What we can learn from Crisis Christmas

Like Crisis, the religious story is about the importance of keeping a door open to strangers.

Chantelle doesn't look biblical. Her big hair is held back with a red and white polka dot bow and her neon green bra shows at the shoulder. But like Mary in the Christmas story, this 21 year old is homeless, and turned up pregnant with an unmarried partner at an unlikely inn. It's just that her Bethlehem is south London, and her stable is a school canteen in a pop up shelter.

"It's somewhere to go isn't it?" she says, "My dad's a junkie, my mum's a bitch and I can't afford a deposit... council houses are for young girls, like, really young, fourteen... I'm not priority."

I met Chantelle at Crisis. Christmas is supposed to be a time of miracles, and every year this charity pulls one off. Run by some 8,000 volunteers, this organisation makes sure no one has to sleep rough or alone in difficult accommodation over Christmas week. They do this by taking over buildings closed for the holidays -- schools, hospitals, day centres -- and transforming them into shelters. They're still running as you read this.

I'm not religious, but if there is something to the Christmas story, this has to be it. When Joseph and Mary were travelling from inn to inn, they couldn't afford private rents and welfare didn't exist. Like the guests at Crisis, they were cast out, judged and failed by the market and the state. Eventually they were given a place to stay out of kindness, and a space for animals was transformed into a maternity ward.

Like Crisis, the religious story is about the importance of keeping a door open to strangers. It's about action beyond resources and targets; it's about the power of compassion, time and human relationships.

Of course it's difficult. The centre I was working in didn't get the keys to the building until the morning guests arrived. With minimal checks and training, volunteers walk in and put on housing surgeries, stand up comedy shows, arts and crafts workshops and dentist consultations in classrooms. Identifying themselves by coloured badges, volunteers, who may never have met before, work together out of little more than blind good will.

Together, they get through the tragedy of a sick man's collapse, the anger of someone being denied a bed, the laughter of a bad cracker joke and the quiet, intimate conversation as a cigarette lighter sparks in the cold.

And you learn. These people all come from my area of south London. They are my neighbours, but they tell me about a world I don't know. You learn that you shouldn't assume that everyone who is homeless is sleeping rough; people are fiercely proud of temporary or unstable accommodation. You learn to interact with dignity and respect for guests who have many more years experience than you. I sat down with an ESOL teacher with a degree in psychotherapy and an ex-serviceman who travelled the world for twenty-eight years. You learn how thin the line is between finding it difficult to pay the rent, crashing with a friend, and queuing for a hostel.

Nor is it all dark and sad. If you live day-to-day, you don't have the space to worry too far into the future. There's a preoccupation with getting enough food, finding somewhere else to sleep, bumming your next cigarette and topping up phone credit. The freedom of strangers and endless free cupcakes opens up a precious space in these shelters for laughter that frequently touches volunteers as much as guests, who are often struggling with big concerns of their own.

We should learn from Crisis. Unlike some of the work we do directly through the state, this programme is not subject to much bureaucracy. It makes use of buildings that would otherwise be closed. And it is built on human relationships rather than transactional roles, helping to transform the volunteer as well as the guest. We should make it easier to replicate these miracles, not just in the capital over Christmas, but wherever and whenever our modern day Mary might turn up.

To find out more about Crisis Christmas, visit the site here.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Could Labour implement universal basic income?

The battle over this radical policy is moving gradually into the mainstream.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has called universal basic income (UBI) “an idea whose time may well have come”. It means a fixed regular payment to each citizen, irrespective of income or behaviour. It is seen by both socialists and Silicon Valley as a panacea for the post-industrial world, addressing unrestrained inequality, economic insecurity, and automation-generated unemployment in the modern economy.

Guy Standing, a professor at Soas and founding member of Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), says a “perfect storm of factors have suddenly pushed us into being a mainstream policy question” in recent years. “A lot of people who were sitting on their hands, as it were, have started to come out in favour ... I'm inundated with requests to speak and involvement in conferences, and it's indicative of the sudden realisation that if the growing inequality and growing economic insecurities persist, then the drift to fascist populism will continue. 

“Of course, in the background, a lot of these techies including prominent names in Silicon Valley have come out in favour because they see robots displacing us all. I don't buy that argument, but it's added to a growing chorus of people saying that we should take it more seriously.”

Standing's recent book charts the long history of thinking about UBI (through ancient Greece, Thomas More, and Martin Luther King). But the idea's rise to prominence is the result of a interlinked developments in the economy and the nature of work. As Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds argues, changes such as the rise of self-employment and the gig economy challenge the appropriateness of the traditional welfare state. It's “based around the principle of compulsion, and broadly believing there's two binary states – people in work, and people out of work. We know it's becoming a much more complicated picture than that... The state can't keep up with the complexity of people's lives.”

For Standing, the prospects of UBI being implemented successfully depend largely on how it is framed. He is wary of libertarians who see it as an opportunity to dismantle the welfare state, and believes it needs to be placed within the context of chronic economic insecurity for a growing number within the post-industrial economy.

“The argument that I think is going to prove really important for the left is linked to the growth of the 'precariat',” he says, meaning those living without predictability or security. “People in the precariat are experiencing chronic insecurity that will not be overcome by any existing policy.” 

Even so, support from business could be key. Peter Swenson's work on the history of the welfare state finds that reforms and expansions of social policy have only succeeded when key sections of the capitalist class are in support. He, and other academics, resist the idea that the welfare state is simply the focal point for the battle between left and right over Robin-Hood style redistribution. If UBI is to make its way into policy, support from business may be more important than the strengthening of the left.

Reynolds claims UBI may solve not just policy problems, but political ones.  "You have to say that Labour's situation, in terms of how we've struggled on all of these issues (the party's polling is significantly behind on running the welfare state) over the last few years, means that we should definitely be open to new thinking in this area.” Both he and Standing  are part of the working group that was brought together by McDonnell in February to produce a publication on the issue before the next general election, which would then be discussed across the country. Understandably, the group didn't quite meet its deadline. But Standing says “the general thrust of the plans hasn't changed”.

Standing is hopeful that important sections of the Labour Party are either in support, or can be won over. Clearly, the leadership is generally supportive of the idea – both McDonnell and Corbyn have expressed as much in public statements. Standing says many MPs are “rethinking their position ... many of them have not taken up a position because they thought that this was not an issue to be considered. I think we're seeing a real opening for a much more constructive discussion.”

Reynolds says that “there's people on the right and the left of the party who are in favour, there's people on the right and the left who are against”.
 
Nevertheless, discussion is winning over important Labour constituencies. It's not just radical activist groups, but also trade unions, who are coming round to the idea. According to Standing: “Unite now supports it, as well as a lot of unions in Europe. It used to be the case that the unions were among the most fierce critics of a basic income, on the spurious grounds (in my view) that if people had a basic income they wouldn't push for higher wages and employers wouldn't give higher wages.

“We found in our pilots and in our psychological research that people who have basic security have a stronger bargaining position and are therefore more likely to stand up for their rights, and can lead to improvement in wages and working conditions. So I think that all of those objections are gradually being exposed by theoretical arguments against them, or empirical evidence, from pilots.”

Reynolds agrees that “there's a lot of support coming from the wider labour movement”, but warns that people must not be too optimistic about anything happening quickly. “Clearly it's going to need a radical change to how the tax and benefits system would work, and you'd obviously be completely recasting how personal allowances work, and all of that,” he says. “I think this is sort of the cutting edge of thinking about the future and what our economy will look like in 50-100 years' time, that is the frame that we're looking at.” 

Rudy Schulkind is a Danson scholar who recently graduated in philosophy and politics from St Anne's College Oxford.