The voices of austerity

A new project aims to give a voice to the people harmed by austerity. Mary O'Hara introduces it.

It is a question for our time and yet it’s one for which answers are depressingly elusive: how do we shift the national dialogue away from the deeply divisive and counterproductive "skivers versus strivers" debate and towards more constructive ground?

At an event hosted recently by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) attended by pollsters, PRs, journalists and anti-poverty experts where this question was posed many of those present – on the left, right and inbetween –mooted that conventional approaches to framing the poverty debate are simply not going to cut it in the current, austerity-fuelled hostile climate. People argued that challenging negative attitudes around poverty is not going to come about by laying out basic facts (no matter how strong these might be) such as how small a proportion of the total welfare budget is attributable to fraud (less than 1 per cent). Doing so is not going to change the minds of people convinced the system is being fleeced by hordes of claimants. And, some argued, don’t expect misery-laden stories in the press or on television of people’s struggles in the face of policies such as the Bedroom Tax to generate much sympathy either – no one is coming to the pity party.

Since October 2012 I’ve been travelling all over the UK interviewing people at the sharp end of austerity policies in all kinds of communities spanning suburbia, urban centres and villages. Commissioned by JRF, it’s been a kind of "social history as it unfolds" project tracking how people are coping with the implementation of austerity – though many of the people interviewed have been living in poverty or on or close to the breadline for much longer than this government has been around. One thing that is abundantly clear from the interviews (in excess of 100 were conducted in 18 locations across Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England) is that people do not want sympathy or pity any more than they want ridicule.

The people I spoke to, whether they had just lost their job, were long term unemployed, disabled or at risk of becoming homeless, simply wanted to be treated with a semblance of dignity. Those interviewed were generally insulted and angered by the demonisation of poorer people in the press and by the pervasive and cruel rhetoric from politicians and pundits alike because it in no way reflected their reality – yet not one suggested that pity or sympathy was an acceptable alternative to public scorn.

In interview after interview people talked of their troubles and of how being in poverty or living in its shadow wore them down and of the hardship austerity has wrought – and is expected to continue to inflict as policy after policy comes to fruition. They talked of how benefits sanctions and fitness for work assessments were driving many to the verge of mental breakdown, of the humiliation of having to go to food banks in order to feed their children and of the "zero hour" contracts which mean that even when in work there is no guarantee of earning enough to subsist on.

I sat with a man of 47 in Luton – a single parent – as he cried in desperation at not being able to adequately provide for his daughters. I spoke with a young carer in Rhondda who has a learning disability as she told me of looking after her ill parents and how worried she was about possible cuts to the local transport services that helped them get around. I also sat with homeless teenagers in New Haven, East Sussex, desperate for work that isn’t there, with pensioners in Hull frightened by the prospect of loneliness and isolation if their local council pulls the rug from under them on funding that helps them meet weekly to socialise, and with scores of community workers and volunteers struggling to support individuals and communities in the midst of soaring demand for help and advice.

When I began the project I expected to encounter such stories, especially as people’s fears and anxieties escalated in the face of austerity policies such as the Bedroom Tax being coming into force and as it became clear that the jobs situation and wider economy weren’t going to dramatically improve any time soon. However what I also found – and what is rarely reported alongside the stories of so-called shirkers or indeed the tales of penury and despair – was an extraordinary resilience among individuals who were enduring desperate circumstances. I found remarkable efforts by grassroots organisations (themselves experiencing unprecedented strains on resources), volunteers – and even entire communities – to not completely buckle under the pressure. I found also the kind of constructive anger and frustration that can be seen channelled in the Bedroom Tax demonstrations and in the protests by disabled people challenging cuts that will rob them of essential entitlements – the kind of entitlements that mean fellow citizens can live with dignity.

Most of all though I found people keen not just to air their concerns but to have a say in how their situations might be made better – people indeed with some ideas for what would improve their lives. For a start, they said, jobs that pay a living wage and an end to savage and discredited austerity policies. The people I interviewed wanted recognition that the overwhelming majority of those who live with being (as one community worker in Luton puts it) “consigned to skintness”, are anything but skivers and deserve to have their voices heard. As one woman in Birmingham wondered as an interview was coming to a close: “Who is going to listen to what we have told you? Who will hear what we have been saying?”

You can listen to, watch, and read about the people who contributed to this project on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation website. It might not be much in the face of relentless media portrayals of people who are struggling as little more than leaches on society by many on the Right, or objects of pity by some on the Left – but it’s a start.

Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.