Miliband must be the man for the middle

The very poor and the rich will not lose their homes in the Tory cuts to come — but a safety net is

Ed Miliband doesn't have the luxury of time. He has warned that it could take a while to propose a new programme for government; the party, he told the Labour conference, needs to "go on a journey". It had better be a quick one, because on 20 October voters will be looking to Labour's new leader for his response to the Conservative spending plans. If he doesn't say something clear and positive to them, they may not look again.

Miliband needs to sound as if he is on the side of families that risk losing their livelihoods through unnecessarily harsh Conservative cuts and that have little asset wealth to fall back on. This is the "squeezed middle". The risks are highest in the south, where there are higher house-price-to-earnings ratios, and where inequality is so great that you need a fair amount of asset wealth behind you to avoid the risk of joining the new poor: those who lose their homes due to sudden unemployment, and subsequently cannot afford to get back on the social ladder. If Miliband wants to see an equal society, he should start here.

Baby monitor

Inequality in the south of Britain is now so bad, and life so consequently insecure, that it dominates everything: people's choice of schools, where they live and how unaffordably high their mortgages are. It even affects fertility, as parents must wait longer until they can afford a home in which to have children.

In the north-east, there are 77 births a year per 1,000 women aged 20-24; in the north-west, 81. But in the south-east, that falls to 65. Between the ages of 25 and 35, the south gradually overtakes the north, until among 35- to 39-year-olds there are 64 births per 1,000 women in the south-east, but 44 in the north-east (2008 figures).

Admittedly, slightly more people are working in the south, and there is also known to be a correlation between the age of first giving birth and education - but unless you believe that everyone in the north is uneducated and unemployed, and everyone in the south is jolly clever, this is unlikely to explain such a clear pattern. More likely, women in the south put off having children because both parents need to work in order to buy (or rent) somewhere to live.

The last time I wrote about the squeezed middle classes, a reader wrote a letter to the New Statesman sneering at the notion that they might merit any sympathy. That sneer is a mistake, because there are millions of them, not only in the south - and these are the people who can win Labour the next election. The biggest swings to the Conservatives in 2010 were in the places where the richest live - in southern and eastern England and parts of the Midlands - places where extremes of wealth and poverty are greatest. There are a lot of very socially and financially insecure people in the middle: Broken Britain voted Tory. (It also voted BNP.)

There is plenty of support within Labour for policies that actually might win an election. The younger Miliband told the conference, Blair-like, that they ain't gonna like much of what he's gonna say - but actually it won't be because he's not left-wing enough. Look at the voting figures: the members didn't vote for Ed, they voted for David. They backed the "right-winger". Fortunately, Ed is not as left-wing as he has been portrayed, just as David is not as New Labour as some have painted him.

The growing intergenerational inequality in asset wealth that we have in Britain affects us all; but it affects people struggling in the middle more than it affects those who are entitled to social housing. In more and more areas of southern England, where the very wealthy buy or rent second homes, and no new houses are being built, many working families already know that they won't ever be able to buy their own house.

It's a pattern that began in London, where increasingly you must be very rich or very poor to be housed. Where I live, in the rural south, many families rely on what is basically charity from privately owned country estates. Feeling an obligation to help house poorer local families that are not eligible for social housing, they rent out cottages to them at reasonable, below-market, rates. But the waiting list is long.

Welfare rethink

There is so much space here for Miliband to occupy. It wouldn't be recognised by most of the media, because they inhabit the world of the rich. What Miliband should do is to offer a safety net for the people who are scared for their families under the forthcoming assault by the Conservatives; the current welfare system will not do. Never mind for a moment the level of welfare for the long-term unemployed and incapacitated, there needs to be a proper safety net reintroduced for the threatened middle, the middle poor - whatever you want to call them - to save them from these new social risks.

The Conservative cuts will threaten their livelihoods, plunging families into crisis, and Labour needs to have a response that supports them. It must protect their homes and pay a sufficient level of welfare to see them through to a new job. They manage it in the US. That, after all, is what the welfare state was conceived for, not to subsidise lethargy. At the conference, Miliband cited William Beveridge as a politician he admired; he should start from there.

I see little sign that anyone in the Conser­vative Party is contemplating the fundamental rethink of welfare that we need in Britain (though Nick Clegg has hinted at it). They have nothing to say about the people they are about to hurt - real people with real families that have worked hard. Labour, with its fresh leader and with voters' interested eyes upon him, has a chance to speak to them instead. But it cannot wait or sit out a rambling journey. Ed Miliband has less than three weeks.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain