour leadership had become the watchword for all but a tiny handful of left-wingers, and on December 10 the Labour Whips spared no effort to bludgeon their troops into the Government lobby. But this time the Left was joined by a variety of Labour MPs whose only common denominator was independence of mind.

Significantly, only 14 of the dissidents were newly elected MPs (who make up half the total of Labour MPs). And only eight of Labour's 101 women MPs were prepared to defy the Government on a policy immediately affecting the living standards of some half a million families headed by single women. When Labour's landslide in May swept an unprecedented number of women into the Commons, commentators predicted the emergence of a more female- and child-friendly political culture. As with so many other New Labour claims, the gap between rhetoric and reality gapes wider by the day.

WHAT gave the Commons rebellion its weight was that the dissident MPs were known to speak for most of their Labour colleagues, for the vast majority of Labour Party members, for nearly all the trade unions, and, as an opinion poll published in The Guardian revealed, some two-thirds of the general public.

In Britain today, 23 per cent of all families with dependent children are headed by single parents, 91 per cent of them women. Sixty-three per cent of these families live below the Government's poverty line. When John Major's Conservative Government proposed cuts in single-parent benefits, the then Labour Opposition denounced the move as immoral. Within two months of taking over from the Conservatives, Harriet Harman, Blair's Social Security Minister, began steering these same cuts through Parliament.

Initially, the move was justified as a painful but unavoidable consequence of New Labour's pledge to stick within the public spending limits laid down by the Conservatives. However, as welfare rights and women's groups mounted a powerful lobbying effort, and the tide of protest swelled, the Government tried to present the cuts as part of its overall 'welfare to work' package, insisting that New Labour's priority was to get people into paid employment, not keep them on state benefits. This argument gave rise to the suggestion that all single parents ought to work, even those with young children, and that they ought to work at any rate of pay, rather than burden the taxpayer, which only served to fuel disquiet in Labour ranks.

NO one denies that Britain's benefit system needs rationalising, not least to ensure that the benefits reach the millions who are legally entitled to them but currently fail to claim them. But the British welfare provision is already among the least generous in Europe, and so far Blair's comments on welfare reform have been a mixture of Samuel Smiles-style moralism and fiscal conservatism.

Labour dissidents were not reassured by the two announcements that were made the day before the Commons vote. A United Nations report described poverty levels in Britain as "unacceptable" and suggested that "the Government's ability to alleviate these difficulties is impaired by its self-imposed budgetary constraints." It urged the Government to do more for disadvantaged groups, including single parents. Simultaneously, the Adam Smith Institute, a right-wing think tank that provided much of the intellectual impetus for Thatcherism, praised Blair's Government for making a "remarkably promising start" and singled out his Social Security Department for a "100 per cent approval rating." "The Labour Government," the report said, "is vastly different from the previous ones which bore that name." The report concluded: "Its acceptance of market principles evidently goes much deeper than many of its critics feared during its campaign."

The Government's claims that its plans to encourage single mothers into work would compensate for the benefit cut were disparaged by Labour rebels during a fierce and frequently bitter Commons debate. Members said that in many areas of the country there were already 10 job-seekers for every vacancy, and that even if the Government could provide child care for every single parent willing to work, the majority would remain unemployed. And those who did find work would be paid low wages - which have become Britain's chief inducement to inward investment - and still remain below the poverty line, MPs said.

Claims by Ministers that the cuts were mandated by Labour's election promises on public spending were rejected by Alice Mahon, MP for Halifax in Yorkshire. "Where in the manifesto did it say we were going to make cuts to lone parents?" she asked. "Not in a million years," she said, "did any of us expect to be faced with the choice we are faced with tonight." She also expressed fears that lone parents would be forced into work against their will. If that were to happen, she said, it would be "a piece of social engineering of which Stalin would have been proud."

Critics pointed out that the entire cuts exercise saved only 60 million out of an annual Government budget of some 360 billion (that is, 360,000 million). The Government's recent decision to freeze National Insurance thresholds for employers had cost it twice the amount it was seeking to save at single parents' expense. What is more, thanks to lower-than-forecast social security expenditure, the Government is actually undershooting the Tory spending targets by some 3 billion, and appears to be building up a massive long-term surplus in the public accounts.

ONE of the leading public opponents of the Government's economic policy has been Ken Livingstone, former leader of the Greater London Council (which was abolished by Margaret Thatcher) and now Labour MP for Brent East, one of London's most poverty-stricken areas. "Rather than turning on single parents, when will the Labour Government start taking on people who are bigger and more powerful than themselves?" he asked during the Commons debate. "Most people believe that it is time that those who have done so well out of the past 18 years should pay a bit more towards the running and rebuilding of Britain and not let that burden fall on the poorest children in the poorest families," he said. "I have a horrible feeling that all this is about demonstrating to the international markets that we can be as brutal to the poor as the Government that we replaced," he said, and added, "I see no other justification for the measure."

Later, Tony Benn, a Minister in the Labour governments of the 1960s and the 1970s and for 20 years the left-wing conscience of the party, observed, "The Government has not taken a hard decision; they have taken the easiest possible decision, hammering the poorest people who have no bargaining power." He said, "They have ring-fenced the richest people, promising there will be no increase in income tax. We are going back to the Victorian concept of the deserving poor, who want work, and the undeserving poor, who prefer to look after their children."

THE media coverage surrounding the benefit cuts was overwhelmingly negative for the Government. New Labour's attempt to contain the damage by refusing to supply spokespersons for Newsnight, the BBC television's key evening news programme, and its complaints about excessively vigorous questioning on Today, BBC radio's morning news magazine, have probably only added to the malaise of mistrust that is growing up around Blair and his colleagues.

It has been widely noted that some of New Labour's election promises are more sacrosanct than others. Labour pledged to cut hospital waiting lists by 100,000; since the election, they have soared to a record high of more than 1.2 million. Labour promised low interest rates, but there have been five increases in interest rates in six months. And most notoriously, Labour promised to ban tobacco advertising and sponsorship of sport, then exempted motor racing after having received a million-pound donation from Bernard Ecclestone, head of Formula One. The introduction of 1,000- a-year tuition fee for higher education (a measure rejected by the previous Conservative Government), which has already led to a sharp decrease in applications for university places, sits uneasily with the generous cuts in corporation tax (already the lowest among advanced industrial countries), which will cost the exchequer 9 billion over five years.

Despite growing disillusion with Blair, there is no sign of the Tories returning to public favour; results in two byelections held in traditional Tory areas indicate that they remain profoundly unpopular.

Conservative leader William Hague has swung his party to the right on Europe and to the centre on social issues. But this centre is the terrain that Blair intends to defend at all costs, even though polls indicate that public opinion is continuing to move towards the left, as it has since the early 1990s. With the two major political parties committed to unmitigated neo-liberalism, a huge gap is opening up on the Left of British politics.

It was clear from the single-parents debate that some Liberal Democrats would like to reposition their party to exploit this, but their leader, Paddy Ashdown, seems eager to build his alliance with Blair (who has given Ashdown a seat on the Cabinet committees). For the foreseeable future, the key political battles in Britain will be fought between the Prime Minister and the Left within his own party.

Blair has made it clear that he intends to push on with "welfare reform". Two days after the Commons vote, in an article in Rupert Murdoch's Sun newspaper, he wrote: "The easy way out on welfare is to keep the status quo. We need compassion, with a hard edge... The hard edge means demanding responsibility, knowing when to say no to demands for more money, and knowing that without a stable economy... compassion on its own will be useless."

Next spring, the Government will complete its "comprehensive spending review" and announce its detailed plans for "welfare reform". Spokespersons have promised that the Defence budget - at 23 billion much higher proportionally than any of Britain's European Union partners' - will not be touched. Instead, Ministers are looking for savings from the 90-billion-a-year social security budget, especially the 16 billion that goes to the country's five million disabled people. A leaked memo from Social Security Minister Harriet Harman's chief policy adviser alarmed Labour MPs; it insisted that savings would have to be made "from benefits paid to sick and disabled people."

Chancellor Gordon Brown said that the Government's policy was that "those who can work should work", including the disabled, although he disavowed any intention to compel disabled people into jobs (unlike the young unemployed, who will forfeit benefits if they fail to comply with the Government's training programme).

The Tribune, the long-established Labour weekly, warned: "Any future attempt to railroad the Labour movement away from the universal provision of welfare to a tattered, possibly privatised safety net, will provoke strong resistance. In the worst-case scenario, it could split the Labour Party in two."

Mike Marqusee has been a member of the Labour Party for 20 years and is the co-author of Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: Inside Kinnock's Labour Party (Verso).