Socialist Worker

Labour’s benefits plans hark back to workhouses

Attacks on benefit claimants echo notions of the "undeserving poor", writes Matthew Cookson

Issue No. 2132

James Purnell, the work and pensions secretary, is a modern version of Charles Dickens’ Mr Bumble – hypocritical, self-righteous and disdainful of the “undeserving poor”.

Just like the parish official in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Purnell talks of “helping” the poor while in fact punishing them.

Purnell plans to use tough sanctions to force single parents and disabled people to do more to prepare for work in return for state benefits.

Mr Bumble believed that harsh treatment of the poor improved them.

He tells Oliver that he is to be apprenticed “to set you up in life, and make a man of you: although the expense to the parish is three pound ten… and all for a naughty orphan which nobody can’t love”.

This view – transposed to lone parents, disabled people and the unemployed – is now prevalent in the government and the British ruling class in general.

They want to divide the working class into two – the good, responsible workers who deserve their benefits and the “undeserving workshy” who should be made to work for what they get from the state.

This distinction has been present in capitalism from its birth.

In the 19th century the British ruling class had to spend money on social provisions, such as transport, health, sewage systems and education.

Capitalism needed a reasonably healthy, skilled and educated workforce to ensure that companies’ profits continued to grow.

But those who were viewed as less useful, were left to the harsh life of the workhouse.

Inmates received food and accommodation, but degrading rules governed everything from diet to dress and education.

The Boer War of 1899-1902 caused a crisis for the British state, as many young men were found to be too unfit and malnourished to enlist.

Much of the ruling class began to recognise the need for a more complete welfare state as part of protecting the country’s interests.

This fed into the 1906 Liberal government’s introduction of school meals and the first pensions. But even this limited spending faced attacks in times of crisis.

Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour cabinet voted to cut the dole by 10 percent in 1931 as the Great Depression raged.

This led to the collapse of the administration and the creation of a “national government” with Tories and Liberals.

The cut was then imposed. The amount saved had little effect on the government’s budget but it was a message to the poor that they should pay for the economic crisis.

The unemployed were subjected to a means test in the 1930s to get their benefits. Inspectors entered homes and pried into their lives to ensure that their dependence upon relief was genuine.

Labour was elected on a wave of optimism in 1945 after the six years of the Second World War.

Millions of working class people had sacrificed everything to ensure victory over Nazi Germany.

Now they demanded that there would be no return to the poverty, unemployment and humiliation of the 1930s.

Under this pressure, both the Tories and Labour promised they would introduce the welfare state.

As the Tory Lord Hailsham said at the time, “If you do not give the people social reform, they will give you social revolution.”

Labour introduced a universal system of benefits. This and the new National Health Service saw a massive increase in workers’ living standards.

But this was only acceptable to capitalism as long as the system was healthy.

When capitalism’s long economic boom came to an end in the mid-1970s there were major attacks on the welfare state.

The Labour government of 1974-9 made massive cuts to welfare spending, which were then intensified under Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government.

The 1986 Social Security Act made a series of attacks on the poor and unemployed with new measures of means testing and discrimination. New Labour has since added to these attacks.

Labour has now rejected the idea of a universal welfare state – which the party had argued for from its birth. The welfare state was based on the idea that society should look after all its citizens.

Now New Labour targets “failing” individuals and families – rather than the failures of the system.

Purnell’s latest attack on the welfare state must be answered by workers and trade unionists who can ill afford to return to the treatment the poor received in Mr Bumble’s day.


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Mon 15 Dec 2008, 19:00 GMT
Issue No. 2132
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