Ahead of the national day of protest against welfare reforms this Saturday, we caught up with Ellen Clifford – one of the organisers of the Benefit Justice Campaign. In this first part of the interview, we talk about the Campaign, divisive tactics and the need for unity.
For those that don’t know, could you tell us a bit more about the Benefit Justice Campaign, how it came about and why now?
The Benefit Justice Campaign was set up by three campaigns, DPAC – Disabled People Against Cuts, Defend Council Housing and the Right To Work Campaign. We came together in January of this year because the people that we represent were being hit on all sides by cut after cut after cut from this government and we wanted to unite together to form a campaign. So rather than disabled people campaigning on our own, we want to be with council house tenants who were going to be hit by the bedroom tax, and with unemployed workers, and we also wanted to unite with workers through the trade unions because the government has been using a lot of divisive rhetoric about benefit scroungers and the difference between strivers and skivers, and we wanted to come together and overcome a lot of those myths, that a lot of people who are being hit by the benefit cuts are actually in work. And what the government is doing affects people in work and out of work – so to provide a combined campaign to oppose it.
Why have the government been pushing this striver vs. skiver debate?
Well it was very effective and it has been very effective over the last couple of years. People have actually thought we really need to reform the welfare state. A lot of people talk about the need to stop all these people having a lifestyle on benefits. So actually the government rhetoric has been really effective, and what they’ve managed to do is they’ve managed to get away with causing misery and pushing many, many thousands of disabled people – the poorest members of society, into poverty. That’s what they’ve been effectively doing, but they’ve got away with it and there hasn’t been an outcry because they’ve wrapped it up in all this language of reform and saying that these people are taking all the taxpayers’ money, and trying to point the finger at people that don’t really exist. There aren’t people choosing to live a lifestyle on benefits because it’s ‘such a wonderful life’.
A lot of people would say we’ve got this national debt, so there has to be cuts. ‘Everyones feeling the pinch’, so what would you say to them?
Yeah, not everyone’s feeling the pinch. There’s a certain section of society that really isn’t being affected by it. Meanwhile, there are sections of society that are being hit over and over again. So research that came out recently from the Campaign For a Fair Society, showed that the poorest members of society are being hit harder than anyone else. But they also showed that disabled people with the highest level of support needs, people with complex and severe disabilities, are being hit 19 times harder than the average person so there’s no way ‘we’re all in it together’. There are some sections of society who are being deliberately targeted harder than anyone else.
“Austerity is lining the pockets of certain sections of society.”
Meanwhile, the Sunday Times Rich List in April showed that the 1000 wealthiest UK residents increased their wealth by £35bn last year. So some people are getting richer out of this actually. Austerity is lining the pockets of certain sections of society.
So why aren’t we attacking rich people more?
I think some sections of the population are, but we mainly do that through social media, through our own blogs, or through the left wing media maybe. Certain elements of the right wing media certainly have fallen in with the government and they will reproduce the government statistics which are shown to be misrepresented most of the time.
You already have a lot of support for the campaign, but how do you get to the people who are a little more shut off? There must be people who would maybe stand with you and support you, but they aren’t aware of what is going on. How do you get to them, and how do you get them to act?
And it’s the isolated people who are more likely to be in trouble because they’ve got no support so it’s about reaching those people. I think through social media DPAC has got quite an online presence. We’re very involved in Facebook and Twitter and social media, and people find us through that because people are looking because they don’t know where else they can turn to. So that’s one way, but of course people don’t all have access to social media and the internet, and what we’re seeing increasing is local campaigns being set up and just going around, like I was doing on Sunday, just knocking on doors in estates where people are affected – so actually meeting people in person.
At the Benefit Justice Summit a couple of weeks ago in Westminster, you had many organisations coming together for different struggles – around 37 from around the country including DPAC, Hands Off Our Homes, Manchester vs. Bedroom Tax and so on. There was a lot of talk about unity, and coming together – why is that such a strong message right now?
I think people are feeling that because we’ve been attacked for the last couple of years and we haven’t managed to change it yet. The government have done some small U-turns – for example the bedroom tax exempting children with severe disabilities. But, we’ve never got them reverse the direction of welfare reform so I think people want to come together en masse to try and mobilise, to try and fight against the bigger things that are happening – essentially to get the government out and that’s only going to happen if everyone campaigns together.
Find out more about the Benefit Justice Campaign here.
Join us for the second part of the interview on Thursday.
by Kam Sandhu – @KamBass