This week the BBC’s flagship news programme Today has lifted the lid on the reality of life for millions in modern Britain. A hard-hitting series by chief reporter Matthew Price has detailed the experiences of households experiencing hardship in towns and cities across the country.
National figures of high employment can mask the true picture for many. In Hartlepool, there are just six jobs for every ten people of working age. In Norfolk, families described how they had little left to stretch to the rest of the month once the essential bills were paid. In Weston-Super-Mare teachers reported kids going hungry because their parents can’t afford to give them a decent meal.
Many told their own stories of how they are locked in poverty. Amy has a degree in graphic design, but works in retail as it means she can work hours that fit with childcare. She told Today: “Anything could knock me off balance. I’m constantly thinking something’s going to go wrong.” This isn’t just the case for places like Hartlepool. As the JRF’s community development worker Jonathan Gibson told the programme, hardship is being experienced by “people whose costs are rising, whose wages are flatlining, we see that across the country, that’s not just Hartlepool.” JRF has described this as the standstill generation: people unable to build the foundations for a decent, secure life.
Despite the scale and urgency of the problem, the government would not put up a spokesperson on the series, according to Today. Let’s get this in perspective. Politicians fall over themselves to appear on the nation’s most prestigious news programme on all manner of topics. But no government representative was prepared to front up the reporter’s questions on the pressing issue for many households.
It is hard not to conclude that the government was unwilling to put up a spokesperson because they do not have a clear story to tell on tackling the living standards of hard-pressed families. Nearly two years on from the speech by Theresa May about the nation’s ‘burning injustices’ there is no coherent social justice strategy or delivery to meet the challenges she so rightly set out. Instead more children are in poverty, services report being more stretched, and essential costs keep rising.
The Labour Party did put up a spokesperson, Peter Dowd, but when challenged by presenter Mishal Husain to commit to the one measure that is causing the most immediate hardship – ending the freeze on welfare benefits – he would only say the policy was under review. For the past year, organisations like the JRF have been pressing Labour to commit to ending the benefits freeze, so a clear position should be expected by now.
The social and economic challenges of our time need bold and decisive political leadership and it is not clear either Labour or the Conservatives are stepping up to the plate. There are warning signs for both of the major UK parties. The Conservatives have started to pull ahead amongst voters on social grades C2DE (occupationally ‘working class’), which should trouble Labour. But research for JRF shows that at the last election, low income voters whose financial positioned had worsened in the previous year were more likely to vote Labour and there are more of them. Given the uncertain economic picture, this could be a concern for the Conservatives.
Politicians of all parties are well-skilled in soundbites to capture the social condition of a nation. Theresa May so powerfully described the ‘burning injustices’ blighting Britain when she took to the steps of Downing Street to begin her premiership. Ed Miliband used the ‘squeezed middle’ to describe the pull on living standards. And David Cameron grabbed attention with his description of ‘broken Britain’. But they are much less skilled at designing and delivering real changes to people’s circumstances.
As Mason and Leena in Norfolk said to Today, they may not consider themselves to be in poverty as such. But they would describe their family as “broke as hell.” This is the reality of modern day poverty in Britain and it is not right that so many millions of people are struggling to make ends meet. It is time to demand fewer soundbites and a real concerted push to improve people’s living standards, otherwise life for millions is only going to worsen.
Claire Ainsley is executive director of the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF)