It’s 7.47 in the morning and you’re staring up at the same old dark ceiling you’ve been looking at for the past nine months. Pretend you’re me – one Alexander V Hay – and you’re 22 years of age. Until July of last year, you had a raison d’etre – a university degree with people you could consider friends, a possible postgraduate academic career and some reason to have a mind more complex than that needed to watch television all day long.
Imagine, then, that it all went wrong. You couldn’t get funding for your MA, so you had to take a year off. You’ve tried to get a job in the media, but every attempt has been a dismal failure. You’re adrift in a sea of other graduates, tearing at each other with fangs drawn for any vacancies cast their way. You’ve become overweight; every action is loose and frail, as if the effort might tear off a limb; and nothing stirs you any more. Certainly not the vast torrent of lucre in the form of £82 dole giros each fortnight which you feel guilty spending. Too little to save, too little to spend. Best of all, a fortnight ago you attended your first meeting to put you on the New Deal.
It’s 8.57 in the morning. You’ve just walked off the dirty, yellow and green, mud-splattered machine that travels into Slough every 45 minutes, in order to go, as you must every fortnight, to the Job Centre to sign on.
Walking over the worn, scuffed doormat, you find the smell of cheap deodorant and body odour assails your nostrils. On every floor, it’s the same: a functionally ugly, grubby corridor cum room that curls around the insides of the building like a swirl of concrete intestine.
To your right: the standard-issue, dog-eared security guard sags over his desk with a bank of CCTV cameras at the side. Ticket machines, like those that organise queues in supermarket meat sections, have numbers ripped out of their mouths, as everyone forms a nice tidy order of being processed. You then reach the giddying heights of the New Deal department. Herein flabby masses of uninterested condescension, in shabby M&S clothing and with unkempt hair, lurk behind the desks to serve you. In your case, to the crows. Sitting in a circle of chairs are your brother claimants. Without exception, they are young, male, often mentally handicapped and certainly poor.
Now here you break from orthodox portrayals of life on the dole – wherein the Littlejohns denounce you as a dishonest, dissolute, unhygienic cheat leaching off society – because you tell the truth. You tell them that, while trying to enrol on a journalism MA, you approached some London magazines for a period of unpaid work and training, to stop your brain atrophying and to improve your CV. One magazine agreed to take you on.
You: I’ve got a job, a full-time job – but . . . erm . . . it isn’t paid. Does this pose any problems?
Them: I’m afraid it does. You did sign a declaration on your job-seeker’s agreement saying im-plic-it-ly that you would seek paid employment. Also, you’ve been unemployed for over six months, ergo you’re on the New Deal. The government is committed to getting young people off the dole queues and back into work – the best solution for you: the individual.
You: Yes, but it was a good opportunity . . . and I wasn’t really trying to defraud you. It’s not as if I wanted it to be unpaid . . .
Them: Well, as you are a special case, let’s see what we can do. But you must attend the appointment we have made for you. Y’know, we really do want to help . . .
So you now find yourself on the New Deal. You can be herded into whatever job they find. Of course, as the sales pitch goes, one is supposed to be treated as an individual; problem is, the main goal is to get huge numbers of people off the dole and thus save money. Forget your individuality, you’re now an official statistic. You are “encouraged” to get a job, or lose your benefits.
Yet cynics are always the worst sentimentalists and, upon seeing your distress, it is customary for those inflicting general calamity upon you to take pity. Bless them. Your “best interests”, they tell you, are their chief goal. They repeat this mantra as they dart off to read directives and get forms.
For your best interests, you have been forced to sign a document that obliges you to seek work – even if that is not necessarily what is right, useful or feasible for you at that time. For your best interests, you are being juggled from one ideological school of thought to another, because it seems like a good idea to some drone in Millbank – who won’t have to live with the effects or ever meet you.
The interview over, you sit on the train into Paddington, shaking. Soon you’ll have to choose between making a stand and losing yet more or just surrendering and losing everything for an illusion of peace. For your best interests. There is that same dull thud of your heartbeat, that echo which tells you that it was all real and you can’t escape.
The “New Deal” has mummified me in red tape and intends to post me through the letter boxes of businesses eager for cheap labour. For my best interests. I may well be working in a bowling alley for £3.60 an hour and getting spat on by recalcitrant 14-year-olds by the time you read this – for my best interests.