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.
Getty
Show Hide image

Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.