John McDonnell MP sparked a political row when he said he would find it hard to be friends with a Tory because of the impact of Tory policies on his constituents. I completely understand why he said it and I agree with him. This something we aren’t really supposed to say, so let me explain why I think this.
I am not a tribal politician, I have friends across the political spectrum and I have no problem working with Tories on an issue by issue basis. I agree that we have more in common than divides us and I also believe very strongly that hate has no place in politics. But there’s no getting away from the fact that Tory policies on welfare reform (and immigration, but that’s another story) have made many people’s lives a living hell. This goes well beyond what I would see as normal political disagreement.
There are many aspects of Tory welfare policy which are appalling, including the ongoing horror show of Universal Credit but let me single out benefit sanctions and look at what the evidence says about them because it is pretty clear cut. (This was also something that John McDonnell referred to, specifically in relation to suicidal constituents who had been sanctioned).
Benefit sanctions don’t work. They cost more than they save. They cause immense harm. There is no functional reason for having them, other than to make the experience of claiming benefits so horrible that people will try to avoid making a claim. It’s the Kafka-esque nature of the system that takes it to a whole different level. People are sanctioned for things which are completely outwith their control. It doesn’t matter what they do, they can still be sanctioned – and everyone knows this. It just adds an extra layer of stress to the lives of people already living with huge stress. For some, it’s just too much to take.
The horrific impact of sanctions – and welfare reform generally – is well known in political, public and third sector circles but possibly less so elsewhere. I suspect many people have a sense that there is something pretty dreadful going on at the margins of society but they don’t necessarily want to think about it too deeply. I understand that. If I wasn’t involved in politics I’d probably feel the same way. After all, life is more of a struggle for everyone these days with stagnating wages and rising prices and the general effect of austerity, never mind Brexit. It’s easy to glimpse things on social media about people being driven to take their own lives and think it’s probably exaggerated. It sounds exaggerated. But it isn’t.
Whatever you imagine the impact of welfare reform to be, the chances are it is much, much worse. I understand why people shy away from the whole area, I honestly do. I am aware myself that when I talk about this I sound angry, upset, perhaps a bit obsessive. And of course it’s easy to misread that as hyperbole or even mild hysteria.
It’s easy to think “this can’t really be true”. It would be very easy to just steer clear of the issue. But here’s the thing for politicians – if you know what the consequences of Tory welfare policies really are, you can’t pretend you don’t.
So where does that leave you when answering the could-you-be-friends-with-a-Tory question? How do you answer yes, while at the same time standing up for the victims of Tory policies? Or is it all just a game and what you say bears no relationship to what you do?
I guess for some it’s all about the trade-offs. I don’t think I will ever forget reading a tweet by a Lib Dem talking about how they had negotiated a carrier bag tax in return for supporting tighter benefit sanctions. It was one of those moments when your brain can’t quite process the information you are reading.
Then I thought “they can’t possibly fully understand what they agreed to”. Literally making people destitute as a bargaining chip. But they had no qualms about being friends with Tories.
For others it’s all about “virtue signalling.” Nope. As a councillor I completely understand pragmatism, I understand the need to make difficult decisions – and I do make them. I understand the need to negotiate with others, to find common ground, to compromise. But there have to be limits.
You simply can’t turn a blind eye to the impact of Tory welfare policies on individuals, families and communities. Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t.
Because it all has a very direct knock-on effect in increasing demand for the local government and NHS services that have to pick up the pieces – for which, of course, no additional funding is provided.
After all, the Tory narrative doesn’t include any recognition of additional costs created by increased destitution, poverty and homelessness and the appalling impact on mental and physical health. That’s not in the script. But it’s there in real life and we see and have to respond to the impacts each and every day, adding to the pressure on already pressured local services.
But ultimately, for me it comes down simply to this.
What does it say to a constituent who is on their knees as a result of Tory policies if their elected representative says “these policies are terrible, I am on your side” but then says “but of course I can be friends with the people responsible for what you are going through.” I can’t square that circle.
This isn’t about saying Tories are evil or terrible people. They may genuinely believe their policies are correct – and there are probably more people out there who agree destitution is an acceptable policy lever than we might wish to acknowledge.
But for me personally I have to stand with my constituents first and – sorry, Amber Rudd – unless you make some pretty radical changes that means we can’t be mates.