Whether one likes it or not what appears on the pages of the Guardian shapes the daily political debate, and so today I’m going to say a few words about Liam Byrne’s article on the welfare state.
I have to reveal a vested interest from the start. I fucking hate Liam Byrne. He has to be one of the people I despise most in British politics. Something I’ve said many times on these pages. But this time I mean it. Poisonous, nasty, cynical and smug, he is everything awful about the modern Labour Party made flesh. Leaving aside the “there’s no more money letter” when he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury, a disgraceful act that should have seen him driven out of Labour politics for good, I vividly recall the by-election in Birmingham when he first got elected to Parliament in 2004. It was one of the most cowardly and racist election campaigns ever attempted in the modern history of Labour. It was chillingly cynical and marked him out as a) a wanker and b) someone who no doubt would go far in New Labour. He has played the race card again and again in his own constituency.
The article itself also has to be placed in recent context. On Sunday the Mail ran this story and to be honest my draw nearly dropped reading it. Byrne will be leading the mooted policy ‘shift’ and this article to me seems to be laying the ground work for it. If Beveridge would have approved, how could the rest of the left not? (The fact that Diane Abbott of all people is too stupid to see this is incredibly depressing, although the contributors below her in that article are a million times better)
The history of Labour, particularly although not exclusively since Blair was elected, is the history of a party that has bent over backwards to accommodate the feral right wing media. At all times they have been desperate to appear tough on benefit “cheats” and “scroungers” and New Labour tried to out-do the Tories as often in their bullying as they could get away with. Byrne, despite the largely mealy-mouthed words of this article, falls squarely within that inglorious tradition.
He talks about being ‘tough-minded’. The language is almost Orwellian. ‘Tough’ is standing up to the Daily Mail and refuting the lies and tabloid-confected myths that appear on their pages every day about the scale of benefit “fraud,” even though time and again it has proven to be a drop in the ocean in relation the actual welfare bill and the amount of money the Treasury loses from tax evasion and avoidance (something Byrne of all people should know, surely……..) Welfare payments are not that generous, and as this superb article in the British Medical Journal shows, the attack on the welfare state is part of a much wider political strategy. Something that Labour seems to have no response to other than mimicry. And seeing as no one trusts them to be tough anyway, then what is the fucking point? Why not try and change the terms of the debate rather than following them and getting nowhere in so doing?
Byrne’s logic on welfare and immigration, although in this particular article he doesn’t lay it out explicitly, depends on a central deceit, that politicians should be slaves to public opinion. Firstly, one would hope a social democratic party would display a little more political ambition. Secondly, even on Byrne’s terms its bollocks. Is Byrne advocating the restoration of capital punishment? Leaving the EU? Did it stop him supporting the invasion of Iraq?
Of course we assume that Byrne and co are engaged in an honest debate on political strategy and that they just have a different take on what is required to get elected. As time goes by I’m not so sure. I think they actually agree with the Tories and a lot of their agenda and that is why they are so enthusiastic about aping it.
The article itself is fairly, and deliberately anodyne because of its target audience (lefties). There is a lot more going on here that is never even really hinted at. And it isn’t good. Byrne’s agenda is a toxic one.
Winning the argument on benefit scroungers isn’t going to be easy, clearly. I’m under no illusions as the level of venom that is felt towards and directed at the mythical “scroungers” and “cheats.” People get in an awful tizzy about it. Maybe that’s what happens after years of getting your news and views from the Sun. It would be a hell of a lot easier though if the Labour leadership had the courage to take a stand for once in their lives.
NB: another good story here worth reading: http://www.channel4.com/news/welfare-reform-is-benefits-culture-a-myth