After the Second World War the Labour Government introduced the Welfare State. Its aim was to wipe out poverty and hardship in society; to have a society free from the fear of poverty brought on by ill health. It offered a cradle to the grave Welfare State. That was a Labour Party to be proud of. In a shock surprise to Churchill, who had just 12 weeks earlier announced the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, the country voted Labour into office.
Fifty years later, in 1997, millions voted for Blair in a landslide victory as a backlash to the Thatcherite years. It was the visible decline of the Welfare State under her tenure that made Blair’s New Labour seem so appealing. Labour created the Welfare State and their whole ethos was about equality and citizens being free of poverty and ill health. Yet Blair was single-handedly responsible for British people losing faith in the benefits system and he changed the perception toward benefit claimants so negatively it still resounds today. It was Blair’s ‘Hand up, not hand out’ speech in 1999 which was blamed.
In 2008 Blair’s New Labour launched the new Work Capability Assessments to save the government £1 billion from the Welfare Bill. The disabled were transitioned off incapacity benefit and onto Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). Part of that was to reassess disabled people. Blair’s government expected that 23% of those on disability benefits would be found ‘fit to work’ and descriptors were changed to facilitate that. What happened was horrific and a report found 1,300 disabled lost their lives after being forced into work they were not capable of performing. What happened to the party of social justice?
Even after Blair left office, Labour continued his neoliberal agenda. In 2013 Rachel Reeves, now Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, stated, “Nobody should be under the illusion that they are able to live on benefits under a Labour Government”. In 2015 she further stated that Labour does not want to represent people who are out of work; that she does not want Labour to be seen as the party of the Welfare State because Labour is the party of working people, formed for and by working people. Clearly she forgets that Labour also created the Welfare State to protect working people who become ill and that many people who are in work today are also on benefits because wages are so low. It’s quite clear she has forsaken Labour’s ideological roots.
The Party of the Welfare State
Another shining example of New Labour’s neoliberal agenda is Harriet Harman, former Secretary of State for Social security, who, in 2015, whilst acting Labour leader, whipped MPs to vote yes on the Tory Welfare Bill. It caused outrage and 48 Labour MPs defied the whip.
Shockingly, it looks as though Keir Starmer is set to follow in Blair’s footsteps. We have Rachael Reeves as Shadow Chancellor, whose despicable comments I’ve noted above, but the king of abstaining, Sir Starmer, whipped MPs to abstain on the welfare cap put forward by a Tory Government. This limits the amount the UK government spends on social security benefits and tax credits. The effect is to put more children, OAPs and disabled people at risk at a time of high inflation and food and energy price increases. These decisions impact the lowest earners in the country most. This is in the face of a Tory-made cost of living crisis.
The explanation from Starmer’s Labour? They do not agree with the principle of a welfare cap. Yes, that’s right. They don’t agree with a cap on principle but are completely okay with plunging more into poverty. Principles do not put food on the table and money in the meter. Quite frankly it’s bollocks. They haven’t even got the backbone to admit they agreed with and supported the Tories. Again.
Whilst some of Blair’s welfare policies did help reduce child and pensioner poverty, the legacy he left behind has seen hundreds of thousands of disabled people die. They include OAPs. He promised to wipe out child poverty within 20 years. He was PM for ten. His ambition was never achieved. Working age people without children, however, became poorer. He gave the Tories the green light to cut deeper and push ahead with some of the most devastating cuts to welfare we have seen. They have driven poverty up, seen the biggest increase in food bank usage and increases in homelessness.
Charity not benefits
Now we know the Tories would love to remove the Welfare State and have citizens rely on charities, hence the rising food bank crisis, but to do away with it entirely would be political suicide for them. So their cuts to welfare and the disastrous consequences for millions, and especially the disabled, are not surprising. Tories care about themselves and their corporate paymasters.
The next time a centrist tells you how much Blair did for this country show them this article. Everyone mentions Iraq, and rightly so, but the war he started on the disabled, the Tories will finish with glee. As for Starmer, he gave a Shadow Chancellor position to one of the most divisive people in politics, Rachel Reeves. Her comments on the Welfare State and benefit recipients are a disgrace. Starmer abstaining on the welfare cap is unforgivable. These people do not represent the Labour Party which created the NHS and the Welfare State. A Labour Party which inspired so many and gave hope. They represent a neoliberal agenda which should have ended with Blair’s tenure.