On Monday, in the Mall, a Tory politician was cheered. He was cheered because he’s funny, and popular, and charming, and smart, and because he says the kind of things politicians don’t say.
He was cheered because he told the men and women who have run, and jumped, and pedalled, and swum, that they had produced “such joy on the sofas of Britain” that they had “probably not only inspired a generation but helped to create one as well”. He was cheered because he’s mayor of the city that has just hosted one of the best parties the world has seen.
“You showed every child in this country,” he told the athletes, “that success is not just about talent and luck but about grit and guts and hard work and coming back… You brought home the truth about us and about this country – that when we put our minds to it there is no limit to what Britain can achieve.”
The athletes loved it, and the crowd loved it, and it’s possible that even the man who used to be his boss, and whose job everyone thinks he wants, loved it, the man who said that “this great British summer” had shown us “who we can really be”. It’s possible that everyone in the country loved it, and that millions of people were cheering a Tory who’d never cheered a Tory before. But it’s also possible that quite a few people didn’t.
It’s possible that when some people heard him talk about “grit and guts and hard work and coming back” what they felt wasn’t joy, but worry. It’s possible, for example, that when some of the people in the 31.9 per cent of Liverpool households where no one works, or in the 29.1 per cent of South Teesside households where no one works, or the 28.7 per cent of households in the Central Valleys of Wales where no one works, heard him talk about “hard work” what they were thinking about was their benefits.
They might, for example, have been thinking about the reforms debated in the House of Commons yesterday, and which aimed to replace a lot of complicated benefits with just one. They might have read the Resolution Foundation report which seemed to show that a typical family will, after five years under the new system, be £614 worse off. They might have thought that having an online system was something that would work very well if you just had to tap a code into your iPad, but that if you were one of the eight million Britons who don’t have internet access, or one of the 14 million who don’t have computer skills, it wouldn’t. They might have wondered if a government computer system was really going to be able to cope with the biggest change to the welfare system since it started. They might have remembered the £12bn computer system for the NHS which last year had to be scrapped.
But it’s also possible that many of the people in the households the Office of National Statistics calls “workless”, which in some parts of the country is nearly a third of the population, weren’t worrying about computers, or even their benefit dropping while the price of other things went up. It’s possible that what they were really worrying about was that they, and almost everyone they knew, were going to be punished for not having, or knowing how to get, a job.
These people, in these “workless households”, might well want to tell the Tory politician that they understood why people thought it was a good idea to “make work pay”. They might say that they also thought it was a good idea, but that previous governments had made systems which didn’t, and that it was quite hard, when you didn’t have any qualifications, or training, or skills, to suddenly switch from a system that didn’t “make work pay” to one which did. They might want to explain that if you got a bigger house, and more food for your children when you didn’t work than when you did, then choosing not to work didn’t make you stupid, or lazy, or feckless. Choosing not to work made you clever. But it didn’t make you clever in the way that now made it easy for you to find a job.
They might want to talk about a TV programme on Channel 4 last month which showed that some job centres didn’t seem to make any effort at all to help people find work, which showed, in fact, that three people set up by the TV programme to advise unemployed people about their job hunt were more useful to the jobseekers than the people who did it as a job.
They might want to say that if you’d never worked, or hardly ever worked, and were competing with better qualified people from other countries who were willing to work very hard for very low wages, then getting, and keeping, a job wasn’t likely to take five minutes.
They might want to say that if you’d never worked, or hardly ever worked, and were competing with better qualified people from other countries who were willing to work very hard for very low wages, then getting, and keeping, a job wasn’t likely to take five minutes. Getting, and keeping, a job was likely to take quite a while. And that if you were trying to get people who had hardly ever worked into work then you couldn’t expect to save any money for a very long time.
They might also want to remind the Tory politician that it’s quite easy to talk about schemes to create jobs in areas where they’re needed, but that the Regional Growth Fund, for example, which was set up last year, and which was meant to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, had so far created only 2,400, and that some have cost the taxpayer £200,000 each. They might want to remind the Tory politician that for someone on £71 job seekers’ allowance a week, £200,000 seems like quite a lot.
When they heard the Tory politician speak, “about guts and hard work and coming back,” some people might have wanted to say that what they felt wasn’t joy, but pain. They might have thought of the people who used to live in the areas where they still live, who used to work in shipyards, and factories, and mines, and whose hard graft to put food on the table was what made their families proud. They might have found themselves thinking that they had never had the chance to feel that kind of pride. They might have wondered if it was realistic to think they ever would.
Last Monday, in the Olympic stadium, a Tory politician was booed. He was booed because he isn’t funny, and popular, and charming. He was booed because his government is making life, for a lot of people, and in particular disabled people, harder. He was booed because a good idea – to get more people into work – is being carried out in a bad way. And he was booed because it’s sometimes important to remind the politicians who make the laws that change people’s lives, that proper change, like Olympic and Paralympic success, takes effort, and money, and thought, and planning, and time.