From 'Vulnerable' to Vanguard: Challenging the Coalition: One of the Main Challenges to the Government Will Come from the Disabled People's and Service User Movements

By Beresford, Peter | Soundings, January 2012 | Go to article overview

From 'Vulnerable' to Vanguard: Challenging the Coalition: One of the Main Challenges to the Government Will Come from the Disabled People's and Service User Movements


Beresford, Peter, Soundings


There can now be little question that the Coalition government's intention is to take us even further along the neoliberal road - to radical regressive redistribution, the residualisation of state support services and greatly increased social and political inequality. And equally, there is no doubt that it is poor, old and disabled people that the Coalition cuts are hurting most. But instead of lying down and dying, many of them are finding new ways of challenging the government - to such an extent that in the end they may turn out to be the key architects of its defeat.

This is epitomised by the Spartacus report, Responsible Reform, a major new challenge to the government's welfare reform proposals. (1) This report was entirely written, researched, funded and supported by sick and disabled people, their friends and carers. Its publication has gained high visibility and widespread support, ranging from The Guardian to the Daily Mail, which ran the headline, 'We're all desperate for welfare reform, Mr Cameron, but hiding the truth is not the way to achieve it'. (2) The report has already helped in the inflicting of several Lords defeats for the government's welfare bill. At the time of writing it remains to be seen whether there will be further successes in defeating the bill's proposed draconian attacks on the disabled and other groups.

Attacking the 'deserving poor'

When David Cameron committed the Coalition government to cutting the public deficit as his first priority, he promised that in doing so he would 'try to protect the poorest and the most vulnerable'. Indeed, 'protecting the vulnerable' became a leitmotif of the prime minister and his cabinet. Time and again official statements refer to 'vulnerable people', 'the most vulnerable citizens', 'society's most vulnerable'. Though jobs might be lost, and programmes and public services slashed, the Coalition government repeatedly committed itself to looking after 'the vulnerable'. It was not always clear who the vulnerable were, or how useful it was to redefine in this way those large adjectival groups of 'the old', 'the disabled', 'the poor', 'the long-term sick' and 'carers'. And there was some irony in the Coalition's framing of such groups in the same old paternalistic discourse for which the political right so frequently condemns the welfare state.

But there was nothing new or initially particularly disturbing about this residualist safety-net approach to social policy. 'The vulnerable' seemed merely the coalition code for the 'deserving' poor, those whom the state recognises that it has to support because the market certainly doesn't. If the government's reforms had actually protected 'the vulnerable', there would have been little to remark on. What has, however, been novel about the Coalition's social policy is its apparent ending even of the Victorian poor law distinction between the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor: those historically seen as unable to work and fend for themselves - disabled and older people, and those with chronic conditions - as opposed to the feckless and idle unemployed. If anything, the deserving poor seem to have become the Coalition government's particular target; there no longer seems to be such a thing as deserving poor. In this Cameron is very different from Thatcher - his rhetoric has very little relationship to his policies.

Politicians associated with the values of the political new right, from Mrs Thatcher, through New Labour to the Coalition, have for some years been wheeling on a range of powerless targets for scapegoating duties. These have included the so-called 'underclass', those denied citizenship (refugees and asylum seekers), lone parents, unemployed people and dissident or disruptive young people. But things have now gone a step further and reached 'the 'deserving poor', who have found that, rather than being collateral damage for the spending cuts that are aimed at the undeserving scapegoats, they have now themselves become the main target. …

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