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Now is the time for us all to stand up for social justice

There are times when people should stand together in defence of common decency.

We are in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. In four days' time – the day when millionaires get their big tax cut – the axe falls on a raft of allowances and benefits that the poorest and the disabled rely on to cover basic costs. The cuts are epitomised by the hated bedroom tax, which is rapidly becoming the Coalition's equivalent of Maggie Thatcher's poll tax. As many as 105,000 of Scotland's social housing tenants could lose between 14% and 25% of their housing benefit. As many do not have the option of moving to a smaller property and have no flexibility in their budgets, they will run up rent arrears. The main alternatives are to shiver or go hungry. And yet the bedroom tax accounts for only 5% of the Coalition's welfare cuts.

Councils in deprived areas are stuck in a cleft stick. If they opt not to evict those in arrears (as surely they must if an explosion of homelessness is to be avoided), they will be left with even less to spend on already dangerously overstretched services. Yesterday the Audit Commission warned that councils will have to make economies they previously ruled out. Local authorities boast bravely of doing more with less but by the end of this there may be no libraries or swimming pools left, if we don't put a stop to it.

The think tank Demos warns that thousands of people with disabilities will be hit by up to six different cuts from a long list: incapacity benefit reassessment, bedroom tax, council tax benefit, child benefit, the switch to personal independence payments, the overall benefits cap, the time limit on ESA, the abolition of the independent living fund, the permanent change to benefit and tax credits uprating and the two-year 1% cap. Those who lose all disability benefits also lose Motability cars, blue badge parking discs and equipment grants.

The public response to this personal disaster for millions of vulnerable people has been extraordinarily muted. There have been small vocal protests from some of the hardest hit, including the families of adults with learning difficulties, faced with the closure of day centres, kinship carers and victims of the bedroom tax. Yesterday, one exasperated protester managed to disrupt Iain Duncan Smith's bland assertions in Edinburgh about "providing effective support for the most vulnerable" by calling him a "ratbag". Later two partially sighted demonstrators took up the heckling. Where were the rest of us? What has happened to empathy in the country that put one million people on to the streets to protest against war in Iraq?

Historians will wonder at the skill with which this Coalition Government managed this dark revolution. First, with their "localism" agenda, ministers managed to "devolve the axe" (Francis Maude's term), foisting much of the dirty work on hapless local authorities. Secondly, by exempting from most of the pain the elderly (who can be relied on to vote), and focusing on the poorest workers and unemployed (with their notoriously low turn-out in elections), the Government has set different groups of the vulnerable against each another. The same applies to the destructive mythology around "skivers and strivers" and "intergenerational worklessness".

The sub-2% rate of benefit fraud is an economic fleabite compared with the billions lost through tax avoidance and evasion. And yet, in that fateful six months after the last General Election, when the Labour Party forgot that it was meant to act as an opposition, the concept of social security was replaced by US-style "welfare" and the claimant became stereotyped as "the slob on the sofa". Thus stigmatised, claimants are unsurprisingly reluctant to speak out and mainstream parties fight shy of speaking out for them. Support groups desperately try to make the gaping holes in the social safety net slightly smaller, rather than arguing that the entire system is unworthy of the eighth richest country in the world.

Long before the current crisis, the poorest felt excluded from democratic dialogue. Even the local council often seemed distant and unaccountable. This must change and it can. In 1945 a post-war Government, mired in debt, had the courage to create the welfare state, based on a hopeful vision for all. In 1915, before women even had the vote, pioneers such as Mary Barbour brought thousands of women on to the streets of Glasgow to demonstrate against landlords evicting those unable to afford swollen rents and persuaded their men to join them from the shipyards and munitions factories.

Now we are in the midst of what has been called a "women's recession". Female unemployment is at a 25-year high. In the last quarter alone Scottish female unemployment rose by 8000. Women are shouldering 70% of the cuts. We need women who are being hit hardest to have the courage to speak out. They do exist. In the past month I've been lucky enough to meet two of them: Tricia McConalogue of the Poverty Truth Commission, who wrote down its powerful slogan for me: "Nothing about us without us is for us"; and Hazel Ratcliffe of Fife Gingerbread, whose bleak report revealed the impact of cuts on lone parents in rural areas.

We need to find ways of amplifying the voices of women like these and use them to dismantle the pernicious mythology surrounding those who have to rely on benefits. Why don't Scotland's politicians spend the next 18 months listening to the Tricias and Hazels, instead of talking at them endlessly about Scotland's constitutional future? Whatever happens in September 2014, there are going to be arguments between those who would slash taxes and spending and those who would prioritise social justice at any price. Do we have to wait until people are freezing and starving before we consider how to create a morally robust democracy? Mary Barbour made her cause irresistible. There are times when people should stand together in defence of common decency. Now is one of them.

Iain Macwhirter is away.

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Local government

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