<This post is a much, much longer version of an older post on the Visible Poor, which is here. It first appeared on linksUK, which is hosting a week-long discussion about the portrayal of poverty in the media. It’s worth checking out.>
At 12pm on the West Orchards Terrace, Coventry sits down to eat. Where Alan Bennett might’ve found pleasure watching the manners and habits of people in hotel lobbies, I’ve always found mine in the more modest surrounds of the shopping centre food court. I like watching people negotiate the different choices on offer & mulling over where to sit; the things they do while they’re eating and the ways they interact with each other.
Just in front of me, there’s a dad reading a football magazine to his young son, who, awestruck and imaging, quietly slips chips between his lips. A woman from the Debenhams make-up counter hurriedly stuffs a wrap into her mouth whilst tapping frantically on her phone. Two elderly women tuck into their ‘giant’ Yorkshire puddings, pausing occasionally to coo over a baby in a high chair. An adolescent couple, presumably on their first date, eat together in silence; cautious not to do or say anything which could cause embarrassment.
There are pizzas and pasties, cappucinos and fried chicken, toasted teacakes & ciabattas. Yet all this difference is nothing compared to the range of people you’ll find. There are smart suits and shell suits, hoodies and cardigans, short skirts, jeans, leather jackets and niqabs, and they all ventured up the escalators for coffee or food, or just to have five minutes off their feet. This is why I’ve never understood people who dismiss shopping centres as cathedrals for commerce; they can be some of the most human places on the planet.
What a lot of socialists don’t often mention is that insofar as capitalism functions – falteringly, and with innumerable inequities – it does so because the people make it function. This isn’t just because of coercion, necessity or false consciousness, but because humans have a remarkable capacity to bend the rigid, humdrum formalities of working life into something more humane.
A security guard goes over to talk to the girl who’s getting bored at her unpopular hotdog stand. Two cleaners share a joke by one of the bins. In the queue for coffee, the harassed barista still found time for banter with one of her regulars. We all find ways to endure the long shift, adapt to the tedious routine, amend the unfathomable rules: we have in-jokes, fag breaks, staff competitions and nights out. Work disciplines us, yes, but we’re the ones who civilise work, and the skills we develop help us to be better employees and better members of society.
The root cause of our gravest social problems is not big government, the welfare state, or even broken families. It is lack of work. When unemployment becomes long term, even generational, many of the values and behaviours which work develops begins to disappear. In its place are anti-social behaviours which can cause misery to otherwise upstanding working class communities. Worse still, these behaviours are then learned by their children, creating a cycle of state dependency, social exclusion, violence and abuse.
If there is a ‘social recession’, it is limited to members of a small, troubled, self-perpetuating group, which is neither reflective of the communities they blight nor the fault of one political party. It is a problem which has existed for generations and will probably persist generations from now: the only thing left to argue about is whether it’s gotten better or worse, and whether it can be solved.
But despite being unrepresentative of either the poor or the wider working class, cases such as the Edlington attacks are often the only time the media takes the time to report on poverty & deprivation. Prior to news of this attack, who can honestly say they had even heard of this small South Yorkshire town, let alone understood its character and problems? Prior to the kidnap of Shannon Matthews, who can honestly claim to have known where Dewsbury Moor was, or the demographics of the people living there? My own knowledge of Haringey is limited to the appalling crimes which happened there; I know nothing of the area or its people.
Because our view of these areas is restricted to its most infrequent but appalling crimes, we rarely take the time to examine the more generic, structural problems which exist. What’s the quality of the housing? How might the schools be improved? Do social workers have enough time to do justice to their clients? Where offending behaviour occurs, are there opportunities for community sentencing? Is there enough Early Intervention for parents who’re at risk? When your first introduction to a place makes you recoil in horror, these questions are rarely asked, and answers rarely sought.
The challenge, then, for people who campaign against poverty & inequality, is to humanise the problem; to demonstrate the struggles and champion the success stories which occur in these communities and – above all – give its residents a voice. Without that, we’ll just have to make do with a succession of bleak headlines which neither gives a true reflection of the communities in which they occurred, nor truly grapples with the causes.
One reason we think society is broken because parts of it remain invisible. That’s something we can – and must – seek to change.
I’ve never been able to get worked up about class and its distinctions, but then I’ve never felt the conventional three-tier account of social divisions has much to do with the case. […] My mother’s scheme of things admitted to much finer distinctions than were allowed by the sociologists. She’d talk about people being ‘better-class’, ‘well-off’, ‘nicely-spoken’, refined’, ‘educated’, ‘genuine’, ‘ordinary’ and – the ultimate condemnation – ‘common’.
In a happy coincidence, a few days after the Prime Minister uttered the jibe which started a class war, the BBC ran a repeat of Alan Bennett’s glorious Dinner at Noon. Part documentary, part voyeurism and part personal reminiscence, Bennett guides you around the stately surrounds of Harrogate’s Crown Hotel, eavesdrops on other people’s conversations, shares stories about his parents and muses about what place class has in contemporary society.
Made at the end of a decade marked by union-busting, industrial decline and emerging consumerism, Bennett uses the people-watching habits of his parents to demonstrate how our rigid definitions of class tell us little about the people wearing the labels. What he prefers to observe are manners, behaviours, embarrassments: “Not class, which I don’t like, but classes, types“.
His preference for thinking of people as ‘types’ rather than ‘classes’ reminded me of a family gathering I attended a few years ago. It was the funeral of a patriarch who was much loved, as evidenced by the fact that his passing had managed to draw a greater number of our extended, estranged family members than other functions of this sort.
The church was like a sweetshop of different ‘types’. You had the emotionally distraught, the jolly reminiscers, the tanned couple who’d just got back from Tenerife and ‘you know, we wouldn’t have come back if we’d had the choice’. There were the self-conscious mums who checked every 10 minutes that their husbands or children were dressed correctly, behaving appropriately & grieving at acceptable levels. You had the step-family who weren’t welcome but felt like they had to turn up, so fidgeted quietly at the back of the church, speaking only to themselves. You had the proud veteran who refused his war medals because ‘you shouldn’t be rewarded for doing your duty’, and the boisterous old busybody who flashed her own accomplishments (holiday in Corfu; new fitted kitchen) as tactlessly as youngsters flashing their bling. It was a church filled with hundreds of years of collective experience, dozens of unique, eccentric, exciting types, and if you could find one thing which united them all, it was that their social class had little importance. Because class really can have little importance. Well, sometimes.
The real solvent of class distinction is a proper measure of self-esteem, a kind of unselfconsciousness. Some people are at ease with themselves so the world is at ease with them. My parents thought this kind of ease was produced by education: ‘your Dad and me can’t mix; we’re not educated.’ They didn’t see that what disqualified them was temperament, just as, though educated to the hilt, it disqualifies me. What keeps us in our place is embarrassment.
A few months after that funeral took place, I moved down to Cambridge for my first term as an undergraduate. For someone who’d never lived away from home before and was completely unused to its customs & traditions, the first few months were an exhausting experience and a period for intense self-criticism. I always assumed I was at ease with my self; that I knew who I was, where I’d come from, how events and places and people had helped to shape me. I soon found out that not only was that just a flimsy edifice, but, like Alan Bennett, I was embarrassed by everything: my birthplace, my accent, the fact that most of my clothes were from Matalan, my schooling, parents & former school friends. I was embarrassed that people whose parents had spent tens of thousands of pounds on their education (and, unwillingly, on mine) were now sat next to a podgy northern dilettante who hadn’t a clue what to do with all these bloody knives & forks. I thought, this can’t have been what they paid their money for.
I felt like an imposter, and because I desperately wanted to belong there, I tried to fashion myself into what I thought was expected of a Cambridge student. I decided to dress like I was in The Strokes; tried flattening my accent; I ate out regularly and expensively; I over-compensated for my low cultural vocabulary by bingeing on records and books; I started getting drunk. I must’ve spent a whole year trying to escape my class.
Of course, when I realised that no amount of styling would fashion me into one of those well-spoken, confident Home Counties kids I used to envy from my smoke-filled corner of the college bar, I reacted violently against it. I started inventing reasons to dislike people: a love of rowing or rugby, a posh accent, a fondness for Cambridge’s antiquated little traditions, membership of the Conservative Party. I started acting like my background made me one of the few ‘authentic’ kids in a university teeming with pretence, entitlement, self-importance & sycophancy. First my embarrassment made me want to change myself; next it made me want to change everyone else.
Thankfully, each passing year brings with it just a little more experience and wisdom. Thanks to my many embarrassments (and the counsel of some quite wonderful friends), I did eventually reconcile the class-based insecurities of my background with the immense privilege that I had the fortune to enjoy. I realised that most of the public school kids weren’t quietly sneering at the commoner in their midst, and that people from very wealthy backgrounds could be just as prone to embarrassment & self-doubt as I was. I no longer had anything to be embarrassed about, either before the people back home who warned me not to ‘forget my roots’ or those whose roots were already sunk deep in privilege.
I suppose one of the purposes of coming to this hotel in Harrogate was an evangelical one: I wanted to find people who were as awkward as I used to be in these surroundings and show them it didn’t matter. Only I didn’t find them, and besides, quite sensibly, everybody seems to know that it doesn’t matter. I wanted to revive or relocate some of the embarrassments or awkwardness I felt when I was younger. I didn’t. I’m older, the world has changed, and maybe it’s the businessmen who’ve changed it. Class isn’t what it was; or nowadays perhaps people’s embarrassments are differently located.
Some will clumsily paint the wealthy as airheaded, workshy toffs or bankers as cash-gobbling spivs; some will generalise the working class as uncomplicated & honest or as crass, boorish chavs who rock in the hammock of the welfare state.
Those who prefer their data will seek empirical markers which indicate dividing lines between rich and poor. They’ll study education, inherited wealth and earned income and use those findings to determine where an individual lies in the social hierarchy.
Whilst there’s some populist utility in the stereotype and an analytic function to quantitative research, what these very different approaches have in common is that there’s no room for the vast breadth of difference. They can’t factor in all our strange little sayings, habits, accents, slang, likes, antipathies, old wives tales & folk legends which people from similar backgrounds often share.
That’s a shame, because it’s in these details & this difference where a most personal part of our identities resides. They can influence the way we look at the world or deal with problems, the way we relate to and interact with others, the types of work we choose, the types of hobbies we pursue and the different ways we seek to enjoy ourselves. These differences are also, in many cases, fixed. Many of our traits are inherited; bequeathed to us by the process of socialisation and impossible (no matter how hard I tried) to reject, disown or erase.
My advice to those who wish to exploit the seemingly self-serving aspects of Tory policy to promote a more progressive agenda is this: by all means, go ahead, but please take the language of class out of it. Our politicians will not possess the authenticity, subtlety, sensitivity, respect for difference or understand the deeply personal attachment that people have to their backgrounds. I don’t want to see a succession of well-heeled Labour cabinet ministers clumsily trying to ingratiate themselves with the ‘common man’ anymore than I want society slandered as ‘broken’ and working class communities rendered as stark, dystopic hinterlands populated by perverts & slobs.
But whilst I don’t particularly want to see politicians talking about class as a means of getting elected, I still think we should be prepared to talk about it. If Alan Bennett is right and ‘class isn’t what it was‘, then it seems that we’d all benefit from speaking candidly about what it is – only free from the firing squad of front-line politics. If our backgrounds have helped form our characters, beliefs and positions, then – providing it’s done in good faith – we should be open to making that a part of the conversation. It’s perhaps a sign of my own faith in politicians (or lack thereof) that I’d rather they stuck to arguing about policy.
“Not class, which I don’t like, but classes, types“.
There were two eulogies given at this funeral I referred to earlier. The first, delivered in an unmistakable Barnsley accent, described the deceased as ‘a smashing chap'; a loving father and husband who would ‘do anything for anyone’. The second was a theatrically-performed reading from Shakespeare’s Tempest.
Mingling around the wake afterwards, I overheard two elderly ladies discussing the passage.
“Well love, I must admit that a lot of it went right over my head”
“Yes, yes, there was a lot of old words in it, weren’t there?”
There was a brief silence, as if both ladies worried that they weren’t showing enough sympathy in a time of mourning.
“Ooh, but didn’t she read it beautifully though! And just look at this grand spread!”
Older & somewhat wiser, I know now that we can’t ever really escape our backgrounds. Better still, I don’t see any reason why we should try.
When I was last in the Lakes, I stumbled-upon a shop which specialised in antique books. It was a place where you could spend hours devouring the breadth of history on display; thumbing through thin, musty-smelling pages & admiring the old-fashioned covers on the shelves.
One book which caught my eye was a volume of ‘stories from the empire’ – a collection of articles describing different writers’ journeys across land seized by the British. It’s not a book you’d get away with writing today: the attitudes displayed were (mostly) from a bygone era and the amazed, disapproving depictions of the local people stank of one of the worst aspects of colonialism. Indeed, rather than enlightening the reader about what life was like in the commonwealth’s farthest corners, the portrayals only served to reinforce a reader’s preconceptions.
The same discomfiting cringe I felt reading that book has re-emerged in recent days as people have scrambled to explain why voters across the Pennines elected two BNP candidates to the European Parliament. As the new boomtown for British nationalism – the party doubled its share of the vote since 2004 – journalists have started flocking to Barnsley to ask why this former Labour stronghold has become increasingly fertile ground for extremists.
After reading these articles, I sighed over how depressing & unwelcoming the town must seem to outsiders: how ill-informed the interviewees were, how casually they deployed xenophobia as a defence mechanism. I worried that the media coverage only told one side of the town’s story, and told it in a way which – like that book I left on the shelf – would only reinforce the presumptions about the people who live here.
First things first: yes, the BNP found over 3,000 new voters since 2004, but it’s also lost a lot of votes in just 12 months. In last year’s council elections only a third of Barnsley’s seats were up for grabs, but the BNP still gathered 1,800 more votes than it did for an election held across the town. No, this isn’t comparing like with like, but it does suggest that if you really wanted to investigate us during an upsurge of support for nationalism, you should’ve done it 12 months ago. There are different ways to gauge the strength of support a party has, but I think it’s useful to use the old measure of party membership. On that score, the infamous leaked BNP list might’ve boasted over a hundred Barnsley addresses, but for a population of around 220,000, I think I’m entitled to regard that number as feeble.
The racism suggested by the national media is also a lot more abstract than any of the articles have acknowledged. Even with a modest increase in the number of immigrants over the past decade, Barnsley remains one of the whitest towns in the north, and because there’s no semblance of a minority community, there’s no direct conflict with the white working class on grounds of religion, race or culture. Many of us are still healed by foreign doctors, taught by foreign teachers, served by foreign barmaids or learn alongside foreign children, and they can, by and large, live and learn and work free from harassment or intimidation.
I don’t believe I’m being naive in saying this; I’ve lived in Barnsley for long enough to know that there are some genuinely hateful racists in the town, and even if I hadn’t lived there, it wouldn’t have taken long for Google to prove it. What I do contend, however, is that racism isn’t necessarily the prime motivating factor behind a vote for the BNP.
The basis for this overhyped ‘conflict’ between the white working class and the rest is a fight over limited resources; a battle for a better standard of living which many feel is being lost – or stolen. The BNP has been very successful in explaining this as a legacy of lax immigration and ‘PC gone mad’, but the more unpalatable truth is that the town is still failing to give up the ghosts of its industrial past.
I’ve written before about how a culture of low expectations persists here, and it’s prevented the town from adequately retooling after the collapse of coal mining. These days, many of the children & grandchildren of ex-miners will simply train in some other unskilled manual occupation, but in the 21st century, they’re at the mercy of unforgiving markets like never before.
The kids who leave school with only the barest of GCSEs might think those qualifications don’t matter much, but by the time they’ve finished some apprenticeship in house building, plastering or plumbing, they’ll discover that on top of the low pay, they’re competing with foreign labour in a horrid economic climate where nothing is being built. It’s easy to blame some faceless Polish plasterer who you imagine is stealing your living; it’s far harder to get a grasp on how so many other factors have led them to that point: family background, low education, personal choice, a labour market that doesn’t have enough openings for skilled manual work, nor enough qualified applicants to fill them.
If I was to give a passing journalist one final piece of advice about examining the relationship between Barnsley and the BNP, it would be to look again at the lessons from the 2008 council elections. There, the BNP came third with over 10,000 votes, but still failed to win a single seat on the council. There are several reasons for this, but foremost among them was the strength of a coalition called the Barnsley Independent Group. This BIG is a collection of staunchly local politicians who’ve fought for small, important things like local amenities, public transport and paving over potholes. In about 5 years, they’ve not only managed to break Labour’s dominance of the council, but also managed to stop the nationalists from dumping their flabby hides in our town hall.
The lesson we should learn from the group’s rapid rise is this: nationalism is not the natural recourse for disaffected Labour voters, and when given a choice between localism and nationalism (a vote for something or a vote against something) more people will prefer fixing fences to flinging out foreigners.
I just wish that some of this had been a feature of the media’s post-election frenzy. Instead, they not only risked giving these snarling, small town Napoleons far more credit than they’re due, but they portrayed the town in such a way that folk ‘round these parts will struggle to recognise it.
One of the discoveries I made on holiday was a short book called “Hope From The City“. It was written by a Methodist minister called John Vincent who’s dedicated the better part of his life to working class areas of Sheffield, and is a reflection on the hopes, frustrations, opportunities and challenges involved in trying to harness the potential for communities to improve their surroundings. Whilst there’s a little too much religiosity for my tastes, it’s still an interesting & insightful read and is blessed with an unwavering belief in people who often seem written-off.
The book contains a forward by David Blunkett, whose endorsement of community empowerment borders on the evangelical. He writes: “Back in the 1930’s, R. H. Tawney referred to the very different ways in which adult education and community learning could express itself. Now today, as this book illustrates, the melting pot of cultural diversity and religious and social influences will form fertile ground for radical ideas, for a challenge to the establishment and for improvement built from the very roots of the community”.
Of course, all of this jars heavily againsty our recollection of Blunkett’s time in the Cabinet: the ‘crackdown’ rhetoric, the macho policy-making, the preference for punishment over penance and all that gloating, dismissive statism. After finishing the book, I was left to wonder: how on earth could the author of this foreword also be the author of such awful policy?
There was a similar Jekyll & Hyde theme running through Mr Blunkett’s May Day message to Labour loyalists in South Yorkshire. When judged solely as a piece of political rhetoric, it’s a bit of a mess. He talks of rediscovering Labour’s roots, but also warns members against believing its future can be found in the past. There’s also the requisite BNP scaremongering, a weird snipe at the ‘duplicity & contradictions’ of the Liberal Democrats (seriously, WTF?), and for all the reporting about it being an attack on Brown’s leadership, it’s actually a rather tame & polite call for Labour to offer more ‘hope and optimism’.
But in those parts of the speech where he channels Dr Jekyll and gets down to specifics, the results are pleasantly surprising. Blunkett’s proposals are as follows:
Bringing all elected, devolved and representatives agencies at regional and sub-regional level together to carry out a financial audit of all resources going into an area; and agreeing programmes of action to re-shape priorities and consider what help the private sector could provide in areas of immediate need.
Civic health audits which look at the overall health and well-being of communities and what steps could be taken to re-engage, revitalise and regenerate participation from local people.
A substantial expansion of the allotments programme to make a dramatic difference to food production and its quality, as well as to diet and affordability and wider understanding of the environmental benefits.
A devolution of the welfare state and benefits programme to sub-regional or city region level, returning to “the historic pattern on which the welfare state was built”, pulling together JobCentre Plus, the Learning and Skills Council, voluntary and where appropriate private providers and the relevant local authorities. Investment for tackling unemployment, family breakdown and child poverty could all be applied more responsibly and flexibly at local level, building on the Flexible New Deal.
An expansion in the use of microcredit, building on a substantial and reformed Social Fund, and the establishment of community forums to localise monitoring, policy development and delivery.
The creation of city or regional banks, which existed up to 20 years ago, building on the experience of the Kaka Liberal Populaire in northern Spain, combining the deposits of individuals and businesses with investment in industry and services, lending back into the local community from which the resources were raised.
The aim of these ideas is obvious. With the creation of regional banks, community forums & civic health audits, Blunkett wants to localise politics like never before and provide the means for individuals, churches, charities & small businesses to invest in their environments. He is effectively saying that the power of Whitehall needs to be reduced and the days of managerialism and hyper-bureaucracy must come to an end. Whilst there’s much to debate in how this can be brought about, that debate certainly needs to be had.
Of particular interest should be the idea of devolving the welfare state to a local level. Having been unimpressed by proposals for reforming the benefits system, the possibility of localisation is one I’ve also considered in the past. It’s clear that the welfare state needs to find new ways of working, develop better relationships with welfare claimants and promote more co-operation with local business, the third sector and other social services. The only conceivable way I can think of doing that is by devolving it to a local level and bringing it much closer to those people it wishes to reach. Indeed, we should take this idea further and think about the possibility for devolving prison & rehabilitation efforts as discussed in the Aitken report.
I wrote a few months ago that David Blunkett had done a great deal to make liberal and left wing politics appear irreconcilable. It appears I was wrong. Whilst his contribution to the debate about the future of the left may be unlikely and – in some quarters – unwelcomed, it’s too valuable to go unnoticed. For that, if nothing else, he deserves a great deal of credit.
The main message in Dr Vincent’s book is simple and beaming with optimism: there is hope in our cities. There are people in disadvantaged communities who possess the energy, ideas and commitment to improve their environment, but lack the means and are often defeated by bureaucracy. Blunkett understands that it doesn’t have to be that way, and whilst he didn’t do much to reverse the trend whilst in government, it’s better to speak out now than never. Just goes to show that hope can still found, even in the unlikeliest places.
(Image taken in Pitsmoor, Sheffield, by by Flickr user polandeze (Creative Commons))
It’s the first summer of a shiny new century and you’re stuck scrubbing floors. You work the graveyard shift in a town centre McDonalds and spend each slow-moving hour sweeping, wiping & rinsing. Alone among a swathe of swaggering drunks, you stop only to ask them to stub out their cigarettes; to take their feet off the formica furniture; to grovel apologies about being unable to offer refunds when they drop food on your freshly-mopped floor.
Towards the end of all this light entertainment, a disheveled-looking couple stagger through the door and head straight for the disabled toilet. Because you’ve abandoned all hope of stopping non-customers from using your loo, you leave them be and go to empty another bin. About 15 minutes later and it’s time for you to clean the toilets. Still engaged; you step back onto the restaurant floor and loiter by the door. Eventually there’s movement; the woman exits first – adjusting her denim skirt & straightening her hair – followed by her frowning companion. He peers down his jeans, zips up his flies and shouts across the crowded restaurant: “Fuckin’ hell bitch, you’ve given me herpes!” You go into the toilet and stick the used condom in the bin.
By sharing this story, I’ve just indulged in a stereotype which is as old as class itself. It’s a portrait of the working class as moral degenerates: crass, boorish, feckless and shorn of the same standards of morality which are shared by respectable England. They claim benefits as their birthright and spend what they do not earn; they fight and steal and drink; they create kids the rest of us have to feed and proceed to fuck them up just as badly as they were fucked up by their own parents. They are the underclass, the lumpenproletariat or, as Orwell Prize Winner Jack Night describes them, the ‘evil poor’.
In politics, the naming of things is always a sensitive topic and Laurie Penny took great offense when she saw such a grim adjective used to describe some of society’s most disenfranchised. A couple of brief – but important – points need to be made in the writer’s defense: in the offending post, he was referring only to a subset of the poor, and it’s important to recognise that the people he describes are real and their behaviour creates problems for the normal, law-abiding majority. But one thing which came to mind when reading Laurie’s piece was the unsettling suspicion that the people Jack writes about are more accurately described not as the ‘evil poor’, but as the ‘visible poor’.
Last year, I noted the Rowntree Foundation’s report that domestic poverty is a very low priority for the British media. Its news value is pitifully low, real life depictions/descriptions of poverty are practically non-existent and on those rare occasions when it is covered by the media, it’ll often be in connection with a story about crime. As a consequence, the poor are often represented by a motley crew of crooks and thugs standing trial for violence, drug dealing, theft, anti-social behaviour, or hiding a little girl under a divan bed. They are, of course, a minority, but their actions so dominate the reporting on deprived communities that the only time someone in the law-abiding majority will meet the press is to be asked about the people committing crimes. As we saw in the case of Shannon Matthews and the subsequent shaming of Dewsbury Moor, this practice can bring whole towns into disrepute and cast suspicion on those who live there.
The broader political consequence of this is that it leads the conversation in a frustratingly right-wing direction. Because the discourse around deprivation often obsesses on the behaviour of the poor rather than the structural explanations for poverty, this gives greater authority to those on the right who argue that a reliance on the welfare state is the cause of our social ills. And so solutions are put forward to cut benefits and make those kinds of reforms currently being proposed by this Labour government, because that will give them the ‘responsibility’ they’re so sadly lacking. In the end, it’s all a recipe for bad policy.
It wasn’t Jack Night’s intention to cast all poor people alongside the boorish, thuggish minority he described. But because of the way it reports on impoverished areas and the fact they’re so often represented by thugs and thieves, our media isn’t quite so guiltless.
I’ll try to write more about this later in the week, but I would hope that Amelia Gentleman’s brilliant (and awfully depressing) report into Breadline Britain will add something to the debates on poverty & welfare dependency:
Shopping at Morrisons doesn’t take very long. Louise has a simple formula: don’t buy anything that costs more than £1. This week, the budget bananas are finished, and the regular packet costs £1.29, so she doesn’t buy bananas. The cheap potatoes are also sold out, so she doesn’t buy potatoes. She fills a basket with Morrisons own-brand orange juice, 56p; reduced-sugar jam, 95p; peanut butter, 78p; yoghurt, £1.00; bread, 99p, granulated sugar, 93p; oven chips, 79p; two tins of eight hot dogs at 49p each; one bag of value apples, £1.00. Only the milk, biscuits and the cheese cost more. She ignores the faltering monologue from her son, who has been diagnosed with learning difficulties, just audible from beneath the pram’s hood. “Mum, I want flowers. Please buy flowers. I want the Bob the Builder egg. I want High School Musical chocolates . . .”
“It would be nice, on occasion, to buy them something on a whim – treats, cakes and biscuits. But if you do, you know you’re going to have to turn the heating off,” she says. Her face is pallid, and she has grey patches of exhaustion beneath her eyes.
She crosses the car park to Iceland to find cheaper bananas (brown and verging on rotten), pizza, cheese spread and chicken pies for £1 each.
“This will easily last me until next week, and there’ll be stuff left over,” she says confidently, although she concedes that things would be better still if she could spare £4 to make a bus trip into the city centre for the weekly Wednesday food handouts by nuns, who usually give her a couple of plastic bags of tins and pasta. Last harvest festival her daughter’s school was collecting for the nuns, so she sent in a few tins she had been given by them, and is half-expecting to see them come back full circle and return to her cupboard.
Do read the rest.
It’s about midday on a glum, sunless Saturday. On Cheapside, there’s the usual obstacle course of street traders, buskers and charity fundraisers: a BNP stand stocked with parka-clad pampleteers and studied scowls, a bunch of trade unionists pushing anti-fascist leaflets into the palms of passers-by, and a group of pan pipe players whistling – of all things – the tune to My Heart Will Go On. Turn left onto Mayday Green, and among the pound shops, charity shops and pasty-picking pigeons, there’s a boarded-up store front carrying a proud advertisement from the council: Barnsley is Changing.
In a sense, they’re absolutely right. In search of the regeneration money which breathed new life into Sheffield & Leeds, six years ago, we had visions of being transformed into a Tuscan hill village, complete with a huge ‘halo of light’ which would be seen for miles around. It was designed by the renowned Will Alsop, who promised that “if we could just make this town beautiful, people will come.” He never got his town halo, but he did leave us with one delicious legacy; about two years later, someone opened a sandwich shop called ‘Tuscany’s ‘.
Throughout a week where the media has reminisced about the miners’ strike, I’ve been reminded of a line from The Grapes of Wrath: “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past? No. Leave it. Burn it.” I’m in no mood to refight the events of 25 years ago; the consequences of the strike and the pit closures which followed will be evident to anyone who’s ever lived here or spent time in communities once known for their mines. But for anyone who isn’t aware of what the closures wrought and doesn’t care to find out, just know this: those social ills which fill our newspapers and make the right’s moralisers fume were exacerbated – if not necessarily created – by decisions made by the party of ‘Broken Britain’ . They’d do well to acknowledge it one day.
The town needs to leave its proud but blighted past behind, but what’s made the act of forgetting much harder is the fact that 25 years later – 12 of which have been under a Labour government – it’s never really enjoyed a second act. Sure, some investment has come our way, and with it new jobs and residents; the same Cortonwood which so many families starved to keep open is now better known for its retail park, and in the Dearne Valley there are call centres where there used to be coalfields. There’s a new bus station, a refurbished civic hall and the council is slowly replacing some of the most decrepit social housing with homes fit for families to live in.
But many of the jobs which vanished in the ’80s and ’90s haven’t been replaced, unemployment has become generational, schools still struggle to equip their kids for an uncertain future and this new recession is hitting the town particularly hard . What’s more, these facts are certainly not unique to Barnsley.
I always worry when writing one of these posts that I’m casting my hometown as some barren hinterland where life is grim and intolerable. The reality is anything but. We still have farm shops and frappuccinos; art galleries; museums; some decent restaurants. You could live a long and contented life in this place – I have, for the most part. But what I am saying is that it’s been 25 years, the social and economic consequences of the miners’ defeat are still being felt, and it’s hard to move on until they’re addressed.
Lastly, y’know that vaunted, long-delayed regeneration scheme I wrote about at the top of this piece? It’s been credit crunched . Some places never get a break.
We’ll begin, as is the vogue when writing about this topic, with some of those tiresome anedotes which somehow prove the observations which follow.
Back when I was still lugging crates of cheap pop around a newsagents in Meadowhall, I worked with a girl named Claire*. Claire was sexually active well before the age of consent, was pregnant by the age of sixteen and had only a handful of GCSEs to her name. So far, so ‘Shameless ‘. Except, as soon as her maternity leave was up, Claire returned to work whatever hours she could manage whilst still looking after her newborn. Some two years after giving birth, she enrolled on a part-time hairdressing course, which she squeezed-in between her paid work and all the hours where she simply had to be a mum. She finally qualified last year and, last I heard, was working in a hair salon with dreams of one day opening her own.
There’s another girl I know called Lucy*. Like Claire, Lucy was a teenager when she had her first child, and at first all the work she could manage were a few afternoons in a nearby off license. She held various other menial jobs in the child’s infancy, but when it reached school age, she eventually found some full-time work with the local council . Now she’s taking extra courses to make up for the work she missed at school, and she’ll probably be a line manager before she hits 40.
So what profound insights can be gleaned from these brief summations of two single mothers’ lives? Only that no matter what your age when you give birth, no matter what your qualifications, your economic background, or even how high your aspirations, the lives of these women rarely end at conception . Many of the young girls whose unintended pregnancies cause despair to tabloids and politicians alike will go on to produce better lives for themselves and their kids than anyone will ever notice, much less give credit for.
Now, Tom Harris has a completely different set of anecdotes and uses them to draw a different (and much bleaker) conclusion about single mothers. We’re both partially right, of course, but it’s the enormity of what we exclude which, in the end, makes us both fundamentally wrong.
Human life is messy and complicated; it can be constrained by factors beyond our control and hamstrung by both our own mistakes and the mistakes of others. There are some single mothers whose lives will mirror my anecdotes, and there are some whose lives are blighted by the low ambition and poor self-esteem described by the member for Glasgow South. There are many, many more whose lives resemble neither of our simplistic charicatures, and of those there are more quiet triumphs than there are glaring, headline-grabbing tragedies.
But what disturbs me about Mr Harris’ post is the ease with which this breadth of human experience can somehow be boiled-down into the biblical absolutes of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Now, as a member of Parliament, it is sometimes Mr Harris’ job to make these judgements (is it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to invade a foreign country? is it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to lock someone up for six weeks without charge?), but this is one of those issues where such thinking achieves precisely nothing.
No, the choice isn’t between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but between ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’? How do we stop boys from impregnating? What are the right ways of encouraging young boys & girls to stop wasting their potential? How do we ensure that those women who don’t believe their lives should end at conception will have the educational and employment opportunities to achieve their delayed ambitions? And are we intervening early enough, often enough and rigorously enough in a child’s life to ensure they don’t fall into the same traps as generations past?
Identifying what is and then pondering what could be gets you far closer to untangling the many threads of teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency, unemployment and social mobility, and brings you nearer to finding those policies which might achieve your goals. By contrast, the most you’ll achieve by simplistically declaring things either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is a spot on a radio phone-in, a column in a tabloid newspaper, or at best, a seat on the backbenches. Nobody should have to settle for that.
*Names altered, for obvious reasons.
Over at CentreRight, Jill Kirby eviscerates the ‘shamelessly cheerful’ Harriet Harman for attending the launch of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report into poverty, inequality & government policy. She interprets the report like so:
Put briefly: as Labour poured money into welfare spending during its first term, the resultant redistribution shrank (modestly) the numbers of pensioners and children in relative poverty; by 2004 child and pensioner poverty started rising again, and wages were stalling. And as we already know, a plethora of expensive intitiatives made no impact whatosever on the NEETS (16-18 year olds not in education, employment or training) – despite a buoyant economy with no lack of of jobs.
As we stare into the pit of a plunging labour market, there is not much for the Government to be proud of. While she wages war on Mandy, staking out her place as the true champion of equality, Hattie would do well to apologise – on behalf of all her colleagues and especially her erstwhile friend and mentor Gordon Brown – for the wasted years, the wasted billions and the wasted opportunities. Opportunites to create a pro-work, pro-family welfare system with reduced dependency and genuine (not grade-inflated) educational opportunities for all. It’s no good telling us you cared, or asking us to let you try more of the same. You had your chance (and our money) and you blew it. You might at least say sorry.
There’s a little too much tubthumping here for this to be a fair analysis. It’s certainly true that when you consider the expenditure over the last decade, the government’s successes seem meagre and their failures seem egregious, and the fact that progress seems to have stopped dead after 2004 should be a real cause for concern. And yes, this being central government, I’m sure money has been wasted, and that there were schemes which never worked or which should’ve been ditched when they reached their sell-by date.
But what renders this criticism slightly mute is that we don’t actually know how much it costs to lift a person out of poverty, short of introducing a fairly generous citizen’s allowance. One of the key conclusions in the JRF’s report is that the ‘trickle down’ approach of the 1980’s and ’90’s didn’t work, and whilst three Labour governments have had some qualified successes in reducing poverty, the immediate effect of its ‘pump up’ approach has merely been to enrich the ‘low-hanging fruit’ who were able to find work during a decade of economic growth, and who had their income supplemented by tax credits. Even during our days of plenty, we still had long-term unemployment, and as a result we had entrenched, immovable poverty.
For Kirby, this probably points to dependence on an overly-generous, overly-lenient welfare state. For me, it shows that the welfare state isn’t really the problem. Those who were unemployed during the boom years aren’t suddenly going to find employment in our days of scarcity, no matter how many sanctions you throw at them; many simply don’t possess the skills required by employers, and they are competing with experienced & driven immigrant workers on one hand, and a next generation of younger, more skilled and experienced workers on the other. One of the consequences of the 80’s and 90’s was that it created a lost generation of would-be workers, and the least we can do is keep a roof over their heads.
To prevent there from being further lost generations, we must look at the results of our education system, and in this area it still isn’t possible to determine whether the government’s been a success or failure. Kids who entered school in 1997 are only just beginning to revise for their GCSEs, and government reforms to schools didn’t even begin until after 2000. As the report notes, it won’t be possible to know what effect Labour’s education reforms have had on the poverty rate for another 5-10 years, by which point it’ll probably be a Tory government claiming credit/taking the blame for the results.
To conclude: no, the JRF’s report doesn’t make the government’s record on poverty & inequality look great, but nor does it lend itself to the same old Tory assumptions about the evils of the welfare state. We really need to get past that.
Earlier this month, a pub in Barnsley caused quite a stir when it ran a ‘penny for a pint’ promotion. For a limited time, anyone who ordered a measure of spirits could have a pint of Tetley’s bitter for just 1p – which, rather conveniently, is the most I’d want to pay for the stuff anyway.
Inevitably, the news was picked up by the local and national press, who all called MPs, council leaders and health experts and had them condemn how Barnsley’s boozers were being led astray to binge on dodgy bitter. No doubt it furrowed the brows of ministers anxious to tax or legislate the nation into sobriety, and it surely gave the permanently smug Keith Vaz reason to think that his idea of banning drinks promotions was even more necessary than before. But as the newspapers churned out comment and TV crews filmed bemused locals sluping the demon broth, just seven miles down the road, there was a much bigger scandal brewing; the quiet death of yet another pub at the heart of a working class community.
Last week, Grimethorpe Miners’ Welfare was forced into administration. Although its name harks back to a contentious and bygone era, there was nothing antiquated or irrelevant about this social club; all the profits from the bar were put towards funding those activities for young people which everyone agrees are needed, but nobody ever wants to pay for. There are football, rugby and cricket teams, a boxing club, first aid club, majorettes and – most importantly – a junior brass band. All provide a positive outlet for kids’ physical and mental energy, all offer a much better alternative to congregating outside corner shops, collecting ASBOS, and all were possible thanks to the club.
But, as I’ve noted twice before, today’s Britain is not a good place to try to make a living from serving alcohol. Thanks to the smoking ban, the constant tax hikes, the rise of cheap supermarket booze, the increases in energy prices and one wrecking ball of a recession, there weren’t enough profits for the club to keep itself going, let alone all the other groups which relied on its premises. We could argue into eternity over which of these factors had the most impact, but it certainly doesn’t reflect well on this decade that a club which survived the winter of discontent, the strike of ’84 and the unforgiveable consequences of the pit closures couldn’t survive in the current climate.
If there is a wider point which can be dragged out of this story, it would be this: if the state wants to crack down on alcohol consumption because of the contribution to ill health and social evils, those decisions will also make life difficult for establishments which are the cause of genuine social good. The same policies which restrict nationwide pub chains interested only in the bottom line will also restrict those clubs which run evenings for pensioners or activities for children. Is the hope that more tax will force Wetherspoons to charge more for a pint really worth it if it also contributes to the demise of places like this? I suspect not.
In Grimethorpe, the community has lost a focal point, a bridge between its past and its future, and a place where kids can use all their spare time and energy to do something positive. They’ll survive, of course, just as they’ve survived far worse in the past, but a place which has endured so many low blows over the years has just lost something precious, and which might well prove irreplaceable.
I know I said I wouldn’t be around much for the next few days, but I do have some time left before my eyelids stop functioning, and thought it’d be better to make some barely-lucid comment on the welfare white paper before sleep banishes everything I’d considered writing about. So here it is (prepare to be bored):
1) The white paper isn’t quite as drastic as some of the newspaper reporting has made out, which suggests an effort on the government’s part to brief the press using tabloid-pleasing slogans and sanctions which are at the more extreme end of the government’s plans. As Chris Dillow notes, this may have been done to distract conservatives from the fact that these reforms should actually entail giving some of these ‘scroungers’ more money.
2) The government’s argument about why they should press ahead with these reforms even in a recession is a fairly good one:
Some people have argued that now is not the time to press ahead with welfare reform. We believe the opposite is true. The current economic climate means we must step up both the support we offer to people on benefits and the expectations of them to get themselves prepared for work. To do otherwise would be to repeat the mistakes of the past, writing people off and encouraging the long-term benefit dependency that still scars too many of our communities.
In a job market that is becoming more competitive, everyone needs to build their capabilities and update their skills. When the downturn ends, as it will, and the jobs market strengthens, we want people to be ready to take up the opportunities that will arise. That means putting in place the reforms now to get the system into shape for the future.
All of which is sensible enough, as is the extra £1.3 billion they’re pumping into Job Centre Plus & its private/third sector affiliates. But its success in getting recession victims back into work shouldn’t be what it’s ultimately judged on; the ultimate metric for measuring its success is whether it can find work for those who were long-term unemployed before the recession. Labour will no doubt claim any future fall in unemployment as proof of these reforms’ success, and we should treat such claims with scepticism.
3) Despite being a good 200 pages long, there are a few important judgements which have either been outlined only partially, or deferred entirely. For one, the white paper signals an intent to eventually simplify the welfare system into a single working-age benefit, but so far doesn’t include definite plans on how or when that might happen. Reform of housing benefit has also been delayed until next year, and both of these will have considerable impact on welfare claimants.
4) Another deferred judgement is on the controversial (and rather ugly) area of ‘Work for your Benefit’, whereby after a year on the ‘Flexible New Deal’, you’re expected to complete a period of work or work experience in order to qualify for your benefit. At the moment, the plans are only to pilot this programme in 2010, and the government still seems open for ideas about how you could ‘incentivise’ it. The obvious answer, you’d hope, is ‘pay them the minimum wage’. You can either have workers or welfare claimants, not some army of people who’ll do a week’s worth of menial labour out of fear of losing their benefit.
5) The government doesn’t seem clear yet about how it will ensure private companies don’t simply ‘park’ and ignore those who’re more difficult to employ, whilst making easy money off the ‘low-hanging fruit’ (i.e. people who are ready & able to work). These reforms will be doomed from the start if the companies government uses don’t have a sufficient incentive to help those who will need the most guidance, training & education.
6) For all the talk of greater flexibility, there aren’t many practical indications of how the reforms will allow for greater staff/claimant agency. As it is now, the process of ‘signing on’ every fortnight is so heavily mechanised that some of us would be able to do it ourselves, like a self-service supermarket checkout.
7) Unless I’ve missed something, there’s hardly any mention of how they’re going to get prisoners into this system and prevent them from re-offending, which seems a quite extraordinary oversight.
Bored yet? Sorry, I’m done. I’ll try to get interesting again by the weekend.
Tags: Conservatives, James Purnell, Labour, Welfare Reform
There has never been a better – or a worse – time to reform the welfare system. Aided by a recession which has made public spending the top political issue, and the deep anger caused by the tragedies of Baby P and Shannon Matthews, the public have become far more receptive to the idea of a tougher, sanction-based system than they were in the halcyon days of summer. Short of a Labour rebellion on the scale of the 10p tax fiasco, our increasing antipathy towards the terminally jobless will probably see Purnell’s pet project sail through the Commons. And yet, as some are painfully aware, in days when the jobless figures keep rising, it’s hard to find jobs for the short-term unemployed, let alone those who have never worked in their lives.
The problem with trying to write about welfare reform is so much of the rhetoric tends to merge economic issues (the amount of money the state spends on the poorest in society) with social problems (the crime, poor education, family breakdown and general dysfunction which can be found in impoverished communities).The two are heavily linked, of course, but the mistake politicians often make is assuming that by producing policies to tackle the former, the latter will somehow fix itself.
The chief perpetrators of this mistake are the Labour government. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation points out, the primary weapon in Labour’s war on poverty has been expanding and incentivising employment, and whilst this worked fine during our Days of Plenty, it was unlikely to stand the test of time; we were always going to endure a recession at some point, and some of those lifted out of poverty by employment will inevitably fall back into poverty when they lose their job.
At the same time, whilst Labour had succeeded in extending prosperity to some, it’s been unable to tackle the underlying social problems which prevented the poor from finding work even during the boom years. We still have crime and violence, drug addiction, teen pregnancy and kids being raised by parents with barely a GCSE to their name, and there’s nothing in Purnell’s proposals which suggests that will change.
The Conservatives’ proposals are slightly more complicated to assess. Predictably enough, in the Mail on Sunday, David Cameron daubs a bleak, Lowryesque picture of working class Britain and indulges in the kind of crude moralising of someone who’s just read about poverty in the Daily Telegraph. But when you look beyond the ‘Purnell on steroids’ part of the Tories’ plans, there’s an attention to social problems which sets them apart from Labour.
Yes, Cameron insists, we need to badger, cajole and ‘condition’ the poor into taking whatever work our newly-minted job centres will give them, but we also need tax breaks for married couples and greater freedom for schools. Furthermore, The Observer reports that they’d create a ‘new breed of welfare-to-work’ advisers, who, in addition to finding people jobs, would also assess their home lives and the conditions their children live in:
They could examine children’s school performance or problem behaviour, check whether the parents encouraged homework and school attendance, and intervene if necessary to stop children risking future unemployment.
I don’t want anyone to mistake me for a fan of these ideas. Even if marriage tax incentives really are designed to help the poor and aren’t just the Middle England-pleasing giveaway I assume them to be, it’s still a waste of money which could be put to good use elsewhere. And as for the proposed ‘home visits’ from welfare-to-work advisors, what that essentially amounts to is a quasi-criminalisation of unemployment and one of the most astonishing examples of right-wing authoritarianism I’ve seen in a long time.
Nonetheless, there is at least an acceptance on the Tories’ part that adequately reforming the welfare system will also require a commitment to tackling some of the causes and consequences of lifelong unemployment, that those problems have formed over generations and will take just as long to resolve. Their diagnosis of the problem is reasonably good, but their idea of the cure is emphatically not.
The war on welfare is still in its infancy, and I don’t think we can make any definitive conclusions from these opening skirmishes. However, now that the shortcomings of Labour’s attempts at tackling poverty are slowly being revealed, it’s time to look again at the causes of long-term unemployment and look to strategies which go beyond simply outsourcing job seekers to private contractors, crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. In their own, maddening, meddling way, the Tories have at least grasped that fact. Now it’s time for Labour to start catching up.
Image by Flickr user Neil101 (no relation!) (Creative Commons)
Whilst there’ll still be enough legs in the story to titillate the tabloids for a few days yet, today we finally saw the end of the Shannon Matthews saga. Shannon, a nine year old girl at the time of her ‘disappearance’, was kidnapped by her mother Karen and imprisoned in the flat of her ex-boyfriend’s uncle for 24 days. It goes without saying that their crimes are contemptible.
Having done a series of posts at the time of her disappearance, I’ve spent the past few hours struggling to cook up some kind of comment, but then I remembered that that I’d already written all that needs to be said for the moment.
What follows was written shortly after Shannon Matthews was found alive and well; several days before anyone knew that her mother may have had a hand in her own daughter’s disappearance. Whilst the events following this post have made one or two of the sentences obsolete, the majority of it holds as true today as it did back in March:
To accept that the personal lives of the poor can be messy and complicated is not to patronise or demean them, nor (unless you’re Alison Pearson or Melanie Phillips) is it to make some moral judgement on the lives they lead. In communities hamstrung by poverty & unemployment, poor housing, bad education, crime and drugs, relationships can be fraught and fleeting, and children will often grow up surrounded by a large cast of supporting actors. Fathers, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins will all live close by, as will a step-father and his family, ex-boyfriends and their families. This large, informal kinship group might have their factions and grudges, bad blood and rotten apples, but if anything does unite them it’s the abiding affection for the children who threw them together.
After 24 days missing, 9-year-old Shannon Matthews was found in the home of her stepfather’s uncle; a victim, it would seem, of a family splintered by someone who didn’t have her best interests at heart. But if, in the rush to apply blame or make easy conclusions, we are to attribute her abduction to the complex and sometimes dysfunctional relationships among working class communities, we must also acknowledge that their unordered affairs also contributed to her being saved.
Though it wasn’t widely reported in the national media, the people of Dewsbury Moor were magnificent. From the moment Shannon’s disappearance was publicised, hundreds of people dropped what they were doing to try to help. They combed the streets looking for her, organised marches to publicise her plight. They put up posters, made banners and pushed flyers into the palms of passers-by. People who on another day might’ve seen the police as an intrusive enemy put that to one side to volunteer any information they had. On modest resources, they did everything they could think of to help bring her back home. So much for ‘broken Britain.’
They did these things because, whether fractious or not, the complex social lives in this small, densely-populated community are what make it a community in the first place – nearly everyone knew someone who’d dealt with those associated with the Matthews family, whether it was Karen or Shannon, her father, step-father, grandparents, cousins or friends.
The right-wing press is already trying to frame the Matthews case as a sign of the moral & societal collapse of working class Britain. But they can’t have it both ways: if being poor is part of the reason why Shannon went missing, then it’s also responsible for outpouring of humanity, generosity and hard work that came as a response to it.
As has already been noted here, the people of Dewsbury Moor were true working class heroes, and no amount of the crude tabloid moralising which is sure to come could ever detract from that fact.
Poor people, behold! Just in case Professor Paul Gregg’s welfare report contains too many irritating abbreviations and indecipherable management technobabble, he’s also designed two diagrams to let you know just how everything’s going to work.
This, from page 46 of the report, is what is unofficially known as the ‘benefit scrounger processing centre’. You should be able relate to it because it looks quite a bit like a factory production line:
Mmmm… being part of a ‘Personalised Conditionality Regime’ has never seemed so…delicious.