I'm the Squeezed Middle and I know who's doing the squeezing

Political leaders look on sadly but what are they really doing to change things?

It's not fun in the Squeezed Middle, trying to cope with Alarm Clock Britain as part of a Hard Working Family. But it's nice to know that our politicians really care about us. Care about us enough to think up slogans to patronise us, anyway.

So, here I am, back in full-time employment, though I've begun to realise why the Big Society isn't going to work. It's the same reason why so many working people aren't politically active. It's not so much apathy or class; it's just that doing actual hard work makes you tired. So tired that you can't be bothered to do anything other than fall asleep into a warm plate of food every evening, brushing the mouldy crumbs into your mouth for breakfast some hours later.

Work seems blissful after a time of unemployment. You start to become satisfied with less: just work in itself is a reward, let alone the money.

Obviously, given that you don't get a P45 straight away, it's the joys of emergency tax, but that's a small price to pay. I say "small price" but it's an enormous price to pay, if you're not getting paid that much in the first place, but that's beside the point: you get to look forward to money back at some point in the distant future, tucked away for a rainy day at 0 per cent interest. Lucky old you. No complaining, now.

I'm not complaining. I like working. I like work. I like money. I like being paid for doing something other than sitting around the house all day, even if, as it turns out, my annual salary is somewhat less than what I was earning in my first ever full-time job, 13 years ago.

Is that failure? Well, no: it's success just to have a job at all, nowadays. There are so many people who don't, and who have no reasonable short-term prospects of getting one, it seems churlish to put your hand up and ask if you could take home some half-decent cash as well.

But this is where we are, those of us who are in the Squeezed Middle, or well below the middle. Ed Miliband would like to help us. Nick Clegg would like to help us. David Cameron would like to help us. At least, I think they would. They say they would. They look at us, sadly, like you'd stare at a mangy old mongrel faithfully limping behind its owner to the vets that last time.

But in terms of actually doing something about us? Well, things aren't quite so clear cut.

I like the idea of tax cuts for the low paid. I have no problem with tax cuts -- if the right taxes get cut. Increasing the personal allowance is a fine and progressive thing to do, and is to be welcomed. But it's like chucking a cork to someone who's drowning and expecting them to say thank you. It might be something, but it's not going to solve any big problems.

The other tactic, of course, is to get those of us who are in work to hate those who aren't in work -- to set us against each other. The benefit cap is part of that strategy, to make those of us who are struggling to pay bills despise those of us who have some of our bills paid for us -- and it has the completely accidental side effect of kicking poor people out of nice areas where affluent Tory-leaning voters are entitled to live.

Rather flimsy statistics released last week about immigrants were part of the same mission: make the less well off concentrate on the undeserving poor and foreigners, and they might forget who's really screwing them.

Does it work? It might, if we let it happen. As I've said, it's exhausting trying to keep up with politics when you're away from a PC all day, when you're too knackered when you get home to glue yourself to Newsnight and digest the issues of the day. Tempting, perhaps, to blame the family on benefits across the road, or the immigrants next door, for why life sucks so much. Tempting, but wrong.

I may be the Squeezed Middle, but I know who's doing the squeezing. And I know just how much all three of our political parties are really doing to change that situation: not a great deal at all.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left