Today, at the Coin Street Neighbourhood Centre in London, Ed Miliband gave a speech on social responsibility. I'm not particularly inclined to care what he thinks on this or any other subject. However, I would like to make a couple of points on both what he said and the reaction to it.
Firstly, the speech itself. This is the bit that stands out;
The issue I want to talk about today can be summed up in a couple of stories.While out campaigning during the local elections, not for the first time, I met someone who had been on incapacity benefit for a decade.He hadn’t been able to work since he was injured doing his job.It was a real injury, and he was obviously a good man who cared for his children.But I was convinced that there were other jobs he could do.And that it’s just not right for the country to be supporting him not to work, when other families on his street are working all hours just to get by.The other story is about people in a very different world from that man.The story of Southern Cross care homes - where millions were plundered over the years leaving the business vulnerable, the elderly people in their care at risk and their families feeling betrayed.Those elderly people were treated simply as commodities.
This story shames our country.And there is a link between the man on incapacity benefit and those executives at Southern Cross.What is that link?That these are people who are just not taking responsibility - and the rest of us are left picking up the pieces.
It goes without saying that the two scenarios described above are incomparable. One, a man with a genuine incapacity claiming incapacity benefit. The other a matter of vulnerable lives being utterly dependant on profit margins.
Yet we are told there is a link. The man with "a real injury" is "just not taking responsibility." Ed "was convinced that there were other jobs he could do." Which is easy for a well-off, able bodied member of the political class to say. He will never have to worry about providing for his family. He will never have to work in a job with the slightest risk of being incapacitated through normal, day-to-day activities. He met that man, but he doesn't know him - and he certainly doesn't know the world he lives in.
By talking of "genuinely reward[ing] people who are responsible and contribute" "rather than looking solely at need" is a straw man. The only concrete point he can offer is that he's not working "when other families on his street are working all hours just to get by." But the other families equally don't share his pain, his debilitation. They are less likely to share the poverty and social isolation suffered by disabled people.
In short, this isn't a matter of "abusing the system." It's a matter of passing judgement on those whose predicament he can't even begin to understand.
But it's not just that. There is disparity too when Ed talks of "those at the top and the bottom, who were not showing responsibility and were shirking their duties," because those at the top get very little scrutiny. As Chris Dillow points out, "although the word “responsibility” appears 27 times in his speech, there’s one word he never uses – power." He "displaces any recognition of a key fact about capitalism – that it generates inequalities of power" with "windy moralising."
But none of this is new. I have gone on numerous times about the balance of class power and how it affects the direction in which society travels. Likewise, I have offered a number of times the point that the labour party is and always has been a party within the capitalist system and that trying to change it - rather than bypassing it in an attempt to change society - was a waste of effort.
So why, then, mention this speech at all? I mention it partly because it reaffirms the point.
In the past week, Left Futures has remarked that we had a "near escape" from "the disastrous path down which [David Miliband] would have taken the party to near-extinction, by adopting the Osborne cut-and-slash strategy in full." No doubt, the point is how much better off we are with his brother Ed. Except that, when you look at what he actually says, we're not.
This current side swipe at those on welfare follows neatly from saying there was a need for "some cuts" at the March for the Alternative. It fits entirely with the trend of a Labour Party which varies in how hawkish or dovish it is, but never deviates from being a party of capitalism.
Despite this, far too many people remain caught up in the party. There are swathes of right-wingers, careerists, and opportunists as well - but it is those who are genuine who are the most maddening. Convinced they can do what everybody before them, most famously the Militant Tendency, failed to do, they are intent on dragging Labour to the left. The only problem being that they're hanging their hats on a mythical "Old Labour" which in reality doesn't live up to the expectations.
Bear in mind that, far from being a haven of socialist thought, we're talking about the party which the most times used the military to crush organised workers in the 20th century.
By engaging with that, we are engaging with a form of politics whereby principles take a back seat to opinion polls. Either, we support an odious policy on the grounds that it "will attract wide support" - conveniently ignoring the media manufacture of consent that is the main reason for this - or we are left arguing in vain that "Miliband must..." or "Labour needs to..." when bitter practice tells us that, in fact, they won't.
The fact of the matter is that those whose main concern is for Labour to get back in power are not back on our side. Likewise, those who continue trying to pull it leftward are heading up a blind alley. Instead of trying to reclaim something that in reality was never ours (or to recreate it in the form of a new party and hope that the exact same practice doesn't lead to the exact same results) we need to abandon party politics and do what's necessary - challenge the ruling class on the ground through mass-based direct action.