Revisiting the poor law: The Coalition, Liam Byrne and the language of sanction

On a hill, overlooking the centre of Brighton, sits the vast Victorian bulk of Brighton General Hospital. Many Brighton residents will be unaware that it is the former Brighton workhouse – built in the 1860s at a huge cost of £40,000, to serve a town that is far smaller than it is today (the 1831 census put the population of the Brighton parish at 40,000) and which covered a geographical area no larger than the current town centre.

Brighton General Hospital

Why was such a large amount spent on placing such a large, imposing building in such a prominent position? The answers, of course, were ideology and power. It was a constant reminder that the inevitable result of fecklessness and pauperism was the shame and disgrace of the workhouse. Godliness, sobriety and of course uncomplaining daily labour would ensure that you would never suffer the ignominy of indoor relief, the utter disgrace of being supported by the parish in a place whose day-to-day regime was designed to punish. And of course it was a reminder of precisely who was in charge. That invaluable repository of Brighton history, the My Brighton and Hove website, carries a story of an elderly lady due to go into the General Hospital for surgery but was unable to cross its threshold because her memory of the trauma of the workhouse was too vivid.

As an A-level history student in the late 1970s one read about such places – and such attitudes – as the remnants of a brutal and long-gone past, replaced by the decency of social welfare and the understanding that economic failure was systemic, not a matter of individual fault. We lived in altogether more rational and civilised times; out of the failures of the past came the Beveridge principles of universality and the belief that a decent sufficiency was a matter of right, not of desert.

One can no longer afford to be complacently optimistic. In the past decade attitudes towards welfare appear to have shifted decisively back towards the values of the workhouse, with rhetoric from the leaderships of all three main Westminster parties that fits strikingly with the Victorian rhetoric of the deserving and undeserving poor, and its underlying imperative that the provision of support should be punitive because the causes of poverty are down to the individual, not to the systemic economic failure. It was of course Labour that introduced the concept and rhetoric of workfare into social provision, but the Coaltion has pursued it with a ferocity that is astonishing. Moreover, even away from the concept of benefit provision, all major parties appear to have adopted the language of “hard working families”, of “aspiration”, with its poisonous implication that citizenship is something that is earned through your behaviour, rather than a matter of right; the implicit belief that you participate fully in society – and derive your social legitimacy – insofar as you do paid work (where do carers fit into this vision?), or live and procreate in the approved manner. I have said here before that of all the tropes of modern politics, the rhetoric of “hard-working families” is, in my view, among the most deeply obnoxious.

It is a framework that does much to explain the vote in Parliament earlier this week on compensating those who were illegaly sanctioned under the Government’s work schemes. Faced with the appeal court’s decision that sanctions had been applied unlawfully the Government’s decision was not to repay what they had unlawfully taken but to change the law retrospectively to avoid compensating those who had suffered loss. In other words, those who had been wronged were to be denied their legal recompense. And, to its infinite shame, Labour refused to take a stand but abstained on the vote.

The rationale, as set out by Labour’s DWP spokesman Liam Byrne in the House of Commons, is instructive and revealing. He deployed two arguments; that sanctions were necessary and should not be undermined, and that the cost of compensation would undermine the public finances.

The second of these is wholly fraudulent, and Byrne, as a former Treasury minister, knows it. The cost of the compensation would be £130m – barely the rounding error on a major Ministry of Defence procurement, in other words, and an insignificant sum compared with the DWP budget as a whole, and a small fraction of what the DWP gains through underclaiming of benefits. Moreover, the doctrine that Governments can use affordability as a reason for defying legal process and introducing retrospective legislation to undermine the judiciary is, to put it at its mildest, novel. Byrne’s argument is not only disgraceful in itself but gives succour to the implicit neoliberal belief that economics trumps considerations of due process and democracy. It reveals much about his banker’s mindset that it is this £130m, not the principle that those who are treated unlawfully have the right to redress, that really concerns him.

The first is more significant. It is obvious that Byrne is desperately anxious to retain a system of sanctions in the face of a system in which the DWP has effectively been turned into a gangmaster providing free labour, paid for by the taxpayer, for a number of undertakings including vast – and vastly profitable – supermarket chains. Sanctions have been at the heart of Labour’s visions of workfare ever since the Blair government introduced it – even where those concerned have a lifetime of national insurance contributions behind them. The rhetoric is indistinguishable from that of the Victorian Poor Law Guardians, arguing that relief for poverty must be made so undesirable, so humiliating that to seek support should put one beyond the pale of decency; Ian Duncan Smith differs from this only in that his rhetoric about “job snobs” is more clumsily explicit. The contempt is the same; forced shelf-stacking in Tesco for benefits, taking away paid jobs and undermining competing local business, has become the workhouse of late capitalism, with benefits reduced to a level where the day-to-day decencies of living are unaffordable. To have an extra bedroom is deemed luxury beyond the desert of the poor, and, as I have blogged before, Labour’s concerns have been about the implementation rather than the principle.

Byrne now argues that the decision to abstain is justified by the concessions wrung from the Tories, but, as Owen Jones points out in a fine and angry piece in the Independent, the promise of an independent review of the sanctions system is useless when Byrne is as notable an enthusiast for sanctions as any die-hard Tory backwoodsman.

I have blogged before about the theory of how austerity has sought to change the concept of citizenship to exclude those who are not economically “productive”; what we are seeing now is the practice, and Labour’s abstention in this week’s Parliamentary debate is a reminder that the neoliberal consensus at the heart of contemporary politics is enacting that denuded concept of citizenship with a speed and brutality that demonstrates its importance to the neoliberal project. And it is as much as anything a definitive statement that Labour’s leadership has no place for the party’s original purpose – to speak for working people, and defend and improve their living standards.

So, in my home town of Brighton, perhaps the best way to understand the temper of neoliberalism in general – and of Labour’s leadership in particular – is to look up to the big building at the top of Elm Grove, and to recall that the ideology of the workhouse is alive and well, and is once again mainstream; and to reflect on the way in which New Labour, or One Nation Labour, or whatever meme is current this week, has been complicit in destroying the decencies it once fought so hard to provide.

4 thoughts on “Revisiting the poor law: The Coalition, Liam Byrne and the language of sanction

  1. Pingback: Welfare and vouchers: the Right’s denial of citizenship attack | Notes from a Broken Society

  2. Pingback: The peculiar obsessions of Liam Byrne | Notes from a Broken Society

  3. Pingback: Thatcher: mythologies and legacies | Notes from a Broken Society

  4. Pingback: Labour, low pay and immigration – and a double standard that must be addressed | Notes from a Broken Society

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