The employers and the MPs are the real shirkers

The tiny minority that runs big business and politics has failed the hard-working majority in Britain.

Shirkers versus strivers those have been the terms of this weeks biggest debate, over the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill.

Many important points have been made about the ridiculousness of the governments various claims about the closed blinds or curtains of those who they identify as the shirkers, the unemployed which will presumably include many of the employees of Jessops, who on the governments account this week are strivers but will soon be shirkers. (Not to mention the fact that closed blinds in the morning might well indicate a night-shift worker)

Many of the progressive side have, rightly, been rushing to say that people trapped in unemployment are not shirkers. Its a term that, in the usual terms of the debate, rightly has a bad name.

But shirkers there are.

Group one of the shirkers are the employers whove shirked their responsibility to provide decently paid, secure, reliable jobs on which their staff can build a life, and that can be the foundation of the a secure, stable economy which the future of their businesses must ultimately depend on. The CEOs and CFOs and their henchpeople have certainly shirked their responsibility to look beyond the next quarters profit-and-loss accounts, and their own annual bonuses.

We can offer excuses for some employers the small retail businesses struggling to compete against the multinational giants whove been enjoying tax-dodging and monopolist benefits on a huge scale, the small wholesalers, farmers and manufacturers whove seen their profit margins squeezed by the same giant customers.

But there are no excuses for the profitable multinational giants, which have privileged the position of their shareholders and top managers at the expense of their staff and their own long-term future, for ultimately they need customers who can afford their products, and staff on a minimum wage well below the level of a living wage, on part-time contracts and short shifts to maximise company convenience, and on the obscenity of zero-hours contract cant do that. Its the old Henry Ford story he knew he needed to pay his production workers enough to buy their own Model Ts.

And theres a second group of shirkers: the leaders of successive governments. The former Labour government has to bear a large share of the blame how could it be after 13 years of their regime that the minimum wage was significantly, in the South East hugely, below a living wage, that people working in a full time job needed significant benefits housing benefit and family tax credits simply to survive?

Of course, the blame lies with more than just the single figure of an inadequate minimum wage. Labour did nothing against job insecurity, short-hours shifts and zero-hours contracts indeed cut further the already Thatcher-slashed ability of the unions to fight for better conditions.

And it swallowed hook-line-and-sinker the neoliberal line about Britain being able to abandon food growing and manufacturing importing essentials from developing nations, plundering their water and soils, exploiting their grossly underpaid workers while relying on the genius of bankers and the luxury industries servicing them and their friends as a foundation for the British economy, a foundation that it turns out was built on shifting sands of fraud, incompetence and incomprehension of risk.

Further, it ignored the fact that in the low-carbon world we need to be moving towards fast supply chains must be shortened the distance from field to plate for food cut to a minimum (for reasons of cost as well as carbon emissions), that most goods need to be made much closer to where they are needed.

What a shirking of responsibility that was.

But beyond the blame, we can look to the positive green economic shoots, the small signs of the future, the small businesses, cooperatives, social enterprises and community groups - the true strivers, who against all of the odds, against the efforts of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition to intensify the neo-Thatcherite policies in Blair-Brownism, are trying to start to rebuild a sustainable British economy.

Whether it is the Transition groups up and down the country, promoting food growing, jam-making, baking and encouraging crafts, innovative small co-operatives like Who Made Your Pants? or The Peoples Supermarket who are building a new model of business, or groups setting up new community-owned generation schemes, there are strivers who are now trying, from the grassroots, working to build the new British economy.

And then theres the countless other individual strivers the parents struggling to give their children a decent life with inadequate funds, going without meals themselves so their children eat properly; the carers who for the measly sum of £58.45 labour huge hours, with inadequate chances for relief, for their loved ones; the unemployed who battle on for employment, completing courses, putting in applications, even in the face of multiple knockbacks and government insults.

So maybe we can rescue the terms shirkers and strivers. Lets highlight the real shirkers most of whom fit in the Occupy classification of the 1% - and celebrate the many strivers, the 99%. With those ratios, the future of Britain can only be bright.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. Source: Getty

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.