by Tom Harris
Every elected Labour official has the same experience: hard-working constituents regale us with tales of how they receive no help from the state, whereas the plights of others, usually described as “immigrants” and almost always “unemployed” and “benefit claimants” receive the most attention.
The problem for my party is that such grievances have a dangerous amount of validity.
One parliamentary colleague describes how his father, having worked all his adult life, raised a family in their council house and never failed to pay his rent on time, was philosophical about the fact that his modest request for a new home, closer to relatives, would remain at the bottom of the priorities list. Why? Because he had worked all his adult life and never failed to pay his rent on time.
The government’s various panic-stricken maneuverings over council house tenures reveals that the multi-millionaire, privately educated members of the Cabinet (and I use none of those descriptions in a pejorative sense) are finding it just as hard to get a grip on this aspiration thing as many members of my own party.
The Tories and their Lib Dem partners seem to see council housing as a sign of failure, almost a punishment for not having worked hard enough at school. Their “solution” to the housing shortage is to force those living in such estates to bugger off as soon as they find a job and start to enjoy the fruits of their labour. In a sea of inept initiatives from this government, this is probably the most bonkers of them all: reserve council estates exclusively for those who can’t or won’t work, and remove all the successful, aspirational tenants, often against their will.
Where does that leave young people living in such estates? Where are the role models that teach them that hard work is rewarding? I’ll tell you where: nowhere near you, mate!
Yet some on the left also have a hard time with this whole aspiration thing. I suggested on Twitter some weeks ago that perhaps those who are in employment and have demonstrated a commitment to earn a living should be given some sort of priority over those who don’t. Now, I accept that within the confines of 140 characters, it’s virtually impossible to convey the detail of such an idea and to offer the caveats and qualifications that must be attached. Nevertheless, the idea was up there: hard work should be rewarded.
This was too much for some: “But what about the unemployed? What about the vulnerable? What about the disabled?” I was advocating a return to the Edwardian concept of the deserving and undeserving poor, apparently.
What I was trying (clearly unsuccessfully) to convey was that Labour needs to start coming up with policies to help working people, and to stop assessing those policies exclusively through the prism of their effect on the very poorest in society. That doesn’t mean we don’t care any more about those people, who obviously do need our help and support. It just means that we need to refocus on the workers and give them as much attention as we do the most vulnerable.
So, for example, why not reserve, say, ten per cent, of the highest quality social housing specifically for school leavers who have worked hard at school and then gone on to find employment? They won’t be able to buy their own home yet, and renting in the private sector would probably be unaffordable or would leave them without enough disposable income to put money away for a deposit.
Similarly, I recently suggested (again through Twitter – I really need to start writing on Uncut more) that if we were to expand pre-school provision for three-to-five-year-olds, then we should prioritise the children of those in work. That’s not to say that the current level of provision, which is rightly universal, should be in any way reduced; simply that we recognise that two and a half hours of pre-school care a day is as bad as useless for many working parents, and that full time provision could make a massive difference to the quality of life of working parents.
See what I did there? No mention of unemployed parents, or drug addicts or long-term benefit claimants. This, of course, will be anathema to some. Proposing policies that are specifically and exclusively aimed at helping those groups? Well done, comrade. But do the same for the workers? Unacceptable.
Ironically, in an era when traditional political boundaries have become blurred and ambiguous, political discourse seems to have polarised between those who advocate the cause of the wealthy and those whose overriding concern is the dispossessed.
But here’s the thing: most ordinary voters are neither wealthy nor dispossessed. They’re what Ed Miliband rightly calls the “squeezed middle”. And Labour must not allow “common denominator politics” to force every idea through a sieve that ensures the only policies we adopt are those whose outcomes are the same for everybody – not least because such an aim is impossible to achieve anyway.
Too many of those who work hard, provide for their families without relying on the state and who pay their rents and mortgages on time each month feel that Labour doesn’t care about them, that they’re not our priority.
But they should be.
One last sobering thought: there was a time in our party’s history when a Labour MP didn’t have to make the case for the workers being our priority.
Tom Harris is Labour MP for Glasgow South.