Why cutting welfare hurts non-claimants

The Tories are proposing yet more attacks on welfare benefits, and on sick and disabled people. Labour’s obsession with ‘hard working families’ does nothing to counter the attempts to set workers and benefit claimants against each other. Activist and writer Ian Allinson argues that cuts to welfare are intended to lower wages.

Disability benefits cuts protest in Wakefield organised by ‘Hardest Hit’. Picture by Phil Mellor used under CC licence.

Many on the left can see that attacks on welfare benefits aren’t just about cutting public spending that goes to working-class people, but they also play an ideological role in dividing those in and out of paid work. Those of us in paid work are supposed to resent those on benefits, who we support through our taxes. These arguments are not new – the Nazis made disabled people wear black triangles in the death camps and labelled them ‘Arbeitsscheu’ (work shy).  And even in the very different circumstances of Britain today, welfare ‘reforms’ continue to kill people

Of course the whole premise is wrong. Over a third of those on Universal Credit are in paid work – a subsidy to employers paying inadequate wages. Housing benefit subsidises landlords’ exorbitant rents. Many in paid work receive child benefit and most expect to receive a state pension. But such facts aren’t always enough to win over workers who know a member of the ‘undeserving poor’ or who have heard real or fictitious examples from the Daily Mail or GB News. We need to popularise two other arguments – about how cutting welfare hurts workers even if they never claim in their lives.

Part of the reason why the Tories want to attack benefits is to force more people to compete more desperately for the worst jobs, driving down wages. But the impact doesn’t just affect those at the bottom of the labour market.

It’s common to hear people talk about ‘precarious’ labour, usually referring to jobs that are insecure themselves or which pay so badly as to leave workers lacking security in housing, debt and the rest of their lives. But as I argued in Workers Can Win (page 26): 

…feeling precarious isn’t just about the risk of losing your job. I can confidently walk along a six-inch-wide line painted on the ground. Put that line 50 feet up in the air and I will feel distinctly precarious. The consequences of falling have a big impact on your feeling of precarity and your perception of risk.

An inadequate and punitive benefits system makes us all more afraid of dismissal:

…fear isn’t something that only affects those at the bottom of the labour market – well-paid workers have ‘further to fall’ economically and often less experience at coping on benefits. Fear, whether of dismissal, loss of shifts, being allocated crap work or hours, blocked pay rises, bonuses, training, leave requests or promotions, is central to how managers control workers.

Attacks on welfare benefits, or on the people who use them, strengthen every boss against every worker. When those in paid work turn on claimants, they aren’t just punching down and letting those responsible for their problems off the hook, they are undermining their own position in the labour market and their own ability to fight for better pay and conditions.

Dividing those in and out of work is a key tool for driving down pay and conditions, so workers ignore these issues at our peril. Grasping the connections between attacks on the welfare state and the dire state of most jobs can help us replace division, competition and fear with solidarity.

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