In 1996, a year out from an election the Conservative Party was sure to lose, John Major announced new “stiffer penalties” that meant “those who don’t want to work are exposed”. The Labour party attacked the plan, but would go on to implement similar workfare reforms to the welfare system upon taking office. A small, and now forgotten resistance to these measures was taken up by anti-Job Seekers’ Allowance activists. That movement, which I played a small part in, has lessons for us today who want to resist attacks on benefit claimants.
With everything from the increased use of sanctions, to the massive overstatement of benefit fraud it seems benefit claimants are still considered an easy and useful target by the Government and their allies in the media. Children are going hungry, people with disabilities are even keeping medical equipment turned off so they can eat.
There are media outlets and blogs which do an excellent job at covering the news that doesn’t get enough space in the media. There are places to go to for benefits advice, although unfortunately there even some of the best known ones have compromised their independence. But despite the great work done by groups like the Scottish Unemployed Workers Network resistance to attacks on benefit claimants generally seems thin on the ground.
It should be clear by now to even the most terminal case of electoralist-brain that Labour cannot and will not be relied on to make this their fight. From Starmer’s infamous refusal to commit to dropping the two child benefit cap to Rachel Reeves’ pledge that Labour will be tougher on benefit claimants than the Tories during Ed Miliband’s leadership of the party. And despite softening of rhetoric, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party kept £7 billion of Tory welfare cuts in their 2017 manifesto. It seems clear that the relationship with a Labour government is more likely to be antagonistic than allied. Since the implementation of “Welfare-to-work” programmes in the early 1990s, there has been a broad consensus on what should be done with welfare claimants – with the only disagreement being how punitive the benefits system should be.
It’s largely forgotten now, but the implementation of the Job Seekers’ Allowance was resisted by an active and militant grassroots movement. This report from the direct action newsletter Counter Information gives some idea of quite how fiery things were in 1996.
“Claimants’ groups in the Britain-wide Groundswell network took action on 31 July against their regional Job Seekers Allowance Implementation Managers (JIMs). Claimants occupied benefit office staff entrances in Edinburgh and in Salford, Manchester.
London claimants – cunningly disguised in suits – penetrated their JIMs’ sixth floor inner sanctum.
Nottingham JIM Dennis Taylor was shocked to see his photo flyposted round the city.
The introduction of the JSA on 7 October saw “Groundswell” claimants groups organising opposition. 300 demonstrators shut down all 3 Brighton Job Centres. When protestors occupied the first office most staff walked out. Then the other 2 offices were bolted shut.
Directly targeting government ministers or DWP (then the Department of Social Security) officials was considered by the 90s anti-JSA movement under the name “Three Strikes and You’re Out”
“THE FREE RIDE IS OVER FOR BENEFIT OFFICE BULLIES
Edinburgh Claimants and The Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh have launched a new direct action policy to resist bullying benefit office officials. It’s called 3 STRIKES AND YOU’RE OUT. This is how it works.
If an official harasses you or cuts your benefit, report them to Edinburgh Claimants – ring 332 7547.
Officials found guilty of harassing claimants will be given a written warning. STRIKE ONE!
A second complaint against the same individual will result in a final written warning. STRIKE TWO!
Any further complaints against that official and details of their offences, along with a massive photo of them, will be transformed into a poster to be distributed throughout Edinburgh. Offending officials can also expect an angry demo against them in their own offices. STRIKE THREE – and OUT!
If you want to resist dole harassment:
– ring us if you are harassed – join us in the fight back – get together with your mates, accompany each other to interviews, go together and complain to the manager if you are harassed”
Compared to the 90s, a lot more external agencies are involved in benefit decisions. Both Atos and Capita have recently extended their multi-million pound contracts with the government to carry out work capability assessments. This comes despite the fact numerous reports have linked both companies with the deaths of claimants found fit-to-work.
There is strong evidence that there is a culture of deliberate dirty tricks used by assessors from Personal Independence Payment and Universal Credit. There is also strong evidence that assessors are actively lying in assessment reports. When we take into consideration the fact a staggering 68% of PIP appeals are successful this cannot be put down to the occasional error. The cruelty is the point. There is a very strong argument here for holding assessors accountable for what they are doing, even at lower levels of the organisation.
This tactic alienated the Civil and Public Services Union in the 1990s, as it alienates the Public and Commercial Services Union today. It’s the case that in the 90s there were some localised strikes against the compulsory introduction of the JSA. But the brutal truth is that the CPSA failed to build on those. Instead, it called a couple of national strikes built around the demand for security screens in offices. Not only was this an early indicator of the increasing securitisation of jobcentres (security guards etc.), it did nothing to actually help JSA claimants.
This is not some kind of anti-union ultra-left argument. Merely a recognition that the CPSA only fought for its own sectional interests and had no meaningful input into actually resisting the JSA itself. Unions’ and activists’ interests do not always align.
It is, however, considering the government’s newly announced crackdown on those on sickness benefits at least worth discussing. And the parameters of that discussion should very much be centred on what is in the interests of benefit claimants.
There are lessons to be learned from the 90s anti-JSA campaign. It failed to break out of the activist subculture and get many “ordinary” claimants involved. It failed to make the link between JSA and other benefits. Any future campaign would need to do a lot more to address both people on in-work benefits, such as Universal Credit, and especially people on PIP. I’m not normally much of a nostalgist but this was a much more confident and militant direct action movement than anything that exists today. This is one thing from Cool Britannia that should come back.