A well-attended conference took place on Saturday 31st October in Birmingham. It was called by Unite Community (Unite the Union’s community wing) and the Public Services and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents workers in the Department of Work and Pensions. It was not only attended by members of these two organisations but also by other groups concerned with social security problems and reform, such as Black Triangle, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centres. Two delegates from Unite Community Leeds also attended the conference. The purpose of the summit was ‘to challenge the myths around ‘welfare’ and build a coalition to fight for our safety net’.
Fran Heathcote, President of PCS’s DWP Section, opens the conference
Setting the scene
The welfare charter
The day was set by Fran Heathcote, President of PCS’s DWP Section, who outlined the points of a welfare charter recently agreed between PCS, Unite Community, the Unemployed Centres Combine, Trades Union Councils and London Unemployed Strategies. The charter recognises increasing poverty in the UK despite being one of the richest countries on earth but where hunger and eviction are seen as ‘legitimate punishment for not being in work.’ Social security should involve ‘a safe warm home, good food, proper clothing and being able to participate in society.’ The charter lists the following demands:
- a political commitment to full employment achieved with decent jobs;
- a wage you can live on for all and a social security system that works to end poverty;
- no conscription – keep volunteering voluntary;
- representation for unemployed workers;
- appoint ombudsman for claimants;
- equality in the labour market and in access to benefits.
On the basis of the charter and in the context of the current climate, Fran argued for the need for joint campaigning.
The wider context
Steve Turner, Deputy General Secretary of Unite, gave the main opening address in which he painted the broader political and economic context of the struggle for improved social security. He rooted today’s political situation in the rise of neo-liberalism, which began in Chile in the 1970s and was then imported to Britain by Mrs. Thatcher. Following the banking crisis, the Tories are now engaged in an attempt to reinforce this system by means of austerity, through ideological attacks and by silencing the opposition.
Steve Turner, Unite’s Deputy General Secretary
The interests of rich people are being upheld through tax cuts and tax avoidance totalling some £70 billion each year, while poorer people experience welfare cuts. As Steve suggested: ‘champagne in the board room, foodbanks for the poor.’
An essential part of the Tory project, it was argued, has been to change the narrative about the relationship between the economy and society in order to justify government policies. So, for instance, divisions are drawn between so-called ‘strivers and shirkers’, suggesting that the social security system is too generous, even though spending on it is proportionately lower today than it was in the 1980s. But even in-work benefits are now being targeted for cuts.
Steve also argued that the Trade Union Bill is a means of attacking the organised working class and silencing the opposition, a tactic reminiscent of the early silencing of trade unions under fascism. Meanwhile the changes in constituency boundaries will disadvantage Labour and up to 2 million votes may be lost under the voter registration process, which will inform the boundary changes. These and other policies are far-reaching changes, yet the Tories only have the electoral support of 24 per cent of the voting public. In other words, their policies lack legitimacy.
Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, Steve suggested, has given us a moment of hope. The trade union movement has to stand up to attacks and the groups represented at the conference are key in that. There is a long tradition of civil disobedience and bad laws have been broken in the past. He urged the conference to be confident and to resist.
There were also a series of ‘campaigning workshops’ throughout the day. There was one on building a broad based coalition on how to engage with charities, religious bodies, foodbanks and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Another looked at equality and the participation of women, disabled people, young people and black and ethnic minority communities, who are all disproportionately affected by the cuts. One workshop considered the Welfare and Work Bill and what it will mean and how it can be campaigned against. There was also a session on lobbying political representatives to win political support to stop the cuts.
Following Steve’s Turner’s point about the ideological attacks involved in Tory policy, one very well attended workshop focused on reversing or ‘changing the narrative’, which asked the question: ’how do we use the media to get stories out of the true effects of the cuts to the welfare budget’. This is a tough but necessary task, otherwise it will be difficult to shift public opinion.
The struggle over social security
Mark Serwotka, PCS General Secretary, kicked off proceedings in the afternoon and his focus was specifically on social security. Echoing some of Steve Turner’s themes, Mark observed how millionaires had been enriched at the expense of poor people. Austerity, he argued, was indeed ‘a political choice’.
Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the PCS
The stakes were high in the campaign against social security restructuring, literally, at times, a choice between life and death given the increasing concern about links between the suicide of some claimants and government policy. It was time, Mark argued, that the trade union movement took social security in general more seriously than it had done in the past. He therefore welcomed the conference and the grassroots activity that had inspired it and that had forced social security more on to the trade union agenda.
Historically, the social security system has changed. Mark noted that when he worked within it in the 1980s it was more supportive of people but now staff were pressured to trip claimants up and threaten them with sanctions. Job centre staff increasingly operate under the threat of disciplinary action. Mark argued that there shouldn’t be any sanctions; sanctions don’t create jobs or help people. However, he said that it would take more than the PCS to defeat sanctions. While the fact that the DWP Select Committee report on sanctions had called for an independent review was a start, more needed to be done.
The presence of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell at the dispatch box in parliament presents us with an opportunity to raise our concerns. Social security needs to become more firmly part of the anti-austerity campaign. Mark suggested we need to argue for more housing, particularly for younger people, and that rates of housing benefit to landlords should be lowered. He raised the idea of strike action across the public sector against the one per cent pay freeze. Signs of hope were also reflected in community campaigns, in the recruitment of new members to the Labour party and in the launch of Momentum. The PCS win on the struggle at the National Gallery has also been hopeful and inspirational. The TUC, he argued, should be put under pressure from below on social security questions, to argue for a more generous social security system with higher benefit rates.
Experience from the grassroots
Towards the end of the conference there was an opportunity for grassroots activists to talk to the conference as a whole about their work. Issues that emerged here seemed to revolve around two broad themes: campaigning work and support work, although in reality they often overlap. Speakers from DPAC, Unite Community Durham and Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centres spoke with great experience, clarity and inspiration about their work.
On campaigning, Paula Peters from DPAC, for example, emphasised the importance of maintaining maximum visibility in fighting for campaigns like those against Work Capability Assessments. Examples of DPAC’s work that were given reflected this, such as their social media campaigns and direct action, for example, the ‘balls to the budget event’ earlier this year. She also rightly urged campaigners to put aside differences and unite on common ground in defence of the welfare state.
The other two speakers, Angela Appleby from Unite Community Durham and Colin Hampton from the Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centres both combined support activities, such as welfare rights advice and food and clothing banks, with more explicit campaigning work, for instance, DWUCs die-in organised in protest against the suicides of people who were unemployed and, in Durham’s case, campaigning work against sanctions. Unite Community Durham also emphasised the importance of skills training such as IT training, which is available in their centre. Interestingly, Durham are also developing work with prisoners.
Colin commented that the election of Jeremy Corbyn provides a moment of hope and less nervousness in the Labour Party about their connection to welfare. Such a moment, Colin suggested, would be a good time to lobby politicians to press for support for the welfare charter.
The final part of the conference involved questions and contributions from the floor of the conference. These included a brilliant suggestion from a member of Black Triangle who proposed that Jeremy Corbyn and Angus Robertson from the SNP be lobbied from the conference to devote a whole Prime Minister’s Question Time to the death of claimants subjected to the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). The case of Michael O’Sullivan is very relevant here as the coroner drew the link between his suicide and the WCA.
Other issues and questions included the rights of people with Down’s Syndrome, funding the Morning Star as ‘our newspaper’ and the suggestion that Unite Community take up the cause of carers who receive less than recipients of JSA. There was also a plea to take people with addiction problems more seriously. They are often excluded from mainstream society as many of them – in the experience of one delegate – were often more capable than the stereotypes attributed them. Once empowered, their contributions can be ‘impressive’.
Liane Groves, Head of Unite Community, closed the conference by emphasising need to follow up with a campaign strategy and, for starters, suggested a national day of action against sanctions on 16th March, 2016.
Overall, this excellent conference was an opportunity to understand the wider context and issues in the struggle for better social security as well as to be inspired by many outstanding contributions. All of this should help in developing more effective local and national campaigning. However, one key lesson from the day is that ‘changing the narrative’ is crucial in the struggle to mobilise opinion in wider society if social security policy is to be moved in a more humane direction.