As we inched closer to the result of the British general election the days took on a surreal, limbo-like quality. I was distracted, desperate for change, and I genuinely hoped we’d see a cultural shift within government to allow for fairer, more humane politics.
As it stands more than 1 in 4 children live in poverty in the UK, and the latest figures from The Trussell Trust show a 163% increase in demand for food banks over recent years. Our loudest political and media voices depict benefit fraud and immigration as the source of Britain’s financial and social problems, and actively dismiss the huge elephant in the room: tax evasion. We have the world’s most billionaires per capita, and our richest 1% has reached giddy new heights, having accumulated as much wealth as the poorest 55% of the population put together. These facts have undoubtedly contributed to Britain becoming the only country in the G7 group of leading economies with worse inequality than at the turn of the century.
On the day of the election result I woke up and grabbed my phone to check the news – I was nervous, but hopeful. It didn’t seem possible that things could get worse, not when inequality is already forcing so many into destitution. Within seconds social media informed me that the Conservative Party had achieved a 37% ‘majority’ – I was devastated. The day itself was a blur, punctuated with tears, anxiety, and people wondering why on earth I was being so dramatic. Inside I was terrified about the Conservative Party’s plans for a further £12billion in cuts to the welfare state; a system already so underfunded and brutally managed that it’s driven people to their death.
In the days following the election result a host of articles were written in defence of our new government and its plans for continued austerity. Each time I read one it felt like a kick in the guts. But contrary to popular opinion, my upset wasn’t sour grapes at ‘losing’ the election. It wasn’t even frustration that privileged white men are once again dictating the future of our country. It was about being frightened. I’m frightened because British politics perpetuates a culture of victim blaming that labels the vulnerable as tiresome, dispensable inconveniences. I’m frightened because I understand what it’s like to be vulnerable and to fall from a tiny precipice of financial security. And I’m frightened because after escaping relative poverty once already I’m within touching distance of it again.
Growing up in a low income household taught me early on what it’s like to not have any money. In simple terms: it’s shit. All those typographically pretty motivational quotes about happiness not coming from what you have, but who you have are all well and good if you’re an adult with a bit of cash in the bank, but they mean nothing when you’re 13 and the house becomes glacial with tension each time the food runs out. Or when you’re 8 and bailiffs try to force their way through your front door and the only thing stopping them is your step-dad, hulk-like, but exhausted, pushing back with everything he has. My memories of growing up with little money are less about a lack of ‘stuff’ and more about an abundance of stress. I remember the tension and tears. The resentment and envy. The false hopes. Feeling helpless, hopeless, and ashamed.
Then I went to university, before the days of epic fees (which, incidentally, the Conservatives haven’t ruled out raising beyond the current £9000 a year) and my world opened up. I met people, learnt ideas and had experiences that I wouldn’t have done at home. Suddenly it seemed to me that with a lot of false confidence, a shift in my language, and by brushing over the details of my socio-economic background, I could ‘better’ myself. I studied to post graduate level, got a middle class job in a ridiculously middle class establishment and, despite the odd blip where I felt like I’d sold my soul, I finally felt safe, immune from inequality. I wouldn’t make the same ‘mistakes’ as my parents. I knew better. As they say, ignorance is bliss.
Several years later and the cold hard facts are staring me in the face: I come from a low income family, I am in debt from studying to postgraduate level, and in the last few years a succession of health problems have massively impacted my family’s income. But despite all that I’ve never struggled to feed my children, and I’m not welfare dependent. Go me, right? Wrong. I haven’t ‘earned’ my way out of poverty. I haven’t been ‘saved’ by my middle class job, or the fact that I work really bloody hard. What stops me from being caught in a welfare dependency trap is that I married a man with privilege.
In simple terms I’m kept safe by middle class privilege. That is: the economic extras the middle classes gain, mostly through virtue of birth. Things like wealth, cultural capital, status, a support network, and a good education. These opportunities are passed down through the generations to become inherited characteristics, and they have a phenomenal impact on a person’s life chances.
It’s this privilege that means my family is lucky enough to have a network of people with the desire and the resources to catch us each time we fall. And this is why I find it so hard to listen to the Conservatives (who are overwhelmingly made up of the three most privileged groups in our society – white, middle-class, men) perpetuate the cruel, self-serving, half-truth, that success is a consequence of hard work, and poverty the result of ‘idleness’. Even David Cameron’s former advisor, Steve Hilton, acknowledges the inherent social closure that reproduces wealth and privilege within government and media circles. As writer and journalist George Monbiot says “many of those who are rich today got there because they were able to capture certain jobs. This capture owes less to talent and intelligence than to a combination of the ruthless exploitation of others and accidents of birth, as such jobs are taken disproportionately by people born in certain places and into certain classes.”
Politics has always been the preserve of the most privileged in a society and our new government is proof that we won’t be getting rid of that awful dynamic anytime soon. As the writer Ian Martin reflects, “the uncomfortable truth is that despite knowing precisely what will happen to NHS patients, disabled people, hard non-working families, refugees and whoever else Iain Duncan Smith decides may now be hunted like foxes, this country has returned a Conservative government. “We” did it. This is who we are now. Our country is 37% Tory”. This is something I have to accept. The voters voted. But I refuse to accept the inhumanity of Conservative politics.
It’s abhorrent that the most vulnerable among us are punished through cruel rhetoric and policy, such as the capping of benefits at £23,000 per household (for a 2 person household this works out at below minimum wage), cutting the access to work scheme that helps disabled people into work, and excluding under 21’s from claiming housing benefit. This is despite the well documented dearth of well-paid jobs, the rising number of people classified as ‘working poor’, the 55% increase in homelessness under the coalition government, and the fact that for many young people housing benefit prevents homelessness.
It appears our government is blind to the fact that the majority of people in poverty are working families, and that nearly 5 million people work for employers who pay below the living wage. Perhaps it’s wilful ignorance. Perhaps it’s because the utilitarian Conservative ideology justifies the discrimination of minorities for a ‘greater good’. Or perhaps it’s because a life of privilege blinkers reality. After all, unlike the majority of us, those in government probably aren’t overly concerned about mental or physical illness, redundancy, the breakup of a relationship, a sick partner or child, or a multitude of other unforeseen circumstances plunging them into financial destitution. They have the freedom to believe the myth that poverty is a choice born from apathy and that people knowingly avoid a better life. They can choose to ignore the truth; that financial security is a fragile construct underpinned by social privilege.
When it comes to human rights and equality, it appears that the Conservative Party harbours a certain nostalgia for the Victorian era. Just consider the following ‘interesting’ selections for the new Conservative Party line-up: Micheal Gove and Dominic Raab have been appointed justice secretaries. They will no doubt play a significant role in scrapping the Human Rights Act to make way for the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities that is being introduced in a bid to entrench ‘British values’. When Michael Gove was Education Secretary he made British education more elitist, outdated and unfair, he’s on record as saying he’d like to bring back hanging, he criticised the Stephen Lawrence report for “McCarthyism”, and he helped block a public inquiry into a cover-up of child abuse by politicians in Westminster (after more than 100 Home Office files related to allegations of child abuse went “missing”). Dominic Raab voted against making it illegal to discriminate on grounds of caste, and attacked the ‘obnoxious bigotry’ of feminists.
Justin Tomlinson, the new disabilities minister, voted against protecting the benefits of disabled children and patients undergoing cancer treatment, and in favour of the bedroom tax. It’s worth noting that sick and disabled tenants make up two thirds of those affected by the bedroom tax, and that the financial cost of living with disabilities are higher than the existing disability benefits. Yet leaked plans suggest an increase in the bedroom tax may be imminent.
Caroline Dinenage, the new equality minister, voted against gay marriage and said the state had ‘no right’ to introduce it.
Ben Gummer, the new junior health minister, said he was “personally and principally opposed to abortion” in 2008.
Priti Patel, the new employment minister, would like to see the return of the death penalty, and rather interestingly considering her new role, she claimed that British workers are the “worst idlers in the world”.
As if these appointments aren’t enough, there are other signs that the Conservatives have little intention to preserve the rights of the common person, or govern in a humane way. Leaked plans indicate that statutory maternity pay may be abolished. There is to be a ban on strike action unless 40 per cent of balloted members vote in favour of industrial action, which is exploitative at a time when workers are facing the biggest cut in living standards since Victorian times and growing insecurity at work. The Snoopers’ Charter will require internet and mobile phone companies to keep records of customers’ browsing activity, social media use, emails, voice calls, online gaming and text messages for a year. This move to massively increase surveillance is “a clear indication of the forthcoming assault on the rights of ordinary British citizens” according to Carly Nyst from human rights watchdog, Privacy International. There are also plans to repeal the ban on fox hunting. David Cameron who has previously ridden with the Heythrop Hunt in Oxfordshire, says he believes in the “freedom to hunt”.
And I have other fears, such as the continued privatisation of the NHS, education and child protection services and cuts to services protecting women from domestic violence, (domestic violence charity Refuge has experienced a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011) legal aid. The Conservative Party’s support for fracking across the UK. The gentrification, or “social cleansing”, of urban areas, resulting in the displacement of low-income families to make way for properties and renovations for the affluent. These policies will do nothing but exacerbate inequality. And it’s not just us ‘lefties’ who are worried. When Tory councillors across the UK warn that the next round of funding cuts will devastate local services, harm the most vulnerable in society, and result in serious consequences for community life, social care, and the NHS, then you know things must be bad.
This article wasn’t the easiest to write, but it’s important. It is part of my job as a mother to teach my children to care about those in need, and that role is more pressing now they’re growing up alongside a political and media culture that vilifies the vulnerable.
I want to teach my boys that poor people should never be held accountable for the greed of a self-entitled few: fraudulent bankers, tax evaders, and a political elite reproducing inequality through wilful ignorance about the power of privilege and the scale and complexity of poverty. I want my children to understand that very few of us are immune to inequality. There but for the luck of the socioeconomic draw go each and everyone of us. I want them to know that poverty should never be explained in simplistic, dismissive, binary terms. I hope I can show them that our political voices can be used to help institute fairness and justice.