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, and sits on the International Trade select committee. He is the cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.