Work is what provides meaning and identity, not just to the individual but to the community. When the industrial pits closed in Britain, the loss of jobs didn’t just create the conditions for chronic poverty and unemployment but an erosion in collective identity.
Of course, what all forms of employment require is an incentive to return to it, a reward for your endeavours. It seems implausible that someone could be working and still be in poverty. What after all are you working for then? As the Conservative government have so frequently put it, work is the best route out of poverty.
But the latest findings from the Resolute Foundation indicate that it isn’t the best roadmap to economic security if the work isn’t paying much. Britain has experienced the biggest rise in poverty since Margaret Thatcher. Poverty rates rose from 22.1% to 23.%, the biggest climb since 1988. A mixture of austerity pressures combined with Brexit has squeezed living standards for ordinary Britons. Projections by the Resolute Foundation indicated that real incomes for the bottom third of the working-age population in the country in 2017-18 slumped between £50 and £150. During this time, the biggest rise has been in child poverty which shot up to 33.4% from 30.3% during the same timeframe. It led to the think tank describing 2017-18 as a “strikingly bad year for lower income households as the 2015 package of benefit cuts began in earnest, in combination with higher inflation.”
Channel 4 Dispatches discovered that more than 330,000 people are homeless but around 55% of them are actually working. These figures are surprising to no-one except those who parade drops in unemployment figures irrevocably a good thing, completely neglecting the quality of these jobs and whether they provide a decent standard of living. For the rest of us, having a Conservative Government has led to a meteoric up shoot in homelessness, in-work poverty has grown leading to tax credits and housing benefits essentially subsidising employers and landlords.
It illustrates that today in Britain, one doesn’t have to be unemployed or living on the streets dependent on scraps of generosity of passers-by. The proliferation of extremely low-pay and insecure job contracts has created a labour market constantly under pressure to somehow make ends meet. Someone can be in poverty but dependent on tax credits to get by. They can be working but still reliant on food banks.
A lot of this is simply tied to how the Tories regard the working poor, and the idea of a community. Margaret Thatcher championed freedom and believed there was “no such thing as a state” and did everything she could to erode the sense of community, closing the pits and battering the trade unions. The legacy of her political reign has been sharply felt by those in non-unionised workplaces today, enduring harsher employment conditions. Many towns simply never recovered from the shift from manufacturing jobs to the service sector, and today resemble ghostly husks of their former glories. This is something James Bloodworth, left-wing author of Hired, articulated when visiting some of these towns which had been badly disaffected by the closing of many industries.
Her neoliberal dogma had been softly weakened by governments that followed but maintained with even more vigorous passion by the Coalition government after 2010. Cuts to welfare and local governments and a demonisation of the poor cannot be seen in isolation with Britain’s biggest climb in poverty since Thatcher. They are linked. For years the Tories presided the impoverished as those lacking the entrepreneurial spirit of others, feckless and lazy, the undeserving profiteers of other people’s hard work. A sense of grim and crushing individualism to divide society became the government justification for austerity. Why should someone on benefits enjoy a better life than others instead of working? Why are immigrants stealing jobs? When blaming neighbours wasn’t enough, the blame shifted to the European Union and immigrants.
These questions culminated arguably in Brexit. It’s an answer that will only pose further conflicts, not resolutions, for British people. But now that more and more people are falling into poverty and relying on food banks despite being part of working families, the Government cannot keep hiding behind the same blame game. Regarding work as the best route out of poverty will no longer have the universal agreement it once did because it hasn’t delivered there. Now politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg and others who were cheerleaders for Brexit will insist economic hardship is a necessary price for some arbitrary concept of freedom. The answer for why poverty will keep changing is pretty simple: the Conservatives do not believe in helping the poor, do not believe in communities and instead see people as atomised beings. They do not believe in public institutions like the NHS or BBC and are champions of an unregulated private sector. They regard rights and employment protections as obstacles packaged as “red tape”.
The progressive answer has to be one that seeks to provide meaning and security back into workforces. Post-Brexit uncertainty means nothing can be made with any guarantee, but Jeremy Corbyn was right to insist it was time to rebuild Britain’s manufacturing sector. Some will correctly point out that leaving the single market means this industrial strategy is much harder and that is true, something Corbyn and his one-state socialists should consider. But there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting manufacturing to become the life force of Britain again, or at least an important aspect of the economy. Other countries like Germany do so too, and it could be crucial to injecting life back into towns sapped by deindustrialisation and austerity.
It would be the necessary rebuttal to the Tory years of austerity. One that provides dignity, identity, meaning, purpose and material security back into jobs for the ordinary British worker.