It is not often you get a chance to make a direct comparison between how the media and political institutions deal with what service users have to say and how they respond to yet more right wing ideologically based arguments. It’s even rarer to be involved in such a situation. But that is what I’ve lately been seeing first hand. My book All Our Welfare: Towards participatory social policy was published this year (http://www.policypress.co.uk/display.asp?K=9781447328940&ds=New+Titles&dtspan=150:150&sort=sort_date/d&m=12&dc=131 ). It’s the first attempt to critique the welfare state from a service user perspective, examining it warts and all and then building on user knowledge and evidence to explore the possibilities for a sustainable participatory social policy for the future. The second book in question is Adam Perkins’ The Welfare Trait: How state benefits affect personality (http://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9781137555274 ). You can imagine the kinds of effects the author is talking about and looking back to Mrs Thatcher and Charles Murray, you can guess the prescriptions he has to offer.
Not very interesting so far you might say. If I say it myself, the first book, mine, represents the first such service user critique of the welfare state: past, present and future. It makes very clear the shortcomings of the original post war welfare state, but equally makes very visible the appalling state of affairs under the pre-war poor law in the days when market was king. Mr Perkins’ book has nothing new to say if we are honest. It’s also not as though the all-conquering neo-liberalism of the present government and its Coalition predecessor are in any sense beleaguered and needing a cavalry like Mr Perkins’ to come to its aid. Let’s be honest recent governments have been undermining the welfare state with a determination that is alarming – unless we assume that governments are naturally at war with their least powerful, most vulnerable members – people like mental health service users, those with long term conditions, disabled people, disabled students, people with learning difficulties, their families and so on (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22745).
Nonetheless, Mr Perkins’ book has been seen as having news value. It is becoming a darling of both right wing think tanks like the Adam Smith Institute and the prevailing right wing press (http://www.adamsmith.org/blog/miscellaneous/a-review-of-adam-perkinss-the-welfare-trait/). But it goes further than that. If All Our Welfare managed to gain 600 words in the left-of-centre Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/feb/16/future-welfare-state-shaped-by-service-users ), then Perkin’s opus has gained a full page with a pleasing photograph of the youthful ideologue (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/mar/09/adam-perkins-welfare-dependency-can-be-bred-out ). It is said that the book’s rise to prominence is on the basis of him being ‘no platformed’ at the London School of Economics. Sadly the LSE hasn’t offered me a platform of any kind which anybody has then needed to ‘no platform’.
Of course the rhetoric of advocates of individualism, extreme bioethics and the free market like Mr Perkins is that they are the spokespersons for freedom, the rights of the individual, consumer control and free choice. They present as marginalized, reviled and muzzled by a prevailing left of centre state apparatus and its media.
The truth, as this little story highlights, is that any attempt to enable ordinary people as welfare service users to talk about the reality of their experience, whether as disabled people, people with life limiting conditions or as children needing help, is likely to be marginalized, devalued and even ignored. Yet we know and all political parties, including the present party of government, subscribe to the rhetoric, that people as patients, service users and members of the public, should be fully involved in the development of democratic policy and services. That’s why I wrote my book, building on all the evidence that such people have developed as their own organisations, research and movements have emerged.
And that is why Mr Perkins’ dismal, poorly evidenced monograph will at best be another publishing blip and at worst just be used cynically by policymakers to oppress more disabled people and others. And that’s why we have to keep battling on to ensure that we have health and welfare policies that are democratically based, environmentally sustainable, properly resourced and shaped by the voices, rights and needs of people facing difficulties in our society, which Mr Perkins only undermines further.