Dear Rachel Reeves
Having read the interview with you in the Guardian, I find myself compelled to write a response. I don’t usually do things like this – but I had been feeling so much more positive about Labour since the party conference, and in one fell swoop you’ve destroyed that positivity, and left me with a very sour taste in my mouth. I believe – particularly from the reception the article has found on Twitter – that I am far from alone in that reaction. I do wonder whether you understand why.
The message matters
As a politician I know you’re aware that the overall message signalled by speeches and interviews matters – often even more than the specific policies. Here, where dealing with social security, that is particularly important. So what message are you trying to send out here? I realise of course that you’re not responsible for the headlines chosen by the Guardian, so you may not have actually ‘promised‘ that ‘Labour will be tougher than Tories on benefits‘, but the ‘toughness’ is still the main theme of the interview. I’d like to ask why. By suggesting that ‘toughness’ is the key, you’re buying into the whole idea that what’s needed is more of a crackdown – and by implication that people on benefits are only doing so because they’re lazy, they’re spongers, they’re scroungers. That’s not only untrue – remember, for example, that most people on benefits are in work – but it’s deeply and depressingly damaging.
You seem to have bought right into the ‘scrounger vs striver’ rhetoric that may well be the worst thing about this hideous coalition government that you’re supposed to be opposing. It not only does its best to divide communities, to pit people against their neighbour, but it distracts from the real issues. It makes it look as though poor people, vulnerable people – including people with disabilities – are responsible for the mess we find ourselves in. It lets the real culprits off the hook – and at a moment when those real culprits, the bankers and their friends, are making a fresh killing over the sale of the Royal Mail, that kind of distraction is hideously unhelpful.
The departure of Liam Byrne
As I’m sure you will also have noticed, the departure of your predecessor, Liam Byrne MP, from the shadow DWP position, was largely greeted by Labour supporters with pleasure. It was seen as a step forward, something to inspire hope. Very few of those of us who instinctively support the Labour Party believed the rumours suggested in the press that he had to go because Len McCluskey said so – we thought, perhaps foolishly, that his departure meant that the leadership had been listening to the grassroots, had been paying attention to the reactions on the doorstep, and had made the decision on that appropriate basis.
The question I would have thought you would have asked yourself – I would hope that you asked yourself – is why it is that people were happy that Liam Byrne was leaving. Did you imagine it was because people didn’t like Liam personally? That they didn’t like what he looked like, his accent, his style of public speaking, the fact that he was a man? I don’t know many people who support Labour who are quite that shallow – what we disliked about Liam Byrne, why we were happy to see him leaving, was the kind of policies that he was putting forward, and the overall message. Why, then, do you imagine we would be happy to see the same policies, the same overall message, just put by a new face, in a more superficially appealing form?
People with disabilities
For me, the worst thing of all about this government has been its shameful treatment of people with disabilities. From the nightmare of the Bedroom tax to the viciousness of the WCA, to the closure of Remploy, there has been an unparalleled attack on people who we should be supporting, doing everything we can to help. The work of the DWP has been central to that attack – and yet in your first interview you seem to have said nothing about them at all. Indeed, by accepting the ‘scrounger vs striver’ agenda, you seem to be effectively saying that pretty much everything (with the exception of the Bedroom Tax, which I will write more about below) that they have done is OK, and indeed that you’ll be ‘even tougher’. That, to be frank, is entirely shameful. It’s a part of the Coalition agenda that should be challenged at every opportunity.
You say in your piece that you want to ‘explode’ the ‘myth’ that Labour is soft on benefits. How about exploding some other, far more pernicious myths? The myth that benefit fraud is a significant problem. The myth that there are huge numbers of people who ‘choose’ the benefit ‘lifestyle’ – ‘linger’ on benefits, in your words. The myth that people with disabilities are ‘faking’ it. The myth that our benefit system is more generous than most of those in Europe. There are huge numbers of similar myths – and you don’t seem to even want to acknowledge them, let alone challenge them!
A rare chance
This is a rare chance for you – I do hope you haven’t already thrown it away. Ed Miliband’s speech at conference was very well received, and seemed to pretty seriously rattle the Tories. They, in response, revealed some of their nastiest aspects at their conference. The Lib Dems are still in chaos. With the departure of Liam Byrne, you had a chance to change the game. It was a chance get onto the front foot, and set the agenda – as Ed Miliband did so well with the energy price freeze policy. Did you notice how well that resonated with people? And how the promise to repeal the Bedroom Tax resonated with people? Did you ask yourself why? One of the key reasons is that it put clear water between Labour and the Tories. It showed that Labour understood peoples’ problems, and actually seemed to care about them. It showed that Labour was no longer going to just be a slightly milder version of the Tories…. or so we thought.
Through your interview, you’ve reversed all that. You may well have lost all the goodwill gained by the Party Conference. I do hope that’s not the case, and I hope you’ll be willing to reconsider your approach. Personally, I live in Cambridge, which is a marginal seat, currently held by the Lib Dems, and I would have thought that you want my vote. Right now, with an approach like this, I don’t think I can give it to you. After Ed Miliband’s speech I was even considering rejoining the Labour Party – after a long gap – and putting a good deal of energy into supporting the campaign. I’d still like to do that, but with an approach like this, I really can’t see a way.