Debbie Abrahams: We will fight back against this government's shameful vision for social security
Rather than reposition itself on immigration and welfare, shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams says Labour must counter the message of Ukip and the Conservatives head-on with arguments based on evidence
Does Paul Nuttall represent an existential threat to the Labour party? Nuttall’s victory in the Ukip leadership election, and his pledge to “replace” Labour as the party of working people, has sent opposition MPs into a spin. Some have even warned that the Bootle-born MEP’s win represents a “game-changing” moment in British politics.
But one Labour MP who has already taken on Nuttall at the ballot box is having none of it. “Well he didn’t beat me,” Debbie Abrahams firmly replies when asked if she worries about the threat to Labour’s northern heartland.
Nuttall and Abrahams clashed at the 2011 East Oldham and Saddleworth by-election, a contest won comfortably by the Labour candidate. Nuttall picked up less than 6% of the vote.
Nuttall’s profile has risen markedly in the five years since, and he clearly represents a real threat in several northern seats. But scratch below the surface of his rhetoric about making Ukip “the voice of working people”, Abrahams believes, and the real Nuttall isn’t hard to find. “This was the by-election where he was caught slagging off the NHS,” she says, referring to the UKIP leaders’ claim that year that the “very existence of the NHS stifles competition”. “That says all you need to know about Paul Nuttall.”
Abrahams is certainly not taking the threat from Ukip lightly, not least in a town that voted Leave in the EU referendum by more than 60%. But she is confident that by “engaging and working with communities” on the issues that matter locally, Labour can counter Nuttall’s pitch.
“In 2015 I doubled my majority, and Ukip were fourth,” she says. “I’m a new politician relatively speaking. I didn’t come up the traditional route. I came into parliament as somebody who’s worked in public health, who’s had community development and community activism embedded in how they work.
“I think that approach is something that all of us need to reflect on. That’s how I work as a politician and in a three way marginal, against the odds, I doubled my majority. I think that says a lot. I work hard for my community, I work with my community, and I think if we all do that then we should be fine.”
The reaction from some of her colleagues has been to call for Labour to rethink its position on immigration and free movement. It’s a solution that leaves Abrahams unconvinced. She says there is a lot of “understandable” anger in communities where public services are under pressure, and says Labour must continue to “point the finger at the government” over the cuts that she says have exacerbated the problem. But she believes the party has a duty too to counter some of the “disgraceful language” used about migration with facts.
“We know that £20bn is added to the economy as a result of our migrant workers,” she says, pointing out that organisations from the CBI to the National Farmers Union have spoken out about the benefits of immigration in recent days.
“Where there is significant increase in economic migrants or refugees, that puts pressure on public services. What we have seen is a real impact, and it’s quite an understandable response. People have concerns about the NHS, or whether their children can access education. I understand absolutely people’s concerns.
“But I’m very concerned about the tone of the debate around immigration. I think to make generalisations around migration and refugees, which some parties are trying to do, is wrong. You need to address the problems around that.
“We are becoming a more divided society and we need to address those root problems.”
A former academic, Abrahams says her approach to policy is “absolutely driven by evidence”, and her arguments throughout our interview are backed up by references to the likes of Oxford social geography professor Danny Dorling, and Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of the 2009 book The Spirit Level, a favourite of centre-left leaders across the West, which set out how high economic inequality has a negative impact on everything from crime rates to mental health problems.
“It’s inequalities that absolutely drive me. Inequalities are not inevitable,” Abrahams says.
“If you think about the reasons behind Brexit, about what’s happening in America, the Italian referendum, Austria, the French and German elections, if you look at the driving factors, then inequalities are so key. We need to address those. That has to be the focus that you take.
“You reduce the inequalities, all the positive things we want for society happen afterwards. You get higher social mobility, living standards, mental health, happiness, trust. Crime goes down.
“You address the root causes. The more you do, you get the policy right and that filters down.”
But on welfare, Abrahams accuses the government of showing a disregard for evidence. Instead, she says, ministers have sought to misrepresent the benefits system and create a culture of fear and blame to justify their ideologically-driven programme of cuts.
“The government has been very effective at painting a picture of social security as something for shirkers and scroungers. That’s absolutely shameful. But it’s also completely untrue.”
In particular, she says, ministers’ have taken an approach to benefit sanctions that is entirely at odds with reality. “The government’s own Behavioural Insights Team say sanctions don’t work. The NAO says they don’t work. The all-party select committee had an inquiry on sanctions and came into very clear recommendations of the dangers around sanctions. And yet the government is in absolute denial,” she says.
“It’s putting your fingers in your ears and just whistling Dixie. It’s an absolute nonsense, and the public need to know about it. The public have a right to know how and why we’re making decisions. On what basis are we making these decisions about policy?”
Labour’s task over the coming months and years, she says, is to fight back against this misrepresentation of social security and return it to a system based on “principles of inclusion, support and security”.
“Fundamentally it’s about changing the culture of how social security is seen,” she says. “What we haven’t done well I think in the last few years is explain what social security is for, who it is for, the circumstances on which it’s drawn. But when people are aware of that, their views around it change.”
She continues: “We need to remember why we established the social security system in the first place. It is for all of us. It is like the NHS. It is about basic principles of inclusion, support and security for any one of us. You, me, we could have an accident we would need to call on the social security system.
“That’s what a civilised country does. We need to change how it’s delivered, how it’s performance-managed and so on. But we need to change how our social security is seen. And I’m absolutely committed to doing that.
“That’s absolutely critical. I think attitudes towards social security are changing, and we will provide information to help that process.”
Fundamental to Abraham’s vision is a social security system that is responsive to the rapidly changing and increasingly flexible labour market.
Technological advances offer huge opportunities to develop whole new industries and millions of high skilled jobs. But they also carry risk: just this week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, warned that as many as 15 million jobs could disappear in coming years as industries adopted automation and other technological advances. “How we develop a social security system that responds to that is really important,” Abrahams says.
In particular, she says, the party is looking at how the social security system can offer parity between employed and self-employed workers – a group which now makes up 15% of the workforce.
“There’s been a massive increase in the self-employed. Over 80% of the increase in employment is from the self-employed,” she says. “And we know that of those who are self-employed 45% of them are earning less than the living wage.
“They are struggling. Women who have just given birth going back to work within days. People are concerned about if they become sick or ill because they don’t have access to statutory sick pay, they don’t have access to industrial injuries tribunals, saving for the future is a real issue, and forget about housing and security and so on.
“These groups are being left behind by this government.”