On 18 March Iain Duncan Smith resigned as Work and Pensions minister — in protest, so he claimed, at a planned £4.4 billion cut to disability benefits.
The cut had been announced in the Budget on 16 March. The Tories had already been forced to put it on hold before Duncan Smith’s resignation, but, he claimed, chancellor George Osborne still insisted that £4.4 billion must be cut from the benefits budget somehow. Whatever Duncan Smith’s motives — it looks like he resigned primarily to campaign along with other Tory right-wingers for EU exit free from Cabinet constraints — the resignation makes the whole Tory cuts drive much more vulnerable. If even right-wing Tories condemn the cuts drive as unfair and driven by a political bias towards favouring the rich, then it can’t be invincible. When the Tories’ divisions over Europe are so sharp as to produce this open clash within their leadership, that weakens them on other issues. The Labour Party and the unions should respond with a counter-drive to restore benefits and services, taxing the rich to whatever level necessary.
Duncan Smith himself had overseen drastic attacks on disabled people. Between December 2011 and February 2014, 2,380 people died after their Work Capability Assessment told them they should start looking for work. There were nearly 600 additional suicides of disabled people over the same period. The Tories replaced the old Disability Living Allowance with a “Personal Independence Payment”, which saw many disabled people lose money. They also introduced much tougher “fitness for work” tests, often administered by private firms like Atos and Capita, that forced more disabled people to search for work or risk losing their benefits. Many of those who have appealed against removal of benefits have won their appeals. Between December 2014 and June 2015, 53% of those who appealed against an Employment and Support Allowance “fit to work” decision had it reversed. But that is only after losing their benefits and having to go through the appeals process. The Tories’ aim is not to bring economic recovery, but to make workers, the poor, and the disabled pay for the costs of the 2008 crash, and thus clear the ground for future profits to rise on the basis of a shifted balance of class power.
That disability benefit cuts have been the ones which have cracked the Tories open is a tribute to the stubborn campaigning of disabled people’s groups, most radically and effectively Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC). It has also made difference that Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, is now firmly opposed to cuts rather than merely arguing, as Ed Miliband did, that cuts should be made more slowly The TUC Disabled Workers’ Committee has recently published a Manifesto for Disability Equality, setting out a number of demands, including: properly funded support for independent living; effective employment rights and decent pay and working conditions for carers; reinstate the Disabled Students Allowance; scrap the current system for determining access to benefits. And the next step for labour movement activists all across the country should be to make the 16 April march against austerity (1pm from Gower St/ Euston Road, London) so huge that the Tories splinter further.