Three of the four candidates for the Labour leadership have distanced themselves from continuing efforts by politicians and sections of the media to whip up hostility towards disabled benefit claimants.
In a televised BBC2 debate among the four candidates, Yvette Cooper and Jeremy Corbyn delivered the strongest attack on the anti-benefits rhetoric that has seen disabled claimants repeatedly targeted as “scroungers and skivers”.
An audience member had asked the four candidates how they would “change the sense of entitlement that is prevailing in some areas of the benefits culture”.
Cooper spoke of how she had relied on incapacity benefits for a year while she was recovering from illness 20 years ago.
She said: “I had to claim benefits, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to pay the rent.
“As a result, I would never say that people who can’t work are workshy or benefit scroungers.
“I think you have got to have a strong sense of responsibility, but also a strong sense of respect for everyone.”
Cooper had previously criticised leadership rival Andy Burnham (pictured) for warning that Labour had “become associated with giving people who don’t want to help themselves an easy ride”.
In his answer, Burnham again risked stirring up hostility towards benefit claimants by arguing that “if people feel people are getting more in benefits than people are getting in wages, that could undermine public trust in the principles of the welfare state”.
But he also warned of a campaign to “demonise people who claim benefits”, and added: “Also we have seen disabled people who can’t replace that income by doing more work having their benefits taken away.
“That is just cruel, and as Labour leader I will fight changes like that.”
There had also been previous criticism of Liz Kendall, seen as the most right-wing of the four candidates, after she criticised Labour’s position on the issue.
Kendall appeared to accept the assumption of the Tory voter who had asked the question of the four candidates in this week’s debate, by saying that she agreed that Labour had a problem on welfare reform.
And she was the only one of the four who did not criticise anti-claimant rhetoric.
She spoke of meeting a Conservative voter in Wales who told her that Labour “don’t believe in work”.
Kendall said: “As Labour, the party founded from organised labour, that was terrible, and I think the whole welfare system is failing.
“It’s not making sure that people who can work get the incentives and help they need to work and it’s not providing any kind of decency for those who are really, really struggling and ill.”
Corbyn delivered the strongest attack of the four candidates on what he said were “deeply unpleasant” attacks on benefit claimants.
He said that he saw many people in his constituency surgery who had been found “fit for work” and so ineligible for out-of-work disability benefits, while some – although not in his constituency – had subsequently killed themselves as a result of such tests.
He said: “Some have been through the most unbelievable horror stories as a result and eventually they get the benefit back because they weren’t actually capable of work in the first place. Why have we got the cruelty of that particular system?”
He called for a Labour government to look at the issue of poverty, at the availability of jobs, and the use of sanctions that are applied to benefit claimants, including 2,000 people in his area of London.
Disability News Service has been attempting for nearly three weeks to secure answers from Burnham and Kendall on whether they back further cuts to disability benefits, after their public comments were construed by many as stigmatising those who are not working.
Despite repeated promises by their team – including again this week – neither Kendall nor Burnham have yet responded to requests for clarity on their positions on cuts to disability benefits, the use of benefit sanctions, and anti-claimant rhetoric.