A number of my posts over the last year have been about relating my personal experience to wider political issues. I believe the early feminists were right. The personal is political. Our experiences of power and powerlessness, separateness and community and equality and division shape the way that we think about the world around us. As a result, I have re-branded these posts and will continue this occasional theme of testimony and politics.
I’ve written quite a bit about welfare reform recently. It hasn’t been without controversy or challenge. I stand by my view that those who can work should work.* I believe this is what is meant by “from each according to their ability to each according to their need”. I know that this requires not just a functioning safety net, but also an active and aggressive full employment strategy, and that these must always go hand-in-hand, but since when was it wrong to be ambitious about what we can and should do with our politics?
One of the things my critics get most wrong when opposing my ideas on welfare reform is that I have no concept of what it is like to struggle on either income support or low wages. The fact is, this simply isn’t true.
In my late teens, my life fell apart. A series of rows with my parents, a terrible boyfriend and a dreadful first flatmate had led to a situation where I was unemployed and living alone in a basement flat in Lewisham.
The flat was cold. There was only one working fire which was in the living room and there was no natural light to be had through the windows. I remember days when I felt I could afford the electricity, I would put my duvet over the portable heated towel rail for ten minutes before crawling into bed, just to stop it feeling like ice. I lived there for 9 months, and could see my breath in the air for most of them.
I lived on Income Support which for me in 1995 was £36.80 a week. I had a key meter for my electricity and gas, which charged exorbitant rates. I was drinking too much, having discovered my local off licence did bottles of wine for a pound. I was eating terrible cheap food and smoking when I could afford to. I became nocturnal.
These were not good lifestyle choices. You don’t make good lifestyle choices when you’re where I was emotionally.
I was an unhappy, unhealthy, lost little girl, struggling and largely failing to keep my head above water. Looking back now it was quite clear that I was heading towards a breakdown. Thankfully, in the end I had just about enough of ME left to apply to university and turn my life around. I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say that doing so saved my life.
Having been accepted to university, I then got a job in a call centre. It paid £5 an hour, which after Income Support was a bonanza. As they ran shifts, they agreed to let me come back in my University breaks. The work was dull and repetitive. And fulfilling. The two months I worked there before going to university helped me to reintroduce some discipline into my life. They gave me some more of ME back.
My second and I sincerely hope last bout of unemployment came in 2002. I was made redundant from a telesales job in the January and decided to pursue a change of career. I applied to many, many jobs, never quite making it past interview. I was far better supported in doing so by the job centre this time around. I also had a much better support system in place, as while I was still living alone, this time it was in a flat above my sister, so she and her boyfriend were around to offer support. Eventually, I did a part time, unpaid internship, living on bowls of flavoured rice (stock cubes are a marvellous resource when you’re unemployed). This eventually paid dividends and I got a job at the Fabian Society. I remain eternally grateful to them for taking a chance on me. It’s what has led me to the pace where I have a good and improving living, a nice place to live and a great life.
But those who think I don’t know what it is to struggle are wrong. It is precisely because I have known the grinding dull ache of UK poverty (which is obviously at a different level from the rates of poverty seen in the developing world because we do have that essential safety net) that I feel as strongly as I do.
Living like that isn’t good for people. The things that are missed though the many benefits that work brings is about more than simply money. Saving money on welfare reform may be a motivator for Liam Byrne, but for me it isn’t the financial cost of the welfare bill that is a scandal, but the opportunity cost to people’s life of living on welfare. That’s what I want Labour to fight to change. That’s why I want Labour to dedicate itself to getting people off benefits. And let me be unequivocal: I would want us to do so, even if running a system that made this happen were to incur a larger upfront cost (which is perfectly possible, as a\ well run, well organised system does cost money initially – though I strongly believe we would save billions in the long run through recouped tax revenues and savings in health, crime and social care bills.
The value of work is a precious thing to me. Even work that is dull and repetitive has brought me pride, discipline, socialisation and the ability to be a part of a greater whole. It also gave the the chance to make my societal contribution, as according to my ability. That’s the ambition I have for everyone in the UK. And you’ll never take it away from me.
* And I mean those who really can work. I unequivocally support the right of those who qualify (and by qualify I don’t mean fail to be weeded out by ATOS’s cruel and capricious tests) for ESA and DLA to support that provides a full and decent standard of living. This post is NOT about disability benefits.