Nefarious Tories?

A front page from the New Statesman, showing a fireball hurtling from space towards three men

One of the enduring weaknesses of the liberal left is a sense of moral piety: we assume that our values are superior, that we care about the weak and the vulnerable more than the other side does. Indeed, many people on the left believe that the Conservatives are nefarious, which, in effect, condemns the millions who vote for them.

The above appeared in New Statesman’s long pre-election leader column in the current issue which does not endorse any party (tells Labour voters to remember that they are voting for an MP, not a party, and leaves it at that) and repeats a lot of Blairite criticism of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The quote sums up my frustrations with the “Labour right” in the period since Labour’s fall from power in 2010: their lack of any sense of mission, of moral clarity, of any goal other than getting back to power.

My main focus as an activist since 2010 has been on their impact on disabled people. I’ve been in contact with a number of disabled people since then and took part in the Spartacus Report campaign. Until 2010 we had a welfare system that recognised that some people could not work because they were ill, and that some could not work reliably, and needed support from the state to maintain a dignified standard of living and independence. This was a legacy of de-institutionalisation, the closure of long-stay institutions which were the lot of many people with learning disabilities and chronic mental health problems until the 70s and 80s; they cost money to run and often delivered a very undignified and restricted life for those forced to live in them. The system recognised that disability costs money to live with, and that there was a difference between enabling someone to live independently and do work they were capable of and supporting them when they were too ill or too impaired to work. It also recognised that mental health problems also interfered with work even when someone was not so ill as to require hospitalisation, and that the pressures of work could tip someone into a crisis. There were two different benefits (Disability Living Allowance and Incapacity Benefit); some received one or the other, some both.

I don’t recall there being any great dissatisfaction with this; maybe the odd grumble here and there about people swinging the lead, though this had largely been settled with the replacement of the former Unemployment Benefit with Jobseeker’s Allowance under John Major, which Tony Blair’s government did not reverse. The tabloids had not been complaining about it. I didn’t read the 2010 Conservative manifesto so there may have been some mention of reforming the disability benefit system to make it more efficient or cut down on “fraud and error”, despite the well-documented and widely-agreed facts that disability benefits were under-claimed, not over-claimed, and that fraud was minuscule.

The problems with the 2011 disability benefit criteria were widely and well-explained at the time, but broadly, they did not take into account fluctuating impairments or those that were less obvious and stereotypical than, say, a complete spinal cord injury that renders someone wholly unable to walk. To take one well-publicised example, if you could walk 20 metres, you could walk, they said (as opposed to the previous 50) and were thus ineligible; very many people with debilitating chronic conditions can walk about this far — to the bathroom, the kitchen, to their wheelchair. It’s possible to be able to walk, but that walking would cause great pain, or that it would cause or exacerbate broken bones or other damage. Being able to walk a bit does not mean you aren’t disabled, yet this is not taken into account; the system was to be about supporting ‘real’ disabled people, not the ‘scroungers’. The government simply ignored representations from disabled people’s organisations that warned that the new reforms would leave many disabled people unsupported, result in them being unable to work, in them being institutionalised (sometimes repeatedly), in them having to live with abusive relatives or on friends’ sofas or the street, in their being unable to leave their homes. “We can’t afford it, the cupboard is bare”, they proclaimed. “There’s no magical money tree.” And when it was demonstrated that some of the new reforms would not in fact save money because the money saved was balanced out by administration costs, they proclaimed, “I believe it is right”.

If we want to pretend that the Tories are not nefarious, we have to ask “why would anyone want to do any of this?”. Why would anyone want to destroy a disability support system that works? Why would anyone want to cause a mentally-ill person unnecessary stress over a period of years? Why would anyone want to split up a family, or stop someone working or going out, or force someone out of their home? There is no reason other than hidebound commitment to ideology, the desire to make political capital from other people’s resentment, or downright malice. Those of us who opposed these reforms at the time opposed them because they caused unnecessary suffering and hardship. Is this a moral issue? Of course it is, although safeguarding public healthcare and education are not just moral issues; they are about investing in our future and maintaining our civilisation. Do I think this is a superior moral value to saving a bit of money or getting rid of a few genuine false claimants? Yes. It’s patronising to call disabled people weak and vulnerable, but it’s reasonable to presume that those who kick away their supports for political ends do not care about them much.

As for our attitudes towards people who vote for them, it is not true that condemning people who do all this also condemns their voters, as the voters have a variety of motives including tribalism, familiarity with an existing candidate (and the inexperience of an opposing one, especially in a safe seat where they will put up a candidate to get a bit of practice with no expectation of winning), concern with national identity issues that may appear (or sometimes actually be) more important than welfare, refusal to admit that their intentions are as extreme as they really are, lack of personal need for the services being cut (such people often reconsider when they do need them, of course), as well as occasions where Labour have in fact proved inept (the late 70s being arguably a good example). The Goldfish published an article on reasons why decent people might mistakenly vote Tory (though I’m not sure it’s always a mistake). In some situations, a more pressing concern such as religious freedom or anti-fascism may outweigh concerns about health and welfare (such as in Turkey before Ergogan really took a turn for the tyrannical in the last couple of years); I do not believe this to be the case here. And of course, we cannot explain why decent people might vote for candidates with policies we find offensive without considering media bias, which normalises policies which benefit the rich (as it is the rich who own newspapers and, for the most part, edit them) and brands opposition to them as dangerous or foolish (consider the language of ‘maturity’ used to anathematise Lib Dem dissenters under the last government).

But we know we can’t go round condemning voters; even with the likes of the BNP, we rely on exposing the untruth of their claims and their incompetency and inactivity while in office (such as when they gained council seats in east London and Stoke on Trent, for example) rather than insulting their voters (there is a hard core of racist voters who are beyond persuading, it’s true, much as there is a hard core who really do believe disabled people should be left to die or that poor people must be stupid or feckless, and so on, but they are not the majority). Even condemning a candidate’s supporters is often mistaken for condemning their voters, as in the case of Hilary Clinton’s “deplorables” remark about Trump’s supporters. But that doesn’t change the fact that we do regard impoverishment and abandonment of people who need support in our society (whether openly or by trickery) as immoral, and we make no apology for that; it is why some of us (not all) are in parties like the Labour party. We have indeed moved on from the 1970s and most of us do not support re-nationalising huge swathes of British industry, or what is left of it. To restore what was present in the Blair era would be nice — will the Labour right who sneer about out-of-touch idealists at least support that? If they had been prepared to robustly defend their own record in government, Corbyn may never have been needed.

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