A Long Week in Politics – A Personal View.

They say that a week is a long time in politics. This last week has surely proved the saying true. Who could have predicted the roller-coaster ride we’ve been on since we cast our votes last week?

One of the things that has emerged throughout the referendum campaign, and since, is that many of the British people don’t understand debate and reasoned argument. Once their stance has been decided, whether through emotion, anger, or some other reason, they will metaphorically stick their fingers in their ears, to save having to listen to the alternative arguments, then shout very loudly so that no one around them can hear those opinions or facts they have rejected. If all else fails, they resort to shouting insults and abuse at anyone who doesn’t agree with them, because they have to be in the right. Unfortunately, it seems that sometimes this approach isn’t just applicable to the general public, some of our politicians are seen to use it, too.

As a writer, I have found it intriguing to watch the responses of the authority figures as the dealt with the result the British people delivered. The EU officials, steely-eyed, challenging ‘well come on then, get it over with’, as though they couldn’t wait to be rid of us. Angela Merkel, looking very weary and worried. The Conservative politicians, who were largely responsible, suddenly very quiet and, after David Cameron announced his resignation, suddenly it seemed that no one wanted to take the next step, no one wanted to go down in history as the person who led Britain out of the European Union. And of course we discovered that no one had a plan. They hadn’t expected to need one. Of course there are some politicians who are ever happy to talk a lot, and were only too happy to fill the void: Nigel Farage, crowing, gloating, even though he’s about to lose his job; Nicola Sturgeon, furious, determined, trying once again to tell Westminster now to do their jobs and threatening action from Scotland if they don’t do as she says; Alex Salmond, back from obscurity to add his comments. But where was George Osborne? It almost turned into a ‘where’s wally’ competition to find the most obscure suggestion of where George was hiding.

And what of our loyal opposition? At a time when the country is gripped by its worst political crisis for many years, they decide the way to deal with it is…to stage a coup, split their party, and try to oust their leader! What planet do they live on?

The rest of the world has watched in astonishment as, in one short week, this once Great Britain has torn itself apart in a tide of in-fighting, xenophobia and, at times, outright racism.

So where does the blame lie?

Obviously, it was David Cameron who set up the referendum to try and settle the divisions in his own party. He was clearly confident that the British people would see the benefits of being part of the EU and support him in laying the argument to rest – after all, they had returned him and his party to power only last year (albeit with a slim majority), when he hadn’t expected to win. Unfortunately, he misread this support. It now seems clear that a substantial number of people only voted Conservative because he had promised a referendum on membership of the EU and because they wanted a chance to escape its clutches. Why? For years the media – particularly the newspapers, have blamed the EU and its regulations for everything they felt was wrong with the country. They have exaggerated the problems way out of proportion and whipped up public opinion to almost hysteria in recent weeks. (It seems that some of the strongest myths about the EU – for example the straight banana story – were, in fact begun by none other than Boris Johnson, when he was working as a journalist, years ago.)

When the date of the referendum was first announced, the Leave campaign was very quick off the mark to try and influence the public and spread their opinions and scare stories, so that by the time the Remain side began to try and counter these stories, it was already too late – a large proportion of the population were no longer prepared to listen to what they saw as excuses. Added to which, every time anyone spoke in public in favour of Remain and present an outline of what might be the consequences of leaving they were shouted down and accused of scaremongering, by the side who had been scaremongering all along!

All through the campaign members of the public asked and almost begged for more facts on which to base their decisions. In the last few weeks there were TV programmes which tried to present some of the facts and possible consequences, but by now many people had switched off mentally from any discussion on the referendum, fed up with hearing all the hype and emotive rants. There were also informative article in some of the more serious newspapers, and online, but most of these seem to have been by-passed by the bulk of the population. It was all too little too late.

Another thing that has emerged through this exercise is the continuing influence of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, and particularly her view that there was ‘no such thing as society’ it was ‘every man for himself’.  (This apparently worked so well that much later when David Cameron spoke of the ‘Big Society’ no one knew what he was talking about.) In interviews on how they were making/ had made their decision on how to vote, most people spoke of how it would affect them personally, or at most their children/grandchildren. Some spoke of not being able to get doctor’s appointments, or places in schools, but it was still very personal. Very few people seemed to be looking at the bigger picture, of how it would affect us all as a society – because most seem to have forgotten, or in the case of younger people, never learned what ‘society’ is – and that is Thatcher’s legacy.

The current turmoil in the Labour Party also ties in with this theory. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) politicians who have rebelled, appear to be largely career politicians who believe that their jobs and opinions are more important than those of the public they were elected to represent. They claim the party cannot win an election with Jeremy Corbyn as their leader, when in actual fact, the reverse is more likely true. They totally ignore the thousands of people who not only joined the Labour Party to vote Corbyn into the leadership, but also all who have joined (or re-joined) since and all the crowd who gathered outside parliament in his support at the very time they were telling him they had no confidence in him. Who do they think is going to vote for them? They have exposed themselves as being self-seeking and out of touch with public opinion just as much as the Tories, more anxious to preserve their cosy way of life than represent the public as they were elected tp do. They need to be taught a brutal lesson.

Of course we all know the real reason for this attempted coup. We’ve known it was coming for months. It is an attempt to control and cover up some of the findings in the imminent publication of the Chilcot Report on the Iraq war. Many of the coup’s leaders are likely to be implicated in this report. They also want to avoid action being taken against their leader at the time, Tony Blair, who stands to be the most damned by the report. Well, I’m afraid that if it is found that Tony Blair committed crimes, he should pay the price, just the same as anyone else would. And that goes for any other politician who commits crimes, too. No one is above the law.

The British public have shown they are tired of corruption, cover-ups and dishonest career politicians, whether that be connected to the EU, phone-hacking, expenses scandals, alleged paedophilia rings, or covering up illegal wars. They want a different kind of politics. More honest, serious, sober, caring, concentrating on getting the job done rather than playing to the media. In the last few years television coverage has allowed us to see inside the parliaments of several other countries as they dealt with problems. Nowhere else appears to engage in the showmanship, yah-boo, schoolboy-style jibing and hollering of the House of Commons. In the 21st century it is an irrelevant anachronism. Why is it allowed to continue? Politicians who have grown used to dealing in this way clearly don’t understand that Jeremy Corby represents a different kind of politics, and a form of politics that the public is crying out for. The politics of honest debate, sober discussions, and above all a politics that cares about and looks after the weakest in our society.

The Conservatives came to power promising to ‘fix broken Britain’, instead, they have caused the deepest divisions in our society in living memory. This in turn has caused frustrated pockets of communities to seek someone to blame, attacking the disabled, foreign worker, and anyone else who looks different and so might be a threat to them. Many people living at the lower levels of society are now terrified of the future, of how they are to find the basics of life, how they are to survive. To these people, Jeremy Corbyn is a beacon of hope – the only beacon of hope in what has become a frightening and uncertain future.

However, there is also one good thing that has emerged during this last week. It is the growing re-discovery of people-power. Some have realised for the first time that their vote does count for something, others are discovering that that there is a way to show self-centred politicians what they think of them and their opinions and perhaps though this they are beginning to rediscover that such a thing as ‘Society’ does exist after all.

It looks like we’re going to need a more caring society to survive in a post-EU Britain.

 

Who Dares Wake the Sleeping Grey Monster?

Older_person_shows_how_a_watershed_works_to_a_group_of_school_children

Pensioners deserve dignity in old age – even the ones with no occupational pension. The elderly paid into the National Insurance scheme all their working lives – or had good reason for being out of work.

For men, good reason was often illness or redundancy. When industries were closed down and large numbers were suddenly out of work, their workless state was not of their own making. They should not be punished in old age.

For women, working lives were very different in the past. Today’s female pensioners were usually expected to give up work when they had a family and concentrate all their efforts on looking after their husband and children, while their husband brought in the money to keep them all. If they worked at all after marriage, it was likely to be a little part-time job that paid a pittance. In those days the gap between the pay of men and women was wide, because the men were seen as the breadwinners and the women were supposedly only working for ‘pin money.’

Men

When the traditional industries of the north were deliberately closed down by the government policies of the 1980s, whole communities of men, sometimes several generations of the same families, were thrown on the scrap-heap. More concerned by the threat to their own reputations than the ruined lives they had caused, the government then encouraged the older and less able workers to be moved onto incapacity benefit, so that they would not be counted as unemployed. They were then left to rot.

Now the current government want people off incapacity benefit and back into work so that they can benefit from the extra taxes, but employers don’t want older workers – especially if they are long-term unemployed.

These were the men who fought hard for their jobs, through the unions. But Margaret Thatcher was determined to over-rule them and destroy their unions, their industries and in doing so, she also broke their families, their communities, their ability to earn a living and often their health.

It was a Conservative government that threw them on the scrap heap, now another, largely Conservative government suddenly wants them working again to boost the economy. Unfortunately, real life doesn’t work quite like that.

 Older_female_working_in_office

Women

The women who are crossing the new pension age around now – and many of those who will reach it in the next few years are the very women who fought for equal employment rights and equal pay for women in the 1970s and 1980s. They had to fight for the right to earn a living in a society that still saw women as second-class citizens, not capable of doing the same work as men – despite the fact that their mothers and grandmothers proved their capability during two world wars, while the men were away fighting for king and country.

There is a tendency, nowadays, for people to believe that women have always had all the opportunities and full time work they have now – and especially the child-care provisions. Those who think this way often look down on older women who have not led similar lives, as though they were too lazy to shift themselves to find work/ child-care in their younger days. They didn’t try hard enough/ took the easy way out, and so it’s their own fault they have no money in their older years.

This view is ignorant of the facts and short-sighted. The women they are looking down on could be the very women who helped to win the right to access to better work, and forced the employers and politicians to reconsider the problems of childcare, to enable more women to work.

In the 1970s, and for much of the 1980s, child-care places were like gold – especially in more rural areas of the country, and even if a place could be found, the wages paid to a woman may not have covered the cost. There were no government vouchers then. These women often had no choice but to stay at home unless they had family members who could take care of the children. Even when the children were at school, there was still the problem of before and after school hours – and a major barrier to work was school holidays. Jobs were not tailored to school hours, as many have become since, and there was no flexibility. If you wanted to work, you worked the hours set by the employer. There were also no breakfast clubs and after school activities were mainly sports practises.

Even when the change began in the 1980s, it happened much more slowly in many parts of the country – too late for many of the women who had fought for it.

Women now in their late fifties/early sixties have also been particularly badly hit by all they recent changes regarding retirement. They had planned their lives around the old female retirement age of 60. When this was suddenly pushed to 65, it was accepted in the spirit of equality, but brought problems for many because of the attitudes of employers towards older workers. Anyone, male or female who finds themselves without work when they are over 50 can find it almost impossible to find another job. Some people who may have benefited when the number of work-years needed for a state pension was cut to a standard 30 some years ago and felt that they at least had that covered.

Then came the blows. The retirement age for many was pushed back again – more years to struggle for work but no work to be had. Then the number of work-years needed was changed again – and the right to a portion of a husband’s/ex-husband’s pension was removed. Suddenly a woman in her late fifties/ early sixties finds herself being expected to work until 66, 67, 68, etc.

Take the example of Janet, who was divorced in the 1980s, with a young family that forced her to live on benefits until they grew old enough to be left alone. When she was ready to return to full-time work, the jobs had suddenly become tailored to school hours and full-time work was impossible to find. Part-time work left her worse off and increasingly she found employers  refused to take her on for part-time work if she already had one part-time job, so she couldn’t make up the hours that way either. She tried self-employment, but couldn’t make enough to live on because she didn’t have enough money to put into the business. She tried gaining qualifications, but found they only gave employers another excuse to reject her.

At one point Janet was told she would be entitled to a full pension – under the 30 work-year ruling with a combination of home-responsibilities protection (hrp), her own contributions and with several years of entitlement to part of her ex-husband’s pension. But now she doesn’t know where she stands, with just the hrp and her own piece-meal contributions. Because most of her work was part-time, she often didn’t earn enough to pay national insurance and during her self-employment phase, she was exempt from payments on account of her low income. She doesn’t think she has enough contributions to cover her for the 35 work-years she now needs.  Although in theory she still has time to make this up, in practice, she feels there is little chance, because she is constantly turned down for work for being over-qualified and there are even less full-time jobs available now.

Middle-Age Problems for Both Genders

There are also other problems that people of either gender can come up against in middle age:

–        having to give up work to care for elderly parents – or even a partner

–        health problems – perhaps from living in poverty

–        the benefit trap for those living alone (whether single, divorced, widowed) that makes part-time work unviable – especially if there are travel costs involved.

 

The Baby-Boomer Generation

The baby-boomer generation, born after the Second World War, is a phenomenon recognised in many countries, through Europe and the USA. In Britain, it began a decade later due to the continuance of rationing and really dates from about 1955 (exactly the birth-year of the first women expected to work until the age of 65) and lasted until the mid 1960s.

This has always been known. So why does the government act as though it’s something they have just discovered?

In actual fact, Britain was on course to weather the pensions time-bomb much better than the rest of Europe, because there was a reserve of money that had been built up from contributions to cover at least most of it. That was until Gordon Brown decided that there was too much money lying there and raided it to pay for other things. That is where this problem started.

It suits the government and the media to give the impression that all the baby-boomer generation are living the life of riley with houses, cars and occupational pensions, etc. SOME of these undoubtedly are in this position, but certainly not all of them. Those whose lives were blighted by the eradication of industry, and those who were forced to stay at home through lack of childcare, and jobs that didn’t (and don’t) pay enough to live on, are wondering where all this money is that they are supposed to have.

Although some will have resigned themselves to their fate over the years, for many, the anger, even bitterness, at the unfairness of society and the lack of help they experienced in trying to rebuild their own lives, still burns not far from the surface. This is the fighting generation, the generation who have fought for change all their lives, and by sheer numbers have achieved many changes – often too late for their own benefit, but they have opened doors for those who follow.

If this government or any future government, think they can easily take away the rights and privileges of old age that this generation has worked so hard for (and many worked for a pittance before minimum wage), they could be in for a big shock. The monster may be grey now, but it is only sleeping and it could yet rise up for one last battle – the grey-power battle.

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Jobcentre - Berwick

Politicians, economists and economic reporters in the media are always talking about the peaks and troughs in our economy and the cycles of boom and bust. Each time the economic plans falter and unemployment rises, there is great worry about youth unemployment and a ‘lost generation’ who are never able to take the first steps on a career path because of the lack of jobs. But then politics move on and when the recovery begins, all the media comments are angled to promote optimism and confidence in the economy at last.

The politicians are keen to take the credit for sorting out the problems and setting the country on its feet again. But what happens to all those young people who couldn’t step onto the career ladder? No one mentions them again.

Many people will generally assume that when more jobs become available, this lost tribe will find something they can do to earn a living, even if it is not what they expected. This is what we’re supposed to think. Successive governments have also come up with their own ‘schemes’ to ‘help’ these people into work, and maybe a few are helped this way. But for many who have had experience of some of these initiatives, they are nothing but a farce, a way of manipulating the employment figures to make them look better than they really are and providing the participating businesses with a few months of free labour.

Every decade seems to bring some sort of recession and employment problems, for whatever reason, and it isn’t just school-leavers who are affected. Those who worked hard at school and gained the qualifications to go to University can also be caught up in a lost generation if they happen to be leaving education at the wrong time. Politicians and those who work in education often speak as though a qualification or degree is a passport to prosperity, but in the real world, even a degree is not enough any more. Vocational qualifications and experience are also needed to land a well-paid job. In many areas you also need your own car.

Unless a graduate has parents wealthy enough to provide them with a car and support them through two or three unpaid internships, they can still have little chance of landing a decent job. A graduate forced to sign on for Jobseekers Allowance at the end of their degree will probably have little chance of progressing. If they take an unpaid internship to gain relevant experience, their benefits are likely to be stopped as they are deemed to have made themselves ‘unavailable for work’ (i.e. unavailable for low-level work).  Then what are they supposed to live on? Jobcentres are not set up to deal with graduates and their staff often don’t know what to do with claimants with higher qualifications.

Other groups caught up in these ‘lost generations’ scenarios are women returners and mature students. Taking a career break for any reason may be seen as risky these days, but more commonplace in the past when child care facilities and jobs tailored around working mothers were like gold. Mature students clearly have some initiative to work hard and better themselves, after perhaps being unable or prevented from gaining their qualifications earlier in their life. These groups are equally as much at a career crossroad as the school-leavers and graduates, but much less acknowledged.

All of these groups of people have the potential to be left behind when the economy moves on again and if they still haven’t found their niche by the time the economy dips again, their voices will be swamped by the new wave of unemployed, making it even harder for them to compete for the remaining jobs. Outside the major cities and the south-east this is likely to be even worse.

Both of the most recent governments have brought up, and complained about, the parts of the country where there are families of sometimes three generations where no one works. These seem to be mostly in the old industrial areas where the jobs wiped out by Margaret Thatcher’s policies in the 1980s have never been adequately replaced. Even where some new jobs have been created, there are in restricted numbers. There may also be public transport issues in these areas, so that it would be impossible to travel to where the new work has been set up. Predominantly though, it is the same ‘lost generation’ problem, where there are wholesale local redundancies from the area’s main source of employment shutting down. The principle is the same, though the workers may be of widely differing ages, they are still effectively a ‘lost generation’ who may, in this case, never find work again.

Taking all these strands into consideration, and the number of ‘downturns’ we have had in this country since the 1960s, (How many have there been? I’ve lost count.) perhaps it is more amazing that the successive governments are still surprised at the existence of clusters of long-term unemployed. Especially the Conservatives, who seem to have deliberate policies of wiping out the jobs of the less-well-off, whenever they are in power.

These are the people who become the hard-core at the centre of the unemployment figures – not necessarily through their own fault, but because they become trapped by the systems and economic problems caused by those at the top. They are then unable to find a way out of that trap when the economy starts to recover.

Arrogant politicians think they know all about the long-term unemployed when they know nothing, and deal with it by increasing the ‘stick’ and reducing the ‘carrot’ but this may only make things worse. It is possible to be too poor to get a job.

The government needs to stop dictating to the unemployed and blaming them for being unemployed. It needs to START LISTENING – REALLY LISTENING, to what the barriers to work really are, instead of deciding for themselves what they think those barriers are – they are NOT always to do with literacy, numeracy or ignorance. They may be different in different parts of the country, but unless these real problems are addressed, as opposed to the imagined, top-down versions, these poor, people trapped in a cycle of despair are never going to find the help they really need to climb out of the hole into which their lives have been pushed.

What do you think?

See also:

https://wendybscott.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/could-this-be-the-future-for-berwick/

https://wendybscott.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/are-modern-customer-service-methods-making-life-easier-for-pick-pockets/

http://wendybellscott.hubpages.com/hub/Where-is-Berwick-upon-Tweed