“The whole system is designed to inflict cruelty, indignity and shame. Once you apply for help you then have the ins and outs of your life analysed and questioned in such a way that you automatically begin to feel undeserving.”
By Laura Smith
Few things boil my blood more than the decade-long politically-motivated attack that has taken place on those who find themselves in the position of having to claim welfare. As someone who has relied at various points of my life on working tax credits and later Universal Credit I cannot begin to express the humiliation and embarrassment you can be made to feel by politicians, bureaucrats, and the media for having to hold up your hands and say that you cannot afford to live.
Even though those claiming are often working or have fallen victim to an unfortunate event such as ill health, job loss or bereavement that has pulled the rug out from under them, we have now become a country happy to penalise the most vulnerable at their time of vulnerability. It is the politics of the psychopath.
The whole system is designed to inflict cruelty, indignity and shame. Once you apply for help you then have the ins and outs of your life analysed and questioned in such a way that you automatically begin to feel undeserving. You feel constantly worried that a miscalculation or something in the system will result in a wrong payment and the whole process adds to the already huge weight that anyone financially struggling is already carrying around with them anyway. It is a constant tension that you can never escape. The last thing you think about at night and the first thought you wake up to in the morning. You hear repeatedly that those claiming benefits ‘obviously aren’t working hard enough’ or are ‘lazy scroungers’ or ‘having kids to get more money’ and all the rest of the panoply of accusations levelled by the media and the politicians.
On more than one occasion I have come across that particular kind of person who makes themselves feel better by demeaning others, who thinks the reason that they are not in that situation—often only a pay-cheque or an accident away — is because they have made sensible choices, worked harder or are just a higher class of individual. Of course it is nonsense, but a sentiment unfortunately alive and well in ‘charitable’ Britain, often among generations who were lucky enough to be born into different circumstances and with widely differing opportunities. If you have been lucky enough to benefit from free University or a helping hand onto the housing ladder, or an inheritance then believe me you have no idea what it is actually like to be starting from scratch.
This personal experience is why I was pleased to support the Unite Community campaign to cancel the cut to Universal Credit that went into effect in October. In my role as a National Political Officer for Unite I joined as we hit the road on a Christmas tour of Tory ‘Red Wall’ seats. These Tory MPs who have pushed through the cuts in the voting lobby of Parliament thought that they could consign millions to hardship without facing any consequences. But they have frankly underestimated how sick to death people are of the growing inequality ravaging their communities, and the anger towards Boris Johnson and the government as they live lavish privileged existences at the expense of ordinary people, flouting Covid restrictions and seemingly laughing in our faces. I must have heard a million times in town after town the phrase ‘it is one rule for them and another for us.’
At each stall that we set up we heard harrowing stories from person after person about the impact poverty pay, combined with increasing energy bills, rising food costs and rent was having on families and communities. It was utterly shocking how many people were already relying on the food bank, but what was still more heart-breaking was the fact that this now is now perceived as completely normal—a grim new reality to which people are becoming resigned. There were mothers crying as they had no Christmas presents for their children, with one telling me at a stall in Bury how she never felt that she could escape the trappings of poverty. She was working as a carer as well as in a shop but still couldn’t make ends meet. The stress of life was etched on people’s faces, with one woman who should’ve retired but had to keep working saying ‘I don’t want much. Just not to be worried about bills. Maybe a holiday some time.’
We also had conversations with people who weren’t on Universal Credit but recognised the impact the cut and poverty pay was having on their communities. ‘If people don’t have any money then they can’t shop, go for a meal or the cinema. Those places are then empty and more people lose their jobs. It’s a vicious cycle and could happen to anyone,’ I was told in Warrington town centre.
And this sadly is the reality. As we enter what could be another lockdown period we will likely see yet more job losses. Hospitality workers are being called up and told not to come in as bookings are cancelled, and many who are on zero-hour contracts then have absolutely no income. The number of people who will be applying for Universal Credit will continue to rise and the stark reality is that the amount simply is not adequate. Debt will spiral and the mental health crisis will escalate further. The numbers of children growing up watching financial hardship, stress and depression will increase and along with it all of the problems that it brings. A whole generation is growing up who have known nothing but crisis and austerity. It’s a bleak and depressing outlook I know, but completely reversible with the political will to do so.
But how can a government filled with pompous prats from private school who have spent the pandemic prioritising feathering the nests of their super wealthy friends possibly understand or care? They are a government and a political party of the rich and for the rich and the biggest injustice is that they are allowed to lie repeatedly and act directly against those that they were elected to represent. The people must demand better. It is the only way things will change. Power concedes nothing without a demand, and that is the role we in the trade unions must play.
- Laura Smith is the former Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich. She is currently a Labour Councillor in Crewe and a National Political Officer for Unite the Union. You can follow her on Facebook and twitter.
- Please also show your support for Unite Community in their campaign to #CancelTheCut to Universal Credit here.