Let me tell you a magical tale about how I used to be Us and became one of Them.
Once, I worked full-time. I was finally escaping a cycle of short-term, minimum wage internships. I held hopes of permanent work, that held hopes of more than the minimum wage, that held hopes of a career. But my health crumbled and I had to leave work and now I receive Employment and Support Allowance so I can buy beans and bus tickets.
I am also a former Labour party member. I joined enthusiastically when the coalition tripled tuition fees because I was idealistic and it was £1. But after four years of watching Labour scrabble about like so many clucking hens, continually failing the frankly simple task of opposing the coalition, and the tightened budget of my new circumstances, I left the Labour party.
Which is lucky, because after Rachel Reeves’ interview with the Guardian, it appears I broke up with them before they could break up with me:
“We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work.” Well, it’s cheering to hear that Labour are so doing so well that they feel able to turn my vote away. That is confidence indeed.
What Rachel Reeves fails to understand is that there is no difference between working people and not-working people. We aren’t some grotesque, Orc-like other, bred by Morgoth to take your wages from you.
There is no them and us. They are us. We are they. Working people have just managed to avoid the very bad day, or set of bad days, that took someone out of work.
It boggles the mind that Labour are still buying into this false dichotomy that there are “hard-working families” and everyone else. They continue to be led by the coalition’s rhetoric of austerity that places economic blame on anyone other than those responsible. Legitimate benefit claimants are lumped in with cheats because collectively they have a bigger door at which to lay the blame. Reeves and Labour as a whole do nothing to disrupt this message. “I would never use language like scroungers, shirkers,” says Reeves, using language like scroungers, shirkers.
Why wouldn’t you be proud to champion the welfare state? It is an invaluable safety net for people who are victims of circumstance, not moral failure, not wrathful judgement. Just a terrible immune system in my case. In her attempt to appease conservative voters, Reeves ham-fistedly lumps benefit cheats, legitimate claimants and the out-of-work into one amorphous, amoral mess. She conveniently forgets that far more of the DWP’s bill goes on paying benefits to working people than to jobseekers or those on incapacity benefits. You cannot draw a line and have workers on one side, benefit claimants on the other. She makes admirable points about reducing reliance on food banks, removing rewards and targets for benefit sanctions, but it is dishearteningly uncontroversial, refusing to disrupt the narrative of us and them.
I understand why it’s comforting to keep us separate. It’s not that claiming benefits is bad. The situation that necessitates claiming benefits is bad. I did everything I was meant to do to be self-sufficient. I went to university, I earned less money than my work deserved in the hope of the next, better job. And still, I am here, receiving little brown envelopes from the DWP that even with a university education, I still don’t always understand. You can get ill. You can be made redundant. You are working today. You may not be working tomorrow.
I don’t know who to vote for. I know I don’t want another five years of this, not only policy-wise, but of a culture that makes me feel the need to apologise for claiming money so I can eat. It would be a lot easier to give my vote to Labour if they hadn’t so forthrightly said they didn’t want me.