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Proletarian issue 60 (June 2014)
Criminalising the poor
New benefit rules seek to humiliate and punish the unemployed for the failings of the system.
An attack on the rights of any worker is an attack on all of us. That worker may be unemployed, a disabled person, a migrant, or even have substance misuse issues. The moment we allow the ruling class to divide workers – pushing us into subgroups with their own designated level of respectability and arrogate to themselves the right to persecute members of some groups more than others – is the moment we lose our collective strength.

This is a critical message that should be remembered, no matter how seductive the rhetoric of ‘common sense’ and ‘fairness’ appears when it comes to welfare reform. The bourgeoisie are not ‘reforming’ the welfare system to make it more efficient, they are well on the way – in a project that was launched well before the election of the present ConDem coalition – to dismantling it for us all.

It is no surprise, then, that the government has introduced new rules that the long-term unemployed. Those who have been out of work for three years or more must now sign-on at the ‘job centre’ every day. If a claimant cannot attend then s/he will have their Jobseeker’s Allowance stopped for four weeks for their first offence, and 13 weeks for subsequent offences. (See ‘Jobless must sign on every day’ by Andy McSmith and Justin Cash, Independent, 28 April 2014)

We are used to the state being cruel and punitive, but this latest measure is an unprecedented encroachment into the lives of people; forced to attend government centres daily, queuing in a humiliating procession to look for jobs that don’t exist.

The penalties for those who cannot attend – and how many people do you know that could report to the government each and every single day? – are draconian. Jobseeker’s Allowance is already meagre; a month or even three without it will cause increased debt, lead many people to resort to taking out high-interest loans, and inevitably end in increased homelessness and a host of other social and economic difficulties. The material and psychological misery to workers and their families will be incalculable.

Individuals may also be required to carry out a six-month, 30-hour-a-week work placement, or face similar sanctions. This amounts to double the amount of community service a person would serve for drink driving or assault – the clearest indication yet that the unemployed are being criminalised.

It is a small encouraging sign, however, that 30 charities – including Oxfam and the YMCA – have withdrawn from the perversely-titled ‘Help To Work’ scheme. Daniel O’Driscoll, head of volunteering at Oxfam, explained that ‘forced volunteering’ is an oxymoron.

Andy Benson, co-director of the National Coalition for Independent Action, said that the scheme was “another dirty attempt to co-opt voluntary groups into doing ministers’ work for them. We want real jobs and real volunteering, not real exploitation.” Steve Turner, assistant general secretary of Unite, highlighted that research shows that, despite government investment, no work scheme has ever helped people into employment long term. (‘Oxfam and YMCA to boycott Help To Work programme’, ThirdSector.co.uk, 28 April 2014)

Yet, there will still be a section of people who parrot the Daily Mail propaganda that ‘people should get a job if they don’t like it’. Despite the hysterical media depictions (see Channel 4’s exploitative Benefits Street series), no one wants to be unemployed. It is a highly stigmatised, corrosive, and humiliating experience.

The truth is that the economic system of capitalism does not now – and cannot ever – offer full employment. It has in the past – faced with the prospect of socialist countries, such as the USSR, promoting the real benefits of revolution – offered the temporary gains of a welfare system in order to stop workers in Britain following this revolutionary example. This compact has now been retracted by a bourgeoisie – under successive Labour and Tory governments – that presently feels bullish and unchallenged.

We stand fully with grassroots campaigns that are resisting government cuts. But we also encourage people to join the communist movement as the only way to rid our lives of the cruelty and viciousness that we currently experience. It is not the action of one government or another that we need to do away with; it is the natural and inevitable behaviour of an exploitative ruling class that runs an exploitative and inhuman system.

However, the capitalists are the minority, while we – the working class as a whole – are the overwhelming majority. If we overcome the artificially-created divisions that keep us weak and organise ourselves to take state power, no capitalist will ultimately have the power to stand in our way.
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