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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MPs Seema Malhotra and Stephen Kinnock lay out a 6-point plan for Brexit:

Time for Theresa May to lay out her priorities and explain exactly what “Brexit means Brexit” really means.

Angela Merkel has called on Theresa May to “take her time” and “take a moment to identify Britain’s interests” before invoking Article 50. We know that is code for the “clock is ticking” and also that we hardly have any idea what the Prime Minister means by “Brexit means Brexit.”

We have no time to lose to seek to safeguard what is best in from our membership of the European Union. We also need to face some uncomfortable truths.

Yes, as remain campaigners we were incredibly disappointed by the result. However we also recognise the need to move forward with the strongest possible team to negotiate the best deal for Britain and maintain positive relationships with our nearest neighbours and allies. 
 
The first step will be to define what is meant by 'the best possible deal'. This needs to be a settlement that balances the economic imperative of access to the single market and access to skills with the political imperative to respond to the level of public opinion to reduce immigration from the EU. A significant proportion of people who voted Leave on 23 June did so due to concerns about immigration. We must now acknowledge the need to review and reform. 

We know that the single market is founded upon the so-called "four freedoms", namely the free movement of goods, capital, services and people & labour. As things stand, membership of the single market is on an all-or-nothing basis. 

We believe a focus for negotiations should be reforms to how the how the single market works. This should address how the movement of people and labour across the EU can exist alongside options for greater controls on immigration for EU states. 

We believe that there is an appetite for such reforms amongst a number of EU governments, and that it is essential for keeping public confidence in how well the EU is working.

So what should Britain’s priorities be? There are six vital principles that the three Cabinet Brexit Ministers should support now:

1. The UK should remain in the single market, to the greatest possible extent.

This is essential for our future prosperity as a country. A large proportion of the £17 billion of foreign direct investment that comes into the UK every year is linked to our tariff-free access to a market of 500 million consumers. 

Rather than seeking to strike a "package deal" across all four freedoms, we should instead sequence our approach, starting with an EU-wide review of the freedom of movement of people and labour. This review should explore whether the current system provides the right balance between consistency and flexibility for member states. Indeed, for the UK this should also address the issue of better registration of EU nationals in line with other nations and enforcement of existing rules. 

If we can secure a new EU-wide system for the movement of people and labour, we should then seek to retain full access to the free movement of goods, capital and services. This is not just in our interests, but in the interests of the EU. For other nation states to play hardball with Britain after we have grappled first with the complexity of the immigration debate would be to ignore rather than act early to address an issue that could eventually lead to the end of the EU as we know it.

2. In order to retain access to the single market we believe that it will be necessary to make a contribution to the EU budget.

Norway, not an EU member but with a high degree of access to the single market, makes approximately the same per capita contribution to the EU budget as the UK currently does. We must be realistic in our approach to this issue, and we insist that those who campaigned for Leave must now level with the British people. They must accept that if the British government wishes to retain access to the single market then it must make a contribution to the EU budget.

3. The UK should establish an immigration policy which is seen as fair, demonstrates that we remain a country that is open for business, and at the same time preventing unscrupulous firms from undercutting British workers by importing cheap foreign labour.  

We also need urgent confirmation that EU nationals who were settled here before the referendum as a minimum are guaranteed the right to remain, and that the same reassurance is urgently sought for Britons living in mainland Europe. The status of foreign students from the EU at our universities must be also be clarified and a strong message sent that they are welcomed and valued. 

4. The UK should protect its financial services industry, including passporting rights, vital to our national prosperity, while ensuring that the high standards of transparency and accountability agreed at an EU level are adhered to, alongside tough new rules against tax evasion and avoidance. In addition, our relationship with the European Investment Bank should continue. Industry should have the confidence that it is business as usual.

5. The UK should continue to shadow the EU’s employment legislation. People were promised that workers’ rights would be protected in a post-Brexit Britain. We need to make sure that we do not have weaker employment legislation than the rest of Europe.

6. The UK should continue to shadow the EU’s environmental legislation.

As with workers’ rights, we were promised that this too would be protected post-Brexit.  We must make sure we do not have weaker legislation on protecting the environment and combatting climate change. We must not become the weak link in Europe.

Finally, it is vital that the voice of Parliament and is heard, loud and clear. In a letter to the Prime Minister we called for new joint structures – a Special Parliamentary Committee - involving both Houses to be set up by October alongside the establishment of the new Brexit unit. There must be a clear role for opposition parties. It will be equally important to ensure that both Remain and Leave voices are represented and with clearly agreed advisory and scrutiny roles for parliament. Representation should be in the public domain, as with Select Committees.

However, it is also clear there will be a need for confidentiality, particularly when sensitive negotiating positions are being examined by the committee. 

We call for the establishment of a special vehicle – a Conference or National Convention to facilitate broader engagement of Parliament with MEPs, business organisations, the TUC, universities, elected Mayors, local government and devolved administrations. 

The UK’s exit from the EU has dominated the political and economic landscape since 23 June, and it will continue to do so for many years to come. It is essential that we enter into these negotiations with a clear plan. There can be no cutting of corners, and no half-baked proposals masquerading as "good old British pragmatism". 

The stakes are far too high for that.