`Comrades, here and now I pronounced the death sentence upon Snowball, “Animal Hero, Second Class”, and half a bushel of apples to any animal who brings him to justice.`
George Orwell’s savage and often heartbreaking parable of Stalin’s Soviet Union is, quite rightly, considered to be one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century. Written in the winter of 1943, Animal Farm: a Fairy Story was finally published on August 17 1945, just 11 days after Enola Gay dropped “Little Boy” on Hiroshima and so ended one global conflict and initiated a further long, cold war.
With its devastating critique of Stalinist totalitarianism, the book was, somewhat surprisingly, greeted with disapproval by western governments and even the likes of T.S. Eliot who was running Faber & Faber at the time. Such an attack on a war-time ally was seen to be unhelpful. But by the time Stalin was dead and succeeded by Khrushchev, the west seized upon the book as a powerful propaganda weapon against what would later be called the “evil empire” on the other side of the iron curtain. Orwell, who fought along side the anarchists in Spain and who had a bit of a soft spot for Trotsky, must have been horrified.
The book is about the corruption of revolution and the crushing of hope. One of the characters has a vision of society “set free from hunger and the whip, all equal, each working according to his capacity, the strong protecting the weak.” If only Eric Blair were still breathing as opposed to Tony Blair and, more importantly, the current leader of the Labour Party.
The other day, the Rt Hon Edward Samuel Miliband, MP for Doncaster North, rose up to his full height and delivered a speech about “responsibility”. In it, he compared disabled people claiming incapacity benefit with the greedy executives making fat profits at Southern Cross and even the troughing bankers who brought about this shambles in the first place. He describes them as:
“Those at the top and the bottom, who were not showing responsibility and were shirking their duties. From bankers who caused the global financial crisis to some of those on benefits who were abusing the system because they could work – but didn’t.”
His use of the word “shirking” is very interesting and he seems to base his assertion on the anecdotal evidence of meeting a man who claims incapacity benefit but, in Ed`s opinion, is fit for work. The leader of the opposition concludes:
“That these are people who are just not taking responsibility – and the rest of us are left picking up the pieces.”
Since the coalition assumed power, they have systematically targeted the weakest in society to bear the brunt of the failings of the strongest. To justify these attacks, the old, the sick and people with disabilities are now regarded as work shy scroungers; no ifs and no buts. Miliband, instead of challenging these welfare “reforms”, now seems happy to join in with the demonisation of disabled people in a desperate attempt to find the popularist centre ground. That level of political opportunism, particularly coming from a leader of the Labour party, is profoundly disturbing and will only result in dismay and real fear in the hearts of people who once expected his support and protection.
Benefit fraud clearly exists, but the amount of money swindled is a tiny fraction of the billions in unpaid corporate tax and the perfectly legal practice of the millionaires in cabinet and the rest of the ruling class avoiding their correct contribution to the exchequer. Every day, headlines in the right wing press scream of another scrounger claiming benefit playing football, running a marathon or finishing runner up in a break dancing competition. These cases, though, are inconveniently rare and the worst case estimate of fraudulent claims for Disability Living Allowance is less than two percent of the total payments made.
What the coalition, the press and now Miliband prefer to ignore is the current application process for claiming DLA. The application form is long, complicated and designed to confuse and lead the applicant into contradiction. Most applications are rejected. The claimant can appeal and the case goes to a tribunal of a judge, a doctor and a specialist in disability issues, usually a person with a disability and the appellant has to have a medical examination.
Greater significance is given if the claimant arrives alone at the examination. The logic being that if they can manage to get to the clinic, they do not require the care and mobility components of DLA. All this is reminiscent of a Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch. “I’ve nothing against your left leg. Sadly, neither have you.” Most appeals are rejected.
Now, along with the rules surrounding Employment Support Allowance, the process for awarding DLA is being made more stringent with existing claimants being “re-assessed”. Orwell would have recognised this as “Two legs good, one leg bad”. A recent poll conducted by the charity Scope found that 61 per cent of people with disabilities living in London suffered verbal and even physical abuse on a daily or weekly basis. The mob, inflamed by the comments of Cameron and now Miliband, doubt that the victims are actually disabled and the evidence before their eyes is an elaborate rouse to steal the bread from the mouths of the able bodied. Consider the television images of a wheelchair user, lawfully protesting during the student rally in December, being pulled from his chair and dragged across the road by a Metropolitan Police officer. This was done, apparently, for his own protection and to remove him from a place of danger. Clearly, the Met have difficulty in re-inventing the wheel.
Later in his speech, after some waffle that seems to condemn and support “The Big Society” whatever that is, Miliband said this:
“We must create a boardroom culture that rewards wealth creation, not failure. To those entrepreneurs and business people who generate wealth, create jobs and deserve their top salaries, I’m not just relaxed about you getting rich, I applaud you.”
Some, it seems, are indeed more equal than others.
What is deeply worrying is that this isolation and vilification of a specific group within our society is being orchestrated by a Prime Minister who fathered a child with disabilities and now a leader of the opposition who is the son of a father who was forced to flee Europe in 1940 because he was part of an isolated and vilified section of society. Dear old dad gets a mention in Ed Miliband`s speech in terms of his service in the navy and the war-time spirit of “all in this together”. Ed omits to mention that dear old dad was a Marxist.
Miliband, Liam Byrne, Ed Balls and the rest of the Labour front bench have a clear choice. They can either be nice, not offend the ruling class and quietly acquiesce with the carnage being inflicted, or they can make a stand for the people who support them and are currently suffering. Whining at the despatch box during Prime Minister`s Question is no longer enough. They can make a start by asking exactly where the jobs are going to come from to employ the people denied DLA and ESA. They can ask how young people, deprived of Education Maintenance Allowance, will find employment particularly with a increase in the age of retirement. With an artificially inflated work force and a reduction in actual job vacancies, one can only hope that Miliband, given his family history, would shudder at the very thought of “work sets you free”.
It is time for Labour to make a stand. Orwell concluded Animal Farm with this:
“Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.”