Why Kelvin MacKenzie is wrong to diss the north

There's so much wrong with Kelvin MacKenzie's idea for a "Southern Party" that it's hard to know where to start.

Sometimes, you start a day with the best of intentions, and then someone ruins it all. I planned to spend today knitting, maybe doing some baking, planning for Christmas.

But no. Kelvin MacKenzie's been a dickhead, and so I plan to spend the next few hundred words informing him of exactly how much of a dickhead he is. 

You see, MacKenzie wants to start a "Southern Party", to help all those poor underrepresented millionaires in Kensington, Chelsea and Kent whose interests are so thoroughly ignored by the present political parties

There are so many things wrong with this article, I almost don't know where to start. Perhaps at the beginning. According to the article:

the hard-working, clever and creative people living in London and the South East who single-handedly are giving the rest of the nation a standard of living they can’t, or won’t, create for themselves.

Apparently this group is currently insufficiently represented, a source of positive growth for the economy as a whole, and in desperate need of help. Unlike these people. Obvs. 

Except, is it really obvious? Research published by the New Economics Foundation in 2009 showed that while bankers, advertising executives and accountants damage the economy, cleaners, child minders and bin-men create between £7 and £12 in the wider economy for every £1 that is spent on their services. I won't insult your intelligence by assuming you need me to cite research showing that cleaning, child minding and waste recycling are jobs that are distributed across the country, whilst banks, advertising agencies and accountants are overwhelmingly based in the south-east.

Somehow, this notion that high pay automatically correlates to a positive contribution to the wider economy just won't die. You would think that five years after the start of the great recession, the idea that those who are paid a lot of money might actually be wrecking the economy might have taken hold even a tiny little bit. Apparently not.

So much of media and governance is based in London that those of you based in the capital may not realise quite how much power and freedom you have. A start-up will find loans easier to obtain with a London address. Contacts are easier to make. Lobbying is easier. 

And there's that whole prejudice thing you don't have to deal with if you're based in the south. In the quote above, MacKenzie states that people in the south-east are creative. His obvious implication is that people elsewhere in the UK are not. Understandably, I object to his unfounded implication.

To take an example very local to me - when internet phenomenon Kickstarter launched in the UK, the first project to meet its funding goal was Sheffield-based Pimoroni. In the early years of the video games industry, Gremlin InteractiveSumo Digital and a host of smaller agencies turned Sheffield and the Don Valley into the Silicon Valley of the UK. Sheffield-based web design agency Technophobia pioneered internet banking by linking up with the Co-op to provide the UK's first internet bank, Smile.co.uk

As to MacKenzie's assertion that the south-east works harder than the rest of the country. I don't know that I can really take this seriously from someone in the middle class who is attacking a class whose very name is a testament to their hard work and dedication. 

I would love to be able to refer to a register of lobbyist and lobbying groups to show how disproportionately London-based businesses are able to influence government. Unfortunately, no such register exists.

Outside the south-east, we haven't forgotten that it was Londoners who lost Derby its train building industry. We haven't forgotten that it was London group-think that led the Coalition in it's early days to play the destruction of industrial and green technological progress for political gain with the cancellation of the Forgemasters loan.

And then he really gets his teeth in on the scroungers. Those who claim benefits. As Sarah Morrison outlined recently in the Independent, most benefit claimants are in work. In work and not being paid a living wage. Surely it doesn't take a genius to work out that if companies are using value-destroying accountants to minimise their tax bill, and paying starvation wages which must then be topped up by the government, then surely the scrounger label more properly applies to the companies, not those working for them.

The coalition and their allies are clinging to divide and rule as a central plank of their strategy. By informing us that our real enemy is our next door neighbour whose husband left her with three kids and rent arrears she didn't know were mounting, our former colleagues who didn't quite escape redundancy, the corner shop owner who couldn't afford an accountant to make sure his tax return was completed properly, they hope to distract us from the real enemy of a system past its time and a parasitic elite. 

I'm not distracted. I am angry that we have to have this fight again. But we will. 

I am not a Londoner. And for that, I am proud.

Fearless in the face of yarn, yet terrified of spiders, Charlie Hallam is a Sheffield blogger and activist. She can be found waffling about politics and yarn as @fearlessknits on Twitter.

London: not everything happens there, you know. Photograph: Getty Images

Fearless in the face of yarn, yet terrified of spiders, Charlie Hallam is a Sheffield blogger and activist. She can be found waffling about politics and yarn as @fearlessknits on Twitter.

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Be a glitch in our benefits system, and the punishment is to starve

Faceless bureaucrats are tipping claimants into hunger. 

So it’s official. If anyone still doubted that benefit sanctions are linked to food bank usage, a study by the University of Oxford and the Trussell Trust has found “a strong, dynamic relationship exists” between the number of sanctions in local authorities, and the number of adults receiving emergency food parcels.

The research examined the impact of tougher sanctions imposed by the Coalition government in 2012. For every extra 10 sanctions per 100,000 claimants, there were five more adults needing food. By contrast, when sanctions declined by 10, there were roughly 2 fewer instances of adults needing food. 

The study questioned whether a system that creates food poverty is “a fair penalty” for those who intentionally or inadvertently break the rules surrounding benefits payments.

Indeed, benefits sanctions can often, on appeal, seem brutal. Take the man who missed his Jobcentre appointment because he was in hospital after being hit by a car, or the woman who received her letter a day after the proposed meeting was scheduled. 

But what the study doesn’t chart is the number of people plunged into food poverty simply because of a bureaucratic mistake. A 2014 report by MPs, Feeding Britain, noted benefit-related “problems” was the single biggest reason given for food bank referrals. 

It found that many of these problems were avoidable: 

“We heard that one such problem arose as a result of Jobcentre Plus staff having to rely on two different computer systems, each on different screens, in order to calculate and process a claim, if more than one benefit was involved. This was likely to delay the processing of a benefit claim.”

In other words, the system we pay for with our taxes is failing us when we need it.

Claimants often find themselves at the bottom of an unaccountable power structure. Gill McCormack, who is the manager at the Glasgow North West food bank, has a son with Down’s Syndrome and brain damage, and lost her husband at just 21.

As an unusually young widow, she repeatedly has had to show benefits officials her husband’s death certificate, and fight for her son’s Disability Living Allowance. At one point, her benefits were stopped, and she lived on bags of frozen peas.

She told a fringe event at the SNP conference: “The amount of times I have been back and forth with this system – the only way I can describe it is as a ping pong table.”

If administration errors can leave people this hungry – and when I was a journalist at The Mirror I heard from readers about dozens of similar cases – we are heading for a world where large gaps in support are institutionalised.

Universal Credit, the new benefits system being rolled out across the country, only kicks in after six weeks. Claimants can apply for an advance. But if this is not properly communicated, six weeks is long enough to starve. 

As the study acknowledges, modern food poverty does not just exist in food banks, which are a very specific type of lifeline. The Facebook group Feed Yourself For £1 a Day has nearly 70,000 members. Some are simply frugal mums or house proud retirees. But many of those who post are desperate.

One reason is illness. A single mum, recently wrote that the group was a “lifeline” when she was coping with breast cancer: “I have never been so poor.” Another wrote back that after being diagnosed with breast cancer, she lost her home and her job, and was forced to spend 10 days living in her car.

Others are simply women going back to work, who lose their benefits and have to wait for wages. A mother in five wrote in asking for cheap meal ideas as “I’ve got £50 a week to live off as starting work”. 

So what is the answer to this kind of hidden hunger? The government is still consulting on a “Help to Save” scheme, that will provide more incentives for low-paid workers to create a rainy day fund. Groups such as Feed Yourself for £1 a Day should be encouraged, because they are valued by their members and teach families how to eat healthily for less. But shifting responsibility to those on the breadline only works so far. After all, you cannot easily save if you are an unpaid carer. You cannot cook from scratch if your gas meter has run out. And you can't keep to a budget if food prices, as predicted, start to rise.

The latest research into food banks should reignite the debate about sanctions. But it should also raise wider questions about those who administrate and enforce our taxpayer-funded welfare state, and how, in the 21st century, faceless officials can tip unfortunate people into something close to famine. 

Not recently, many commentators found it hard to believe the plotline of Ken Loach’s latest film, in which a man is denied disability benefits because of a computer glitch. Perhaps they're not to blame - after all, since Jobcentres are removing the free phones that would allow claimants to kick up a fuss, many are effectively silenced. But so long as the food banks stay open, there is more listening to be done. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.