Sunday, 27 March 2016

How Twitter helped force Osborne into a humiliating retreat on disability benefit cuts

When George Osborne delivered his Budget on 16 March, he announced that he would cut £4.4 billion from Personal Independence Payments (PIP). However, within less than 48 hours (and before the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith) he withdrew the proposal, which he has since described as a “mistake”.

Such a swift u-turn on such a major Budget measure is without precedent in living memory. This humiliation for Osborne follows last years slow motion retreat on tax credits. It happened because enough Tory MPs let Osborne know that they would vote against the PIP cuts to make him realise that if he pressed on, he would lose the parliamentary vote and face an even greater humiliation. And in significant part, the actions of those Tory MPs were due to Twitter.

PIP is a benefit that helps people with some of the extra costs caused by long-term ill-health or a physical or mental disability. It is designed to help with such things as preparing food, washing, getting dressed, communicating with other people and with mobility. If the proposal had become law more than half a million people would have faced cuts of up to £150 per week.

Osborne had reasons to feel confident that the cuts to PIP would be voted through without much fuss, except among those who “do not vote Tory anyway” - to borrow a phrase used by IDS. 

The PIP cuts, explicitly said to be in order to fund tax-cuts, had been trailed in the press at the weekend before the Budget, without much reaction to concern Osborne.

Above all, only a couple of weeks previously, Tory MPs had loyally supported the government to override defeats in the Lords to force through a reduction of £30 per week for sick and disabled people receiving Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). 

The ESA cuts apply to sick and disabled people who are not considered fit for work but are considered fit for activities such as training to prepare them for work. The reason why they had been receiving £30 more per week than other claimants was that, due to their illness or disability, it was recognised they would incur additional costs to help them in their task of preparing for work.

The ESA cut had gone through in the teeth of powerfully expressed outrage by sick and disabled people, disability charities, members of the Lords, Jeremy Corbyn, Owen Smith (Labour’s shadow DWP) and others. It barely registered, however, in the billionaire-owned press or the flagship BBC news programmes, Today and the news bulletins.

Only three Tory MPs defied the party whip and voted against the cut to ESA.

So, Osborne would have felt confident about passing the cuts to PIP. 

The evening after the Budget and the next day, the press and the BBC showed as little interest in PIP as they had to ESA. Given the number of people affected and the sums involved, the Today programme might have given airtime to a disabled person who would be personally affected by the PIP cuts. There was nothing like that. For the mainstream media, the Budget story was the Sugar Tax.  

But the agenda was different - and far more democratic - on  Twitter (and other social media).

For those who do not know, on Twitter, anybody can set up a Twitter account and then they can send out their own messages (called tweets) and they can receive the tweets of anyone else they decide to follow. 

Almost all MPs have a Twitter account. 

On the evening after the Budget, a succession of well-designed tweets started to appear on Twitter. Each one featured a picture of one of the Tory MPs who had forced through the £30 cut to ESA , together with their constituency and any other relevant information, such as their expenses claims and whether they were associated with disability charities. In some of the pictures the MP was seen posing with disabled constituents. The text varied but typically it said “XX MP claims to care about the sick and disabled but not enough to stop them voting to force through a £30 per week cut for sick and disabled people on ESA”.

Most of these Tweets were retweeted hundreds if not thousands of times. Each time that happened the MP named would receive a copy. The tweets would soon be picked up by people in their constituency. 

There were complaints. One Tory MP allegedly threatened legal action. Some people objected to the “trolling” of MPs. The tweets, of course, were simply repeating facts already in the public domain. All these nonsense objections were retweeted in their turn. 

Osborne had first described the tax-credit and the PIP cuts as “necessary”, but he later conceded, when forced to drop them, that they were not necessary at all but political choices. 

Twitter highlighted how MPs had passed one shameful, unnecessary measure, attacking the sick and disabled, and were on the brink of passing another.

Twitter did what the press and the BBC had conspicuously failed to do. It performed a democratic service.

Tory MPs felt the democratic heat. Osborne did the counting of votes and withdrew the PIP cut. 

The Twitter campaign will continue to try and have the ESA cut withdrawn too.

Twitter (and other social media) gives a voice to those whom have been ignored for too long.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

The disabled, Capital Gains Tax and the British media

In his seminal work “Manufacturing Consent”, Noam Chomsky wrote that the media in democracies mobilise support for the dominant special interests by “their choices, emphases and omissions”. 

With the benefit of that insight, it is remarkably easy to see how this actually happens in practice. Of course, it is only possible to do that if you have done some of your own investigations; obviously, you cannot simply rely on the media that you are critiquing.

Today’s Budget is a good example of the system in operation. Consider, for example, the media treatment this evening and tomorrow morning of two issues. These are the disgraceful and bullying treatment of the disabled and the slashing of Capital Gains Tax (CGT) from 28% to 20% (except on properties).

Last week the government forced through a measure - in the teeth of opposition from the Lords - to reduce the amount of the ESA benefit for some disabled people by £30 per week. 

In addition, in the Budget, it was announced that the severely disabled - some 640,000 - will have up to £150 per week deducted from their Personal Independence Payments for aids and appliances.

Meanwhile, the cut of CGT will mean a windfall for those who are rich enough to have capital and the richer they are the bigger the windfall.

On Twitter, many disabled people are expressing their fury and desperation. They feel bullied and victimised by this government. 

I blame the government but I also blame the media which makes choices in what it reports and what it emphasises and what it omits. I have no expectations of the bulk of the press, which is controlled by right-wing tax-dodging billionaires. 

I still believe, however, we are entitled to demand better of the BBC. It’s shop window - the Today programme and the TV and radio news - needs to fundamentally review how it makes its choices. The BBC has a duty to give the disabled a voice.