You’ll Never Live Like Common People

I was homeless from 3 January 2009 to 27 April 2010, and I can tell you - poverty is another country. You have either lived there or you have not.

I get extremely annoyed at governments pontificating on how poor people can help themselves. “Tough Love” involves two concepts; moving from a place of understanding and compassion while setting realistic boundaries. It does not come from a cold hard place of judgement and superiority. Politicians appear to get off on “tough”, while ignoring the “love” aspect. Practically every sentence uttered on the subject betrays a total lack of understanding, based as it is on the assumption that all one needs to escape the poverty trap is a get-up-and-go attitude.

Contrast measures such as the 45p top rate of tax with the demise of tax credits, the capping of benefits with the refusal to cap grotesque bonuses, the imposition of a bedroom tax with the refusal to consider a mansion tax, and a pattern of medieval disconnect between the ruling class and the reality of peoples’ lives emerges.

I was homeless from 3 January 2009 to 27 April 2010. Through a combination of circumstances – a landlord not returning a deposit, a spell of illness, a bad break-up, a change of job – I ended up destitute. I couldn’t claim benefits, as I was working. I was turned down for help with housing as I lacked a “sufficient local connection”. I slept in a smelly sleeping bag in a rat-infested cupboard of the office in which I worked.

I had always espoused socialist sensibilities. I had always been sympathetic to those less fortunate than me. But the basic economic concept of Scarcity was academic construct rather than unforgiving reality. The fact is that I had never truly understood poverty until that January day. I thought it was having little in the fridge or raiding the jar for coppers at the end of the month or not being able to afford basic things for your home. Then I experienced having no fridge, no jar, no home, nothing.

The overwhelming shame and self-recrimination that went with my feelings of failure, meant that most of my friends were unaware of my situation. The few to whom I did reveal it, would invite me round to see me, but really to feed me. I would appear at their door without a bottle of wine; their birthday parties with no card. Soon we settled into a silently negotiated truce of avoiding each other.

Being poor is very expensive; it sucks you underwater and holds you there. Working in central London means you have the non-choice of crippling travel costs or overpriced bedsits. Small local shops are more expensive than big drive-to supermarkets. Electricity and gas meters are dearer than direct debits. Payday loans attract interest a hundred times higher than personal bank loans. Six bad pairs of shoes that fall apart after a month cost twice as much as one good pair that will last for years.

During my homelessness, I showered at the public facilities in King’s Cross station at £3.50 (later rising to £5) a pop. I saved 20p coins all week and took my clothes to an expensive launderette on a Sunday. I estimate I spent around £2,000 on such basic hygiene during that time; much more than I needed for a deposit and first month’s rent. But I had no choice. I couldn’t afford for work to catch on. I woke up at six every morning, went out through a side alley, showered, shaved, dressed and came back pretending to “open up” for people waiting outside the building. Dissembling was my full time job; being ashamed my hobby.

I find nothing more disingenuous than rich MPs or celebrities experimenting on television to see whether they can live on a weekly amount of X or Y and conclude “gosh it’s very hard, but doable”. Such meaningless exercises ignore the cumulative effect of poverty; they never start from a position of empty food cupboards, looming debt, threadbare clothes and shoes with holes in them. They ignore the devastating financial effect that a visit to the dentist or a child’s birthday or one late charge can have. They also ignore the fundamental psychological difference of “I know this will be over in a week” as opposed to “this may never end; this may just get worse”.

Whenever the “poshboy” or “cabinet of millionaires” charge is levelled at the government, voices rise in defence; even intelligent voices: this is unfair, it’s class war, ad hominem, their background does not invalidate their views. They miss a fundamental point. An individual view on solutions to any particular problem is not invalidated by the bearer’s background. However, lack of understanding of the problem can render it ill-informed. It is not a war on accountants to say that they are not the best placed group to make medical decisions. If homogeneity of background means that a group collectively lacks experience in a particular matter, then it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that it is not the right caucus for solving the problem.

Talking of a difficult period in her life, a friend recently said: “Things wear out and you can’t afford to replace them. You wear out and there is nothing to replace.” Poverty is another country. It exists like an alternate reality in parallel with the rest of society. With time, humility and openness, empathy may develop. But let us not kid ourselves – an MP can visit poor estates from a position of comfortable plenty; all the visits in the world cannot replicate the experience of living in such hopelessness. He is merely a rich tourist on a depressing safari in a queer land.

The poor are no longer content to die romantically of tuberculosis, while the kindly rich visit to offer broth and advice on thrift. Their lives cannot continue to be reduced to Jane Austen novelettes. If the government is serious about solving the problem, they must be listened to and understood.

A still from Pulp's "Common People" video.

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Photo: Getty
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Cuts to Short money aren't about balancing the books - they're about killing Labour

The Tories, who were once the One Nation party, seem intent on turning Britain into a One Party Nation.

The history of this country has proved time and time again that we Brits don’t like it when the government gets above itself.  A fundamental sense of fair play – chwarae teg we call it in Wales – is our one national defining personality trait. That’s why we hate an overweening executive, we prefer to cut our politicians down to size and we are fundamentally distrustful of demagogues.  It’s also why we think good government needs proper scrutiny and the Opposition is every bit as important a part of the system as the government.

The sense of fair play is intrinsic to how Labour governments have always approached the Opposition.  When Ted Short was the Labour Leader of the Commons he invented ‘Short money’ in 1974 so as to ensure that the Tory Opposition could do its job of holding the Labour government to account properly.  And when Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997, with a massive majority in the Commons, we didn’t slash Short money, we trebled it.  The Tories were on their knees politically and financially, but we believed it was in the national interest for the Opposition to be properly resourced. 

The Tories agreed, of course.  Sir George Young, the then Conservative Shadow Leader of the House told his Labour opposite number, Margaret Becket, that “It cannot be right… for Opposition parties to be under-resourced, particularly when… the government have increased substantially, from taxpayers' money, the resources that they receive for their own special advisers.”  Not surprisingly not a single Tory voted against that increase and by 2010 the Tories had banked £46.2m in Short money.

Now the shoe is on the other foot and they’re in government, though, those very same Tories want to force through a 19 per cent cut to both Short Money and the Electoral Commission Policy Development Grant.  That hypocrisy is flagrant enough, but even more amazingly, they seem determined on cutting support for the Opposition while they continue to hire more and more Tory Special Advisers at an ever greater cost to the taxpayer.

The statistics tell their own story.  The proposed cuts to opposition parties amount to £2.1m.  In 2009, the last full year of the last Labour Government, there were 74 special advisers costing £5.9m. But in December last year the Government admitted they have 95 Tory SpAds on the books, costing £8.4m.  That’s £2.5m more a year.  In other words, the Tories think it’s fair play to push through a 19 per cent cut for the opposition and a 42 per cent increase for themselves.

That’s not all.  Since last year, the number of SpAds in the highest pay grade has jumped by 150 per cent, and in the next highest paygrade it has grown from 15 to 26. The number of SpAds paid above £63,0000 a year in the Prime Minister’s Office has increased by 51 per cent and in the Chancellor’s office by a staggering 277.1 per cent.

The Chancellor bangs on about financial rectitude.  He says were all in it together.  Yet he alone has ten SpAds. One of them, Thea Rogers – best known for giving Osborne his weird haircut – received a whopping 42 per cent payrise.  Just leaving aside the self-evident hypocrisy of Osborne enforcing a pay freeze of one per cent on the public sector whilst awarding his own bag carriers a dramatic hike, bear this in mind.  The Chancellor’s SpAds cost the taxpayer at least £540,499 a year dwarfing the entire Labour Party policy development grant of £333,500.   Jeremy Hunt’s three SpAds cost more than any of the minor parties – the SNP, UKIP, the Lib Dems, the DUP and the SDLP – get off the Electoral Commission.

Why this really gets me angry is that Cameron made such a play when he was in Opposition of cutting the number of SpAds.  He swore blind that no cabinet minister would have more than one.  Yet every Secretary of State has at least two SpAds, several have three and the total is now the highest it has ever been under Labour or the Tories. 

There are lots of Tory MPs who tell me they hate this vindictive and partisan aspect of the Cameron/Osborne government.  They too worry that a nasty authoritarian streak is developing.  You can see it in the systematic attack on Trades Unions, the attempt to curb the power of the Lords, the dramatic increase in unamendable secondary legislation for major legislative change, the gagging law on charities, the attack on the BBC and the attempt to water down Freedom of Information laws.

To add insult to injury, the Government’s latest sneaky manoeuvre is not to publish its proposals on Short Money today, when Parliament is sitting, but tomorrow, when we are in recess; and to allow just three weeks for a fake consultation.

Sadly the Tories, who were once the One Nation party, seem intent on turning Britain into a One Party Nation. My suspicion is that decent, fair-minded people will think this is just not fair play and in the end the Government will be forced to back down.  Democracy is not just about winning elections.  It’s also about holding governments to account.  And the one rule of politics is that what goes around comes around.