The other barely managing Britain
THE first thing Theresa May did on becoming prime minister in July 2016 was deliver a speech promising to help the just-about-managing. Since then she has done almost nothing to make good on that promise. Brexit has consumed her attention. Bold initiatives have mouldered on her desk. Life for the JAMs is more of a struggle than ever.
A good place to see this is Birkenhead, next door to Liverpool, not least because of its thoughtful local Labour MP, Frank Field. Birkenhead looks like a stronghold of the respectable working class—all neat houses and well-tended gardens. But you do not have to look hard to see that society is fraying. Supermarkets such as Marks & Spencer are upping sticks. Pound stores, gaming emporiums, pawn shops (“We loan cash”) and cheap pubs (“Three pints for £5”) are on the march. Zero-hour contracts are depressingly common.
The JAMs can be tipped over the edge by the smallest things. Your van breaks down and you must come up with a few hundred pounds to fix it. You need a sudden visit to the dentist. In the summer holidays child care is beyond your reach, but you don’t want the kids roaming free. And then there is the dreaded school-uniform problem. Local schools, particularly academies, have taken to asking parents to shell out hundreds of pounds on fancy uniforms and PE kits.
Mr Field has devoted his career to thinking about poverty—particularly the border between the just-about- and the not-managing. His first job before becoming an MP in 1979 was with the Child Poverty Action Group, a charity. At 76 he remains one of Westminster’s workhorses. He chairs both the Work and Pensions Committee and the all-party group on hunger and food poverty. He applies his knowledge to his constituents’ most pressing problems. The Feeding Birkenhead programme, which he set up with the help of a grant from the Department for Education, is a boon to parents struggling in the holidays.
Builders are just finishing work on one of Mr Field’s latest creations, a combination of food bank, advice centre and café dubbed a “citizen’s supermarket”. Members will be able to buy food at a steep discount. Members and non-members can use the café and consult advisers. The supermarket is one of several organisations in Birkenhead helping people to make ends meet. They are impressive not just because they make a little go a long way (eg, getting supermarkets to hand over surplus food that would otherwise go to waste), but also because they help to preserve people’s dignity. Neo Community, a community centre near the old docks, does everything it can to feed people’s sense of self-worth as well as their bodies. The food bank is arranged like a shop and allows people to pay what they can. The café offers a three-course lunch for £1, but also acts as the area’s social centre.
Emma Wilkes, who founded the centre five years ago, throws in a bit of gentle pedagogy. The art class encourages children to draw fearsome-looking sharks to teach them the dangers of loan sharks, who specialise in getting children to nag parents into buying things they cannot afford. This correspondent found himself gripped by a disconcerting mix of optimism and pessimism. Optimism, because local heroes like Ms Wilkes are doing wonderful work; pessimism, because they face such daunting problems.
Britain has done too little to refashion its welfare state for a post-collectivist age of flexible labour—and what it has done is sloppily thought out and poorly executed. It has also done too little to deal with the problems of a working class devastated by deindustrialisation. The result is that millions of people live on the edge of poverty, and the political system is vulnerable to an eruption from the far right or the far left.
Mr Field tries to tip the balance towards optimism, in his own idiosyncratic way. He says the biggest change in his political lifetime is that “people are hungry”. He thinks the government’s new universal credit makes life worse for people at the bottom, partly because it reduces the amount of benefits available and partly because of practical problems, including long delays in payments. But then he throws in hope. The working class is no longer willing to be taken for granted. This was made clear in the Brexit referendum, when most working-class voters preferred Leave, and also in last year’s general election, when the Tories made advances in Labour heartlands despite running one of the most inept campaigns in memory.
Yet the working class is confronted by powerful economic headwinds such as globalisation, which means it is cheaper to make ships in China, and automation, which reduces the demand for labour. The local shipbuilder, Cammell Laird, does more business than it did a generation ago but with a small fraction of the jobs. There are also powerful political headwinds that marginalise the traditional working class. Thus Mr Field is threatened with deselection by his local constituency, harangued by a bizarre alliance of hard leftists (who have always hated him) and Remainers (who are furious with him for voting with the government on Brexit). They are on a hiding to nothing. Mr Field will run as an independent if he is deselected. To judge by the way constituents come up and thank him for his work as he walks down the street, he will have no difficulty winning.
He is nevertheless a lonely figure in his sustained commitment to the JAMs. The British political class seems able to spare a thought for them only just before or just after general elections. The Conservative Party is rooted in the world of garden fêtes rather than food banks. The Labour Party has become a coalition of the university-educated and racial minorities. The established press is much more interested in Boris Johnson’s thoughts on burkas than it is about the fact that about half a million people visit food banks every week.Bagehot, The Economist