The Tories are hurting, not helping the working class

Behind the government's rhetoric, things aren't getting better for working people. They’re getting much, much worse.

I normally enjoy a good Fraser Nelson column. But last Friday’s, which argued the Tories are the party for working people, was frankly delusional. I thought it was a spoof. Reading it, I wish Mr Nelson had been out on the doorstep with me and Labour’s Victora Groulef in Reading East on Thursday.

After an excellent afternoon knocking on doors, we came to the last house in the street and met a lady who summed up the Tories’ problem. She was a teaching assistant and her husband ran a small building firm. She had never voted Labour before, but now she was all ears. She was profoundly disillusioned with David Cameron. Her husband’s building business had taken a hammering and the banks were proving a nightmare. And she was tired of reading about government attacks on teaching assistants like her who she knows make a huge difference to her school’s ability to personalise education for youngsters and transform standards.

Our friend’s story captured the truth that the Tories are now profoundly hurting, not helping Britain’s working classes. It didn’t get a lot of comment, but last week we saw figures showing that in the first full year of this government, inequality has begun to spiral up – and this before the new bank bonus round Ed Miliband raised in the Commons, or this year’s huge cuts to tax credits, or this year’s whopping tax cut for Britain’s richest citizens. The reality is Britain’s aspirational classes have been left high and dry by the Tories. 

Let’s start with the engine room of aspirational Britain: our small business community. I’ve started a small business. I know what a roller coaster it is. And I know just how critical a friendly bank can be. Small business is the key to reducing unemployment. In fact, as Labour’s Toby Perkins recently pointed out, 90 per cent of people moving from unemployment into private sector employment do so with small businesses. But right now, the government’s comprehensive failure to tackle the bank lending crisis is suffocating enterprise. Business lending has fallen in every quarter of the last two years not least because our banking sector is so uncompetitive; 89 per cent of all our businesses are locked into the five big banks. That’s why Ed Miliband and Chuka Umunna launched the report of our small business taskforce with a commitment to introduce a new system of regional banks - banks that only lend to businesses within a defined community - to support small business, modelled on Germany’s successful Sparkassen.

Or let’s take education. Alan Milburn, the government’s social mobility tsar, last week published figures revealing the shockingly low levels of state school students admitted by Russell Group universities. The head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has attacked the reality that "unseen" pupils from poor backgrounds are being let down. The clock is going backwards.

Yet for all his bluster, Michael Gove is focusing his attention elsewhere. He is presiding over a system that is radically centralising and radically fragmenting our school system. That’s why we need a very different kind of reform. As Stephen Twigg argued last week, the success of the schools in Shanghai shows strong oversight at local level is vital to sharing best practice. And as Andreas Schleicher of the OECD has pointed out, there is a strong correlation between collaborative culture and system success. Sir Michael Wilshaw made much the same point, signalling strong support for the plan set out by Stephen last Monday.

Stephen made a powerful case: wherever school freedom promotes higher standards we will extend those freedoms to all schools. We must make sure "no school is left behind." A school should not have to change its status to earn the permission to innovate. There needs to be stronger oversight of local standards – and a proper effort to foster collaboration. That adds up to a radical devolution of power, rather than the centralisation now underway in Whitehall. And to this we have to add radical change to the curriculum with a technical baccalaureate to provide a bridge from school to high-quality apprenticeships and into work for the 50 per cent of our children who don’t chose to go to university.

Or let’s take welfare reform. The challenge for welfare reformers is not whether you can dream a dream. It’s whether you can deliver. For all their tough talk about "welfare reform", the reality is that the benefits bill is rising by £20bn more than planned because David Cameron is doing nothing to address the long-term drivers of social security spending. And right now the welfare revolution we were promised is simply falling apart.

Just last Thursday, we heard stories that the National Audit Office is profoundly troubled by the state of Universal Credit. There are supposed to be a million people on the system in 10 months' time. But right now, the virtues of Universal Credit are enjoyed by just a few people in Tameside. Or take the work programme. Nice idea in theory. Failing in practice. The latest figures show nearly a million people have flowed though the programme and not even started a job, never mind kept one. Worse, for those in their 50s, who have paid a fortune in National Insurance, there is no additional support available when they become unemployed. They’re lumped in with everyone else. Result? Long-term unemployment is higher among those who have paid in the most. That isn’t fair.

Labour is proposing a radical alternative. A 'triple lock' on welfare spending with an overall cap on the budget, a household benefit cap and a limit of two years to the time you can spend on the dole. But we’ll back this with a jobs guarantee that will channel investment into support for private sector jobs for young people and the long-term unemployed. Labour councils all over Britain are trialling the idea and it’s proving an incredible success. And we’ll move to put the something for something back into social security with extra help to find work for those who’ve cared for others or paid in for a lifetime.

Last year, Norman Tebbit attacked the government’s "abiding sin" of simply seeming "unable to manage its affairs competently". A year on, things aren't getting better for working people. They’re getting much, much worse. I fear Mr Nelson has fallen for the oldest con trick in politics: the rhetoric-reality gap. He might like the government’s rhetoric, but the reality is it's now Labour which has the plan to be realistic with money – but radical with reform. 

Michael Gove speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war