The run-down estate we're in

'They could put me in jail and I still wouldn't vote ... The day any politician comes down here and lives on benefits, then I'd vote for them'
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The Independent Online
"No, I don't vote. I won't vote." Lisa crosses her arms in defiance, enough to make anyone despair. Why not, for God's sake? Surely Labour can't be worse and who knows, they might even be better. Lisa is not stupid, she is angry. "They could bloody put me in jail and I still wouldn't vote!" Several others in this mother and toddler club on the Kingsmead estate in Hackney, east London, agree. They are militant non-voters. Why?

"The day any politician comes down here and lives on benefits then I'd vote for them to go to Westminster. What do they know about us?" The election is passing them by, for these are 1997's political unmentionables, the outcasts, the disappeared. Parties say nothing about the poor so the poor refuse to vote for them, fair's fair.

I try again. What on earth is the point of not voting? What good does it do? "It does good to me. Even if no one else knows, not voting makes me feel better," Carol says. They hear what the politicians say and it simply does not begin to connect with their lives.

Take Patsy, look at her life and observe the chasm between the way she lives and the way politicians of all parties talk about people like her.

She is 22, pregnant with her second child and survives by cheating on social security, like many others. She dropped out of a two-year nursery nursing course as she couldn't manage on a grant of only pounds 173 every three months. "I really wanted to finish that course. I wanted to work in a creche on a cruise ship and get away from here." Fantasy maybe, but at least it was a dream.

Instead she worked in a chemist's and took up with a boy who was also forced to drop out of the same course. Now she has a flat on the undesirable Thirties Kingsmead estate where 65 per cent of people are on benefits. She and her child draw pounds 69 a week and she tells the social security she doesn't know where her child's father is. In fact, he lives down the road but only dares stay the night with her on Saturdays for fear of neighbours shopping them to the Benefit Cheatline. He works in a shoe factory for very low pay, 50 hours a week for pounds 145. "He works really hard, but we just couldn't survive on what he earns without cheating." Her friend Julie has already been done for benefit fraud. Cheating is wrong but it is hardly surprising.

Why, I want to ask, have children? Why not work your way up for a few years first? But I know the sociologists' answer - for no-hope women, being a mother is the closest they will ever come to being important. It is a bad reason, feckless, a life stunted by too early motherhood leaving the rest of us to pick up the bill. But once you've roundly blamed them for the state they've got themselves into, what then? Politicians do not mention the poor because most voters don't think the poor deserving. But how are voters to understand a little more about the cycles of psychological deprivation that overwhelm places like Kingsmead if no one ever talks about it except in the self-satisfied language of blame?

Julie sees that look in my eye, I suppose, for she leans forward, her two-year-old on her knee. "We know what they say about us. They say we shouldn't have children until we're financially secure. Well round here no one would ever bloody have children. Maybe they want us to just die out."

So what do the politicians say about people like them? They talk of stamping out benefit fraud first - not exactly a vote-winner here. No party is offering these women creches, though Labour promises after-school clubs for older children and a scheme to get single mothers back to work. Labour's welfare-to-work plans will help many, but the word "training" does not thrill them. "My husband's done a carpentry course," said Maggie. "Now he's been sent on a building course with Mowlem's for pounds 10 extra a week. But he's 45 and of course he won't get a building job afterwards."

It is hardly surprising that the poor vote least: they were born with low expectations. They hear the language in which they are discussed and they know what Westminster thinks of them. Politicians' schemes often look more like threats than promises.

There is a clash of cultures here. Politicians promise solutions to problems: welfare-to-work trips off their tongues with a glibness that does not impress the putative recipients. They hear No More Taxes and they know Hackney council will not have more money to fix their crumbling estate. Anyway, they hate Hackney council, blaming it and Labour as the branch of government closest to hand.

I put forward some arguments for their own self-interest, if not for civic duty. What about the minimum wage? A lot of people round here work for less. Yes, they grudgingly agree, that would help. Well what would make you vote Labour with enthusiasm? Proper jobs, for pay well above social security. A decent place to live. Good schools - Julie is bitter because she left a Hackney school unable to read. Lisa says: "The politicians don't know about our life. I don't think they can imagine living with a child on pounds 69 a week. That's what they spend on lunch."

True. So do journalists sometimes and others with power and influence. Lisa is right: if we all suddenly found ourselves living on pounds 69 a week in Kingsmead, it wouldn't be the silent issue of the election, it would be the only issue.

When politicians say we cannot afford to do more, they only mean they don't dare tax us lunch-eaters more. Mezzo, Le Pont de la Tour, the Oxo Tower, Bibendum, Le Caprice and Christopher's, London restaurants are booming as never before. The lunchers shrug and ask, "What can you do about the feckless underclass anyway?" Without money, nothing. With money, a lot. If you took the youngest children on Kingsmead and gave them intensive nursery schools, family support, high-powered education, summer schools and homework clubs you would transform their chances - a better national investment than lunch. But this election, the lunchers have it.

Lisa's militant non-voting stance is, in my view, a bad mistake - but it is at least understandable: "They've got a nerve, haven't they? First they call us scroungers, then they expect us to bloody go out and vote for them. Well, sod that!"