This is a thoroughly researched account of the history of welfare reform and its devastating impact on the lives of disabled people’s in Britain. It’s a powerful indictment of the governments responsible and a welcome tribute to the new movement that has fought back. Ellen Clifford is a prominent activist with the coalition Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC). The war of the title refers to the brutal process of welfare reform, which began with plans under New Labour governments to get a million people off benefits and into work. As Clifford notes, this neoliberal project’s main aim was to reshape the welfare state in the interests of business via cuts and privatisation. Recurring overhauls of the social security system have made it harder to remain eligible for benefits.
Huge private firms, from Atos to Maximus and the US insurance giant Unum Provident, have won lucrative contracts to administer an increasingly punitive regime — despite consistently failing to meet quality standards. As Ellen points out, these companies act as ‘flak catchers’ for public anger at policies they enact but which governments have approved. A faceless regime of increased benefits sanctions, digital-by-default claims and monthly payments, combined with massive cuts in social care spending, led to what a United Nations Committee report in 2016 called a “human catastrophe.”
Over a hundred Jobcentres have closed, but attendance at Jobcentre interviews remains a core requirement of Universal Credit. Up to 600,000 more disabled people live in absolute poverty today compared with 2010. The book provides many individual examples of the horror these policies have created in practice. This offensive has sometimes appeared to be unstoppable, but its progress has sometimes been slowed. DPAC campaigning helped to produce successes such as the damning findings against the UK government by the UN’s Disability Committee’s and the victory over ‘workfare’ (the abandoned plans to force jobseekers to work in return for benefits).
Although the sheer scale of the attacks has made it increasingly difficult to fight back, DPAC’s direct action tactics have helped both to undermine the image of disabled people as passive victims and to “compensate for our inability to turn out en masse.” Online technology has allowed many to contribute “who are otherwise disconnected from political engagement”. As the name DPAC implies, the activists of this new movement see themselves as part of a wider fight against austerity. Clifford and fellow activists look back to socialists whose key inspirational idea of the social model of disability helped build the early disabled people’s movement, but reject the “identity politics approach” which became dominant among its activists.
These factors, along with the fact that so many disabled people are forced to rely on state-funded support, leads Clifford to argue that this social group tend to be more politicised than the general population. REVIEWS BOOK On the other hand, she also points out that the desire for wider unity among this new generation of disability activists is partly due to the very scale of the offensive against them. DPAC’s work over the last decade has heightened the political profile of disability in Britain and “contributed to an unprecedented awareness of disability issues among potential allies on the left”.
More controversial are the book’s arguments that disabled people’s struggles have generally “received relatively little attention from socialists, union activists or academics”, and that “portrayals by the left of victims of welfare reform… play on ideas of ‘vulnerability’ and contribute towards a pity model of disability.” These points are worth debating, but they are not developed here, and to suggest they apply equally across all of “the left” is at best to paint with a very broad brush. Presenting disabled people’s views as uniformly progressive at any rate contradicts some of the more accurate points made elsewhere in the book.
At one point, Clifford notes that much of the left are unfamiliar with key concepts such as the social model and independent living, but later goes on to say this is also true of most of DPAC’s disabled supporters. Objections aside, this is an angry and important book, full of damning findings, moving testimonies and above all highlighting the inspiring struggles of a new generation of activists against a brutally disabling system.