As parables for the troubled times in which we live, it’s a powerful one, to say the least. The story of John McArthur, the Motherwell man who found himself at the centre of some media attention earlier this week tells more than one story about Britain in the twenty-first century, none of them particularly complimentary. McArthur is fifty-nine years old, and is an electrician by trade. Three years ago, he was employed by LAMH Recycle, a social enterprise which purports, according to its website, to “provide workplace opportunities within a supportive environment for individuals who are long-term unemployed generally through long-standing health issues, family/personal circumstances and/or no previous or recent work history,” under the now-defunct future jobs fund. He only earned the minimum wage, but it was a job during troubled economic times, at least.
Fast forward three years, and the savage cuts made to the benefits system have led to CWP, which forces people in receipt of benefits to go on a twenty-six week work scheme under the threat of losing entitlement to benefits for that period of time, and McArthur’s time came to join this scheme, he was placed with… LAMH Recycle, the very organisation that he had previously been employed by and one which, it is interesting to note, received a little shy of half a million pounds in lottery money just last year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, McArthur has refused to work for nothing for a body that was able to pay him three years ago, and the upshot of this has been that he is now living on a small pension of £159 per month since his benefits were stopped. For the last two months, he has been protesting outside their plant wearing a placard which reads “Say no to slave labour.” Meanwhile, LAMH confirmed it has sixteen people working for them under CWP, but added that since the end of June, six had progressed into paid employment, which doesn’t even sound like a particularly high success rate from here, even considering the circumstances of those who find themselves working for them in the first place.
How have we got this so badly wrong? Well, the answers to questions like this are a combination of far-right political ideology, fear and lies that have resulted in a situation in which the government – with the support of a sizeable proportion of the electorate – has found itself able to routinely break the unwritten social contract which has existed since the very formation of the welfare state. We pay our taxes and national insurance, and we receive assistance should we ever need it. Well, that was the theory, at least, but in recent years the media has been more than happy to act as political attack dogs for those who would shrink the benefits system in this country to nothing by routinely demonising those in receipt of benefits and massively overstating the amount of fraudulent claiming that the system is subject to.
But the public as a whole is also culpable for this state of affairs. Practically no-one over the last twenty years has seriously suggested that taxes be raised by a single penny in order to provide a more secure safety net for the poorest and vulnerable in our community to the extent that, when it has been necessary to raise taxes, governments have done so by stealth, through raising national insurance instead in the interests of keeping the “No income tax” mantra alive. And in recent years, hysteria over benefits has given the government all the mandate it needed to slash and hack at benefits and introduce such regressive measures as the bedroom tax. The unspeakable and unthinkable have become matters of governmental policy, and the number of people actively protesting against this is vanishingly small.
It’s not only the unemployed and those who are unable to work for other reasons who have been subjected to the very worst aftershocks of the last financial downturn though, of course. Those who are in work, but at the lowest end of the financial ladder, are now also closer to the breadline than ever before. It’s estimated that 5m people in this country earn an hourly rate that is lower than the living wage of £7.85 per hour (the rate at which it is considered that somebody in employment may be considered to be living in poverty), and this is compounded by the fact that many of those people now work on zero hour contracts, from which they seldom have much idea how much they may be earning from one week to another.
Furthermore, the gap between those at the bottom of the ladder and those amongst us who have been “fortunate” – if living above the poverty line is something that we should feel “fortunate” about – has grown to such an extent that breaking out of jobs of that nature is more difficult. An astonishing 1.4m workers find themselves in this position, an employment life which offers no security, no opportunity to plan or save for the future and, if recent reports are to be believed, increasingly diminishing chances of even being able to rent a property, never mind have much chance of ever buying one.
The system is broken, but it isn’t broken in the way that the government or its media attack dogs would have us believe. It’s broken in that Britain is a country that cannot guarantee job security or any degree of comfort for millions of its residents. It’s broken in that, for almost a million and a half people in employment, it cannot even guarantee how much money those people will earn from one week to the next. It’s broken in that it is now considered reasonable that this isn’t even the worst that we can manage – we cannot even support (and nor do we want to support) those who are out of work and unable to find new employment.
The message of much of the last decade has been a very simple one: don’t be young, or female (for it is women who make up the majority of the worst-paid positions in society), or unable to work or unable to find work, or an immigrant. And we’re all complicit in it. They may not have had an overall at the last general election, but the political party that has overseen the last four and a half years of the entrenching of these values was the most voted for party in May 2010 and, coupled with the political even-further-right, who would rip up even more of the few protections that ordinary working people in this country actually are afforded, current opinion polls put their prospective share of the vote at just under 50%. And the best that we can say for the current opposition is that they’re not quite as bad as those that are currently in power.
What can we do about it? Well, we could raise the minimum wage to the level that the living wage currently sits at, we could outlaw zero hour contracts by forcing employers to offer all staff a minimum number of hours per week, and we could introduce rent controls in towns and cities in which the poorest are barely even able to keep a roof over their heads. We could turn our attention to trying to help the least fortunate amongst us rather than demonising them. This, however, would require a sea-change in public opinion that seems unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. Britain has become a nasty, mean-spirited, vindictive place over the last decade and a half or so, and the saddest thing of all about this talk of reform and change is that the biggest single reason why it won’t happen is that we, collectively, don’t want it to.
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