User-led and disabled people’s organisations hold the key to fighting back against the government’s long-term assault on the welfare state, according to a leading disabled academic.
In his new book, All Our Welfare: Towards Participatory Social Policy, Professor Peter Beresford argues that service-user and disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) “offer a force for achieving change” and for moving towards a “future sustainable welfare state”.
Beresford (pictured), who chairs Shaping Our Lives, the national network of disabled people and service users, says in his book that the new identity movements of the 1970s – such as the disabled people’s movement – developed new ways of thinking.
They offered new ideas and models of support, and more equal methods of research; and they developed co-operatives, and focused on environmental sustainability and the importance of meeting people’s needs and rights.
But faced with a dominant right-wing media and politics, they survived only as an “undercurrent”.
Now, he says, the disabled people’s movement, which overcame “massive struggles” to develop its own pioneering, user-led services, can provide the foundation for a new “revisioned” welfare state, pushing back against the current media and political forces that want to marginalise the idea of welfare.
“I don’t see any other progressive way forward,” he told Disability News Service (DNS). “If we don’t manage to have that then I fear for where this country will be heading.”
He believes that successive governments have performed a “conjuring trick”, by transforming the welfare state – which historically has included services such as the NHS, social care, education and social housing – to simply mean welfare benefits.
“The welfare state, according to this government, is now ‘welfare’,” he says, “which means ‘people getting benefits that you are paying for, who are scum.’ That’s how they are presenting it.”
But Beresford, who is professor of citizen participation at the University of Essex and emeritus professor at Brunel University, is convinced that the seeds of the downfall of the government’s right-wing, anti-welfare state approach have already been sown.
“It’s difficult to be optimistic in terms of how many terrible things are going to continue to happen,” he told DNS, “but I don’t see it is a sustainable road of travel in where we are headed, I really don’t.”
He believes that younger people will feel more and more beleaguered by the prospect of huge higher education debts, and having to find the money to cope with job insecurity and – if the welfare state continues to be whittled away – healthcare, pensions and social care.
Young families with disabled children “will not tolerate what people tolerated 20, 30, 50 years ago; they want a life for their children; they see their children as like anybody else”.
And older people, he says, now worry about their grandchildren, and where their jobs will come from, and where they will live.
He believes these factors will provide a “growing groundswell that will be encouraging for the radical movements like the disabled people’s movement”.
“The concerns are rising,” he says. “My concern is how long it will take, how much damage will be done in the meantime.”
Beresford believes that the most important question is “how we look after each other in modern society”.
“This government has pretended that we can do that on our own and that really the issue is all these people claiming rights and income they are not entitled to.”
But he does not advocate a return to the “old paternalism” of the post-war welfare state, which “failed to involve people, was top-down, and failed to understand diversity”.
Instead, his book points towards a future welfare state that is “financially and environmentally sustainable”, that is “participatory”, where “social rights and needs guide economic policy”, and in which “supporting each other is recognised as a productive creator of real wealth, personal and collective well-being”.
If this is to be achieved, he says, the disabled people’s movement has to highlight “not only the bad things that are happening now but the good things it has to offer, and show non-disabled people what disabled people can offer in a much more systematic way”.
He also wants to see user-led organisations build more alliances.
“We have got to be outward-looking as movements, we have got to collaborate more, we have got to be more tolerant of each other’s differences, we have got to really work on addressing diversity in our activities.”
But he feels “optimistic” for the future, as long as disabled people and their organisations work “in concert” with others.
“People listen to people with shared understanding and experience, people like them,” he says. “We must show that commonality.”
He is convinced that the values represented by the disabled people’s movement and user-led organisations will win through.
The values that he says have been imposed on society – individualism, fighting each other, greed and criminality – “seem immensely powerful, but they don’t stand up to investigation”.
Instead, what ordinary people want are “traditional values about treating people with respect and not discriminating”.
“They are the things that the disabled people’s movement, the other movements and user-led organisations are fighting for,” he says. “They are eternal values and those values will out.”