Universal Credit, too big to fight?

Alongside climate catastrophe, growing inequality, under-employment, rocketing rents, the effects of social displacement (gentrification) and the wholesale of public services, Universal Credit is the elephant in the room destroying working class neighbourhoods as the negotiations around Brexit drag along, diverting all other political attention.

Throughout the past few weeks and months our members and organisers have seen first hand the devastating impact Universal Credit (UC) is having in Glasgow. Whether it be through our work with community advocacy groups such as Law Centres and the fantastic WestGAP or through our daily conversations on the doorstep of Glasgow’s housing estates, we are forced to contend with the question of what can be done about UC. We've heard about sanctions that can last 3 years because your clothes are dirty and about cleaners who face eviction due to rent arrears buildup from the migration to UC. There is a lack of working tax credits to supplement exploitative zero hour contracts and all the while we have shameful levels of food bank use that would be condemned as the mark of a failed state in some parts of the world. 

So what can be done about it? Is it too big and too powerful to fight? Have the Tories and the DWP learned and adapted from failed welfare reform in the past? Given that UC uniquely affects housing, supporters and members of Living Rent routinely ask what we can do. Learning from our experience in the communities around Glasgow and following from the wonderful event hosted by Women Against Capitalism on Saturday 31st of March, we hope to lay out a template around how a campaign against Universal Credit could be fought and at least partially won.

Working from a strategy chart template adapted from the Midwest Academy, we will attempt to break each section down using the information supplied at the workshop held on Saturday the 31st of March.

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Goals - What do we want to win?

Long term goal:

1) Scrapping Sanctions

2) Scrapping claimant commitments

Mid-Range goals:

1)Local Housing Allowance (LHA) restored to median levels of all rent in the area

2) Reinstating Hardship payments

Short Term goals:

1) Ring fence Housing Element from sanctions

2) No evictions due to Rent Arrears from Universal Credit.

Above is some of the examples given in the recent workshop, the same exercise could be used to break down the short term goals further, giving agency and concrete winnable demands to any community or neighbourhood group looking to have an impact where they are or to play an important part of a wider national campaign.

The importance of breaking down any campaign is essential in this regard, focusing on the small stuff gives volunteers and organisations the ability to build and grow their experience and capacity to fight the bigger battles, whilst giving much needed sense of achievement and increasing momentum to keep going forward.

 

Organisational Considerations - What resources do we have?

2 Examples given at the same workshop included anger and unity under Universal Credit. Despite what many will say anger is a valuable resource that should be channelled and utilisedapathy and compliance won’t call people to action.

Perhaps more importantly in this instance is the fact that everyone looking for Social Security will now most likely be on Universal Credit. In the past claimants may have been divided up between Job Seekers, Personal Independence Payments, Working Tax credits or simply needing a little bit of help keeping the roof over your head. Everyone now is forced to claim on the same programme, after centuries of dividing rule have they left us with a single life line to unite around?

Other resources that could be listed here if a union, community organisation or political party could include:

  • Money
  • Staff
  • Members
  • Supporters
  • Affiliated organisations
  • Large social media audience
  • Email newsletters

 

What do you want to gain?

This could be what your individual organisation looks to achieve in terms of capacity or it could be as wide as building a campaign coalition or as small as looking at how individual volunteers or members could develop their experience through campaigning.

Campaigners at the recent workshop listed the following as immediate gains they would like to achieve and develop:

  • Build a united campaign
  • Solidarity through collective group casework and action
  • Building networks and trust through talking to each other about experiences and what could be done together

 

Who cares? - Mapping Support and Opposition

This section can be expanded into 5 main columns and explored in greater detail below is some examples of questions to ask ourselves when picking our allies and opponents.

Note that some organisations who may at first seem like opponents could be potential allies.

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People Affected Potential Allies Opponents

Directly Affected

  • People looking for work
  • People unable to work due to medical conditions
  • Renters and Home Owners who cannot afford increased payments
  • Part time workers, zero hours contracts, Low income jobs
  • Single parent families
  • People who can’t find work due to their age but don’t qualify for a pension
  • DWP workers

Indirectly affected

  • Families of claimants
  • Children

Who are they?

  • Advocacy and support organisation
  • DWP Workers
  • Housing Associations
  • Landlords
  • Health care workers
  • People employed in education
  • Care workers
  • Political Parties
  • Trade Unions
  • Media

What is in it for them?

  • Less workload
  • Guaranteed income through rent
  • Less stress
  • Increased Support

How can they be mobilised?

  • Lobbying
  • Testimony
  • Open Letters
  • Non compliance agreements

What power do they have?

  • Influence over local, regional and national legislation
  • Withdrawal of labour or support
  • Money
  • Large following
  • Wide networks
  • Big memberships/contact lists

What do they care about?

  • Money
  • Political power

What power do we have over them?

  • Boycott
  • Withdraw support
  • Withdraw labour

 

Decision Makers (Targets)

This can be broken down into Primary Decision makers (Those who have the direct power to give us what we want) and Secondary targets (Those who can influence the Primary Decision makers). Massive targets can always hide behind company names or big titles if possible always break down Primary Decision makers, name them and put a face to that name.

Primary Decision Maker: Amber Rudd, current minister for the Department of Work and Pensions.

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Peter Schofield, Permanent Secretary for the DWP and not to be confused with Philip Schofield Daytime TV presenter and apparent naked gardener


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Secondary Targets:

Not excluding viewers of This Morning and Dancing on Ice, who has the power to influence and apply serious pressure to Amber Rudd and Peter Schofield, and how to we apply pressure to them?

Try to think outside the box on this one, voters in Rudd’s constituency can apply pressure at election time, and Unionised workers could apply pressure within in the workplace but who else has the power to give us what we want?

This is when we can highlight the importance of breaking the big issue’s down let’s look at our short term goals:

1) Ring fence Housing Element from sanctions

2) No evictions due to Rent Arrears from Universal Credit.

Do we currently have the power to influence Rudd or Schofield on our first demand? If not can we win the second looking at more localised decision makers such as Landlord and Housing Association bodies, bringing them onboard as allies building our power to go back and win our first demand?

 

Tactics

Once we have picked our targets we can get begin to look at the best tactics to raise awareness of the issue and apply pressure to our decision makers. It may be as simple as writing and hand delivering a letter to bigger and more engaging actions such as mass demonstrations.

It is important to always ensure actions are fun and accessible to be part of.

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This is far from comprehensive and Living Rent will continue to work with organisations who share our values and goals to tackle the issues that face us, big and small. We look to further the conversation around Universal Credit and how to fight it, but first we need to fight what we can where we can, whilst building up the capacity and experience of our union and our members.

We need to properly map out all our potential allies, identify concrete local demands, and build infrastructure. Along with a step by step plan of how members and supporters can get involved, people need to feel they have agency in a campaign that can easily seem exhausting and overwhelming. While daunting however, we hope we have provided a glimpse of what can be achieved with a little bit of organisation and direct action. If you would like to get involved in any of our campaigns or help build a branch of Living Rent where you are, don’t delay and join today!

Reactions

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  • Ian Davidson
    commented 2019-04-04 18:59:44 +0100
    I like the process of reasoning. Lobbying, at national level (perhaps using Holyrood committees etc as a medium) for the removal of sanctions from the UC housing element is I think a “policy logical” move which might just get the attention of back-bench Tories and thus Amber Rudd etc. If you attack UC head on, at national level, you won’t get any “traction” from Westminster but it is possible to “snip away” at some of the worst bits, the unintended consequences if you like. Even from a right wing welfare perspective (an oxymoron!) the sanctioning of Housing Costs element makes no sense as it is unrelated to the (spurious) “work incentive” arguments etc. The “no eviction” issue is as you suggest best led at local level albeit you could also lobby Holyrood, SFHA etc for a national policy guidance on this which could be “persuasive” if not legally binding. But if actual evictions are imminent, then direct action is the only tactic likely to achieve a meaningful result in the necessary timescale. Overall I like what you do. I am a home owner so not much point in joining but will keep interested in what you do. My experience as a CAB adviser was that, unless fortunate enough to have a Law Centre or other “good” solicitors nearby, it was often very difficult to actually help people resolve housing problems other than writing a letter to the landlord and referring on for legal advice etc. I think the combination of national/local lobbying; local direct action and legal actions (both individual but also group actions/judicial review) is the way forward. Solidarity is also crucial, whether it is housing or poverty or debt as individuals are isolated and feel powerless. As I said on Saturday, what we assume as “normal” in 2019 was definitely not normal a few decades ago when job security and housing security were much better than they are now; there is no logical reason why things can’t be done in a better way if the political will is there.