Chris Bryant: Here in the Rhondda, I am seeing the human cost behind the jobless figures

A Political Life


I'm guessing, dear reader, but I suspect that you may not be under 24, unemployed and living in the South Wales Valleys with a disability. So this isn't about you.

Except it is, sort of. Let me explain. You'll have seen this week's unemployment figures. You probably tut-tutted. You might even have noticed that youth unemployment, especially long-term youth unemployment, is still rising. Perhaps you gave out a long, sad sigh. But if you break it down, it gets even worse, as there are now roughly 86,000 young disabled people out of work in the UK, and in Wales a whopping 68 per cent of disabled youngsters are looking for work. In my two little green valleys alone? It's 175.

Which is all pretty depressing for the MP for the Rhondda, especially when you add the fact that 215 more able-bodied adults are looking for work than last January and there are now 54 applicants for every local job vacancy. It's not so much like climbing a mountain as a slag heap that is constantly sliding away beneath your feet.

There's a government programme to help, of course. It's voluntary, runs for just six months and seems rather unloved by the Government that introduced it, but at least Work Choice is there to help to give disabled youngsters the skills they need to track down that amazingly elusive job.

Unfortunately, one of the good initiatives the Government has come up with, a £2,275 pay incentive for any business employing an extra person aged 18-24, which is meant to start in April, won't apply to the Work Choice programme, so disabled youngsters won't benefit. But who knows, maybe Mr Iain Duncan Smith will relent.

Anyway, this isn't about you. It's about a peripheral part of the UK economy. But when I was in search of a kitchen bin in Hannah Street in Porth the other day and walked past shop after shop that was either closed or for rent and the only place that seemed active was Jobcentre Plus, I thought it is about all of us. It's prejudice about people with disabilities; it's a lack of entrepreneurial ambition in our schools; it's a refusal to tackle inequality; it's the banks' inability to lend to SMEs in the Valleys, and the Government's hard-hearted parsimony that leave young disabled people in the Rhondda paying the price and all of us picking up the welfare tab.

Knock knock. Just don't shoot

We've been canvassing in Treorchy. It's something we try to do all year round, even though it rains a fair bit in the Valleys, and if you turn up looking like a drowned rat most voters tend to think of you as bonkers, so we do a lot of it by phone. But this week we've been out on the knocker in the sharp, dry, freeze-your-hands-till-they-snap cold, warming up over a frothy coffee in the local Brachi (valleys speak for a café, courtesy of 19th-century Italian immigrants).

Most people are polite, though you get several "You're all the same", or, "I'm not voting. After all if voting changed anything they'd abolish it" (this is always said as if it were the most original piece of political satire ever), and the most irritating of all: "You never call round", which is so self-evidently untrue that it is difficult to know how to respond.

There are hurdles – dogs, letter boxes that chop off bits of your fingers, letter boxes at ground level, or even worse, upright ones that mean you drop all your leaflets in the mud. Once, in a Tower Hamlets by-election when the BNP was standing, we were shot at as we entered the estate and had to hide behind a parked car until it drove off. Almost invariably there is at least one person who answers the door stark naked. But it's a truth of political life in Britain, where votes are won on the doorstep rather than by expensive negative TV adverts, that, as John Smith told me in a cold, leaky, virtually derelict Labour office at the Kincardine and Deeside by election in 1991: "However high you rise, you never get away from stuffing envelopes and knocking doors."

Drama opens door to party politics

One thing that has lifted my spirits – apart from the magnificent Welsh win last Sunday – is foreign TV, especially two political drama series, Borgen from Denmark and The Good Wife from the US. I'm not pretending either of these is great drama, or for that matter all that realistic. After all, the Danish PM (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen) never seems to speak to a group of more than about five people and the toughest question she ever gets asked by a journalist is what did she have for breakfast.

So why watch these shows? Primarily, I guess, because they hint at a complex world in which conflicted people try to do the right thing, even when it's not entirely clear what the right thing is. If only British TV could give us something similar.

But it's also because both shows have a party allegiance. I know it's customary these days to decry party politics as an almost criminal activity. Indeed, a retired police officer who is probably considering standing to be a Policing and Crime Commissioner later this year intimated as much on the radio this week when he bemoaned the fact that party political candidates will stand.

I couldn't disagree more. It's the political parties that keep our politics honest. The Government here can't buy votes in the Commons by pork-barrel practices as happens in the US. And I'm deeply conscious of the fact that I am not the MP for the Rhondda because people think I'm a charming chap (they'd be wrong anyway) but because I'm the Labour chap.

Incidentally, my Daneglish is improving dramatically. I think you'll find that if you say "spin doctors" are engaged in "business as usual" with a bit of a Scandinavian twang, Danish politicos will know what you mean.


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