Last night on Question Time, Owen Jones got Iain Duncan Smith to lose his temper.
Professional politicians don’t usually lose their temper in public except as a calculated electoral shtick. I think IDS just got genuinely angry.
Also a massive shame the welfare debate ended when it just started – the programme was shut down for 5 mins by a protestor – chaos! #bbcqt
— Owen Jones (@OwenJones84) November 23, 2012
Like, say, maybe some sort of choice between a big “tweak” and a very slightly smaller “tweak” that only kills 9/10 as many people as the larger “tweak” will. Or maybe creating a fight over raising the age of retirement even further, so that you’re fighting over 69 or 70. Are any of those proposals acceptable? No, of course not. But if they are suddenly on the table, we will see people allowing such a fight to become the fight, as if lowering the retirement age back down to where it used to be (or even lower) wasn’t even conceivable. It is conceivable, dammit, and for every nasty proposal, there should be a counter-proposal that goes farther in the other direction than politicians have been willing to talk about. They want to raise the retirement age? We want it lowered to 55. They want to change the calculation for the costs of living? We want to change it so that the amount is higher rather than lower. They want cuts? We want the cap eliminated. Don’t even argue about this crap – just go in the other direction.
Another thing to watch: Right now, everyone seems to agree on the need for something they call “immigration reform”. And, certainly, no one doubts that we need to make changes. But watch out for what these people mean when they say “reform”. Because, without improving things one bit, you may find yourself fighting over what kind of a guest-worker program we are going to have, rather than fighting on ground that recognizes that any kind of guest-worker program is an unacceptable evil.
Stop fighting on their ground. Stop letting them set the terms of debate so far to the right that people forget what things were like when they were better. When, for example, the top marginal rate was 91%. As CMike said in comments to the previous post: “Presenting for years at a time an argument on whether the top earned income tax rate should be at 39.6% instead of 35% means the corporate media is telling you that there is no substantial disagreement over what the tax rates should be.”
Let’s remember: if we let them set the ground on which we fight, they’ve already won.
Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary, was fighting on the ground chosen for her: letting the Tories set the terms of debate.
Once you start talking about how to cut benefits, where to penalise the worst off, accept that “there isn’t enough money” and so the poorest don’t deserve all the support they need, you’ve lost.
Owen Jones was changing the terms of the debate: pointing out that the problem with the spiralling costs of housing benefit is that it’s a state subsidy to landlords. Pointing out that the Tory claim that housing benefit is being paid to unemployed people is false – most new claimants are the working poor. People in work could be forced to choose between having somewhere to live and having a job once the Tory cuts to housing benefit really start to bite. Iain Duncan Smith didn’t care if Yvette Cooper was quibbling over how much benefits should be cut, because she was fighting on his ground and accepting his terms, and family homelessness was a problem under Labour too.
But when Owen Jones started changing the terms of the debate, David Dimbleby started trying to get him to shut up because Question Time isn’t meant for people who won’t argue nicely on the grounds defined by the powerful, and when Jones finally pointed out how Iain Duncan Smith’s cuts to welfare are literally killing disabled people while ATOS finds them “fit for work”, IDS lost it. He’s used to his smooth lies being politely accepted, not being roughly called on them and told that his cuts are killing people.
ATOS declared Brian McArdle, “paralysed down his left side, unable to speak properly, blind in one eye and barely able to eat or dress”, fit for work and told him that his benefits would be withdrawn on 26th September. He died of a heart attack on 27th September. His son Kieran wrote:
“Maybe I could accept his death a bit better if he had died of natural causes, but knowing that the stress of the Atos stuff killed him makes me sick to my stomach. I refuse to come to terms with it.
“He was very independent and wanted to live on his own. He had recently bought some disability aids to help him feed himself and was getting on with this life the best way he could.
“Me and my mum visited him all the time and helped him. He had great difficulty washing himself, getting dressed and feeding himself. He hated that he had to ask for help.
The DWP’s official response to Brian Mcardle’s death was to blame the half-paralysed stroke victim for not producing enough evidence:
“Through employment and support allowance (ESA), we help people move from benefits and back into work if they are capable of doing so, while giving unconditional support to those who need it.
“A decision on whether someone is well enough to work is taken following a thorough face-to-face assessment, and after consideration of all the supporting medical evidence from the claimant’s GP or medical specialist.
“We encourage people to provide as much medical evidence as possible when they apply for ESA. Often, people found fit for work only provide the necessary evidence when they ask for a reconsideration or an appeal.”
Although Iain Duncan Smith took lavish time off work – fully-paid – to care for his wife when she got cancer, his view of what other people with less money deserved wasn’t exactly compassionate. Just as the programme cut off, Owen Jones was mentioning Karen Sherlock, who died on 8th June:
I am chronically ill and I am never going to get better, not even with the transplant will I feel better, all my conditions cannot be magically cured.
Karen faced all of this as she battled just to survive. Endless pressure, the judgement of society, the fear of destitution, the exhaustion of constant assessments and endless forms. She was one of those who’s ESA was time-limited – and what’s more, it was limited retrospectively, leaving her with just a few months to appeal for long term support.
What I want to tell you today is that she was frightened. Terrified in fact. She was terrified of the DWP, almost paralysed by a fear that if she spoke out, they would treat her even more harshly. But she spoke out regardless.
She was scared for her future, scared for her family. She had no idea how they would survive when she lost the little support they relied on. Her husband works, cares for a sick wife and they had “done the right thing”.
These are the people Iain Duncan Smith doesn’t want to think about, doesn’t care about, gets angry if he’s forced to consider the ugly things his cuts are doing them. Good on you, Owen.
Blimey, thanks everyone. But what a a shame that stating the bleeding obvious on telly is such a revolutionary act #bbcqt
— Owen Jones (@OwenJones84) November 23, 2012
Viewers of last night’s Panorama programme [30 July 2012], Disabled or Faking it?, may have been shocked by the story of Stephen Hill, the man who died of a heart attack 39 days after he was declared fit to work by a government contractor and subsequently denied sickness benefits by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). But for those of us who have been voicing serious concerns about the government’s changes to employment support allowance (ESA), the story was met with both exasperation and frustrating familiarity.
A parliamentary question found that 31 people have died in the three years to last October while appealing against decisions that they were able to work. Panorama also revealed that between January and August last year, on average 32 people died every week who the government had declared could be helped back into work in the medium term.
That’s Iain Duncan Smith’s legacy. Dead people who could have lived except IDS wanted to save the money that they needed to support them.
For facts and figures: IDS – Parking people on the sick past & present