Tag Archives: Aspiration Nation

Don’t tell me what striving means, Mr Osborne

I’ve blogged on the worker/shirker, striver/skiver issue before but now I’ll flesh out why this makes me so damned angry. It’s not my own redundancy that makes me really angry. I know all too well what unemployment feels like because in 1994 I fell in love with someone who was unemployed when we met and remained so for the first 15 months of our relationship. Doing the math? He was 21 when we met. He’d left school at 16 and gone to work in auto manufacturing. He learned a skill and thought he was safe. Then he was laid off. He was a pretty smart guy and a genuinely lovely person but he quite literally didn’t make the grade. He wanted to work so badly but the work just wasn’t there for him. I always thought the single biggest factor in the length of time he was unemployed wasn’t his desire to work or his ability to work. It wasn’t the economy or the state of industry, although that caused him to lose his first job. It was the fact that nobody at his school ever made it clear enough that you need GSCE grades regardless of what you think you’ll do when you leave school. My God, he paid for the times he hadn’t taken school seriously. He couldn’t compete on paper on that one point.

George Osborne and the rest of them have no idea what strength it takes to get knocked back over and over and over again and still get back up and keep applying. If they did, they wouldn’t use such pernicious labels. It was hard enough as it was. I honestly don’t want to try to imagine what it would have done to him to see shrieking headlines we have today, calling him lazy and workshy, during that time. As it was, he was unemployed at a time when the Tories were on another restructuring of benefits, which ultimately led to the introduction of JSA.

He didn’t sit back and wait for the Job Centre to find something. He never stopped actively trying to get a job. Eventually, he got a break: a temporary job in the run up to Christmas. Even though it was only a very short contract he attacked it (nb businesses who participate in Workfare: he chose to accept a temporary job in the days before both JSA and the minimum wage). He wanted to work. He was motivated to do a good job, not by the prospect of sanctions (by the way, he only ever got the dole – nothing else), not because there was a promise of any work at the end of the contract but because he was happy and proud to be in work at all, even temporary work. His dedication paid off. He was offered a permanent job. That led to a new one elsewhere, which led to another.

He’s 40 now and he’s had a job ever since. He’s the person I think of when politicians label unemployed people. I knew him at least as well as anyone else on earth did when he was unemployed and he was a striver. The length of time he was out of work didn’t change that.

That was the 1990s. A couple of years ago, I met a man whose grandson studied law at the same university as me. He asked if I’d known him. I asked what year he graduated. His answer was pretty damned flattering: ten years after me, in 2008. His grandson had ended up working for the same company which gave my ex his break over ten years earlier. He didn’t expect to ever practice law. I sympathised with his situation. Afterwards, I thought about my ex. Would someone in his shoes in 2008 have got the break which has kept him in work ever since? Chances are the answer to that question is no. He’d still be the same person, eager to work once he’d put the classroom behind him but, where in the 1990s unemployment was a common problem for skilled workers without higher education, everyone’s at risk now, especially among young people.

There would also be another new threat to his job prospects today. His break was a temporary job. That was back when university grants actually meant something and before tuition fees. Now, I suspect he’d be going up against current students for the same job. A student’s chances of getting that job would’ve been better. When it came to part time jobs to stretch a grant and temporary jobs in the holidays, I never met a student who couldn’t find someone willing to hire them. Not many people I knew took part time jobs during term time at my university (which is reflective of the socioeconomic backgrounds of the people I knew) but most of us worked in the summers and more than a few picked up shifts at Christmas. I’d imagine there would’ve been more people working at the new university too. Where would my ex be today if tuition fees had been around back then?

Would my ex have suffered in the application process itself as a result of the labels placed on him as an unemployed person? The Government and the media have spent three solid years putting forward the argument that anyone without a job is “workshy”. What the hell makes them think anyone is going to want to employ the feckless cattle they portray, who can only be forced into motion by the application of a sharp stick? Surely stigmatising them makes it even less likely that they will be able to find work, regardless of whether they actually want to or not (and, of course, most people do want to)? If my ex had been stigmatised in the same way, would he have got his life changing chance?

Tories have been falling over themselves lately, saying that they don’t want people to be trapped on benefits. Even Esther McVey trotted out the same line in relation to disability benefits (note how strong willed I am, resisting a tangential rant on the need for DLA/PIP to enable people to work). We know there aren’t enough full time jobs to go round. Surely, the last thing a Government which doesn’t want to trap unemployed people on benefits should be doing is pre-completing their job applications with a stamp that declares in bold, capitalised letters in a font that somehow manages to scream, “SHIRKER”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Lazy politicians who fall back on sloppy rhetoric (or just snipe from the sidelines without depth or real alternative policies) are the shirkers. Incompetent politicians who won’t admit their mistakes, let alone how those mistakes impact on others, are the shirkers. They’re the ones who should lose their jobs. They won’t be out of work for long but at least they might not be able to do quite as much damage from the highly paid grace and favour jobs they’re bound to end up in.

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Coming up for Air

George Orwell.  That man was a visionary and a beautiful satirist. In honour of Orwell Day, here’s a section of Coming up for Air which had me in stiches at the same time as thinking, “yeah. They really ought to teach this in schools. We’d all be so much wiser.” It’s wonderful rant over the woes of the middle classes:

“I had the street pretty much to myself.  The men had bunked to catch the 8.21 and the women were fiddling with the gas-stoves. When you’ve time to look about you, and when you happen to be in the right mood, it’s a thing that makes you laugh inside to walk down these streets in the inner-outer suburbs and to think of the lives that go on there.  Because, after all, what IS a road like Ellesmere Road?  Just a prison with the cells all in a row.  A line of semidetached torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and his wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches. There’s a lot of rot talked about the sufferings of the working class.  I’m not so sorry for the proles myself.  Did you ever know a navvy who lay awake thinking about the sack?  The prole suffers physically, but he’s a free man when he isn’t working.  But in every one of those little stucco boxes there’s some poor bastard who’s NEVER free except when he’s fast asleep and dreaming that he’s got the boss down the bottom of a well and is bunging lumps of coal at him.

Of course, the basic trouble with people like us, I said to myself, is that we all imagine we’ve got something to lose.  To begin with, nine-tenths of the people in Ellesmere Road are under the impression that they own their houses.  Ellesmere Road, and the whole quarter surrounding it, until you get to the High Street, is part of a huge racket called the Hesperides Estate, the property of the Cheerful Credit Building Society.  Building societies are probably the cleverest racket of modern times.  My own line, insurance, is a swindle, I admit, but it’s an open swindle with the cards on the table.  But the beauty of the building society swindles is that your victims think you’re doing them a kindness. You wallop them, and they lick your hand.  I sometimes think I’d like to have the Hesperides Estate surmounted by an enormous statue to the god of building societies.  It would be a queer sort of god. Among other things it would be bisexual.  The top half would be a managing director and the bottom half would be a wife in the family way.  In one hand it would carry an enormous key–the key of the workhouse, of course–and in the other–what do they call those things like French horns with presents coming out of them?–a cornucopia, out of which would be pouring portable radios, life- insurance policies, false teeth, aspirins, French letters, and concrete garden rollers.

As a matter of fact, in Ellesmere Road we don’t own our houses, even when we’ve finished paying for them.  They’re not freehold, only leasehold.  They’re priced at five-fifty, payable over a period of sixteen years, and they’re a class of house, which, if you bought them for cash down, would cost round about three-eighty. That represents a profit of a hundred and seventy for the Cheerful Credit, but needless to say that Cheerful Credit makes a lot more out of it than that.  Three-eighty includes the builder’s profit, but the Cheerful Credit, under the name of Wilson & Bloom, builds the houses itself and scoops the builder’s profit.  All it has to pay for is the materials.  But it also scoops the profit on the materials, because under the name of Brookes & Scatterby it sells itself the bricks, tiles, doors, window-frames, sand, cement, and, I think, glass.  And it wouldn’t altogether surprise me to learn that under yet another alias it sells itself the timber to make the doors and window-frames.  Also–and this was something which we
really might have foreseen, though it gave us all a knock when we discovered it–the Cheerful Credit doesn’t always keep to its end of the bargain.  When Ellesmere Road was built it gave on some open fields–nothing very wonderful, but good for the kids to play in– known as Platt’s Meadows.  There was nothing in black and white, but it had always been understood that Platt’s Meadows weren’t to be built on.  However, West Bletchley was a growing suburb, Rothwell’s jam factory had opened in ’28 and the Anglo-American-All-Steel Bicycle factory started in ’33, and the population was increasing and rents were going up.  I’ve never seen Sir Herbert Crum or any other of the big noises of the Cheerful Credit in the flesh, but in my mind’s eye I could see their mouths watering. Suddenly the builders arrived and houses began to go up on Platt’s Meadows.  There was a howl of agony from the Hesperides, and a tenants’ defence association was set up.  No use!  Crum’s lawyers had knocked the stuffing out of us in five minutes, and Platt’s Meadows were built over.  But the really subtle swindle, the one that makes me feel old Crum deserved his baronetcy, is the mental one.  Merely because of the illusion that we own our houses and have what’s called ‘a stake in the country’, we poor saps in the Hesperides, and in all such places, are turned into Crum’s devoted slaves for ever.  We’re all respectable householders–that’s to say Tories, yes-men, and bumsuckers.  Daren’t kill the goose that lays the gilded eggs!  And the fact that actually we aren’t householders, that we’re all in the middle of paying for our houses and eaten up with the ghastly fear that something might happen before we’ve made the last payment, merely increases the effect. We’re all bought, and what’s more we’re bought with our own money.  Every one of those poor downtrodden bastards, sweating his guts out to pay twice the proper price for a brick doll’s house that’s called Belle Vue because there’s no view and the bell doesn’t ring–every one of those poor suckers would die on the field of battle to save his country from Bolshevism.”

I’m fairly sure he wrote this with Letchworth Garden City in mind (he lived near the town at the time). It is a great view of the commuter belt in general but the fact that the properties are leasehold and the similarity to what is now the (still powerful)Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation made me think, “hah”. It also makes it both funnier and more apt in view of all of the Tory chatter over planning recently, holding Letchworth up to the nation as a planner’s wet dream. Oh, and then there’s the fact that I read a story in the Guardian yesterday calling for a return to the 1930s solution to the Great Depression: house building and home ownership on a grand scale.

Basically, I think the entire book should be required reading for everyone every seven years so we can get some perspective from this funny little man’s midlife crisis. As a story, it’s not the best ever written but as a journey, it’s wonderful. If Coming Up For Air was on the syllabus, instead of Animal Farm and 1984, the Establishment would have genuine cause to worry. It’s the little things that trap us, in the end.