So the last fringe event is over, the tepid wine (not champagne, not on camera at any rate) drunk and party activists packed off home from the fleshpots of Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. How much of the conference magic dust still glitters over the announcements and speeches that held everyone spellbound as they listened?
Given my situation I’ve been playing quite close attention to the Party Conferences this year. I’m grateful for any snippet of information that might make it more likely that I find some gainful employment sooner rather than later. I’m afraid though that all that happened was I got quite grumpy.
There was a grisly fascination to proceedings. The LibDems appeared a bit like the housemates in Celebrity Big Brother. Some desperate for the glare of the limelight again. Others simply befuddled at how they had got there and the daftness of the things they were being asked to do.
Labour, of course, was pure Jeremy Kyle straight from the, ‘My Brother Stole My Job. But I Still Love Him’, episode.
But, of course, we public servant watchers of our national political leaders were most interested in the Conservatives. They did not disappoint.
Just when you think public debate has just reached rock bottom, zing! Off it goes plummeting in a new, but entirely predictable, downward direction.
O yes folks, the undeserving poor are with us again. For those of us who may be left in public service long days of exercising Solomon-like judgements on the lives of others beckon unappealingly. But, of course, it’s always great to get a chance to pontificate about how others choose to live. We are a nation that likes to watch Jeremy Kyle, How Clean is Your House and Wife Swap. So why not use this instinct to construct and direct public policy?
Let me declare an interest here (aside from facing imminent redundancy). I’ve been poor. It was crap. My mother and father parted company just before I was born. I was brought up in a rural council house, in a single parent family living on benefits. It wasn’t a lifestyle choice. It was bad luck.
Bad luck by my father in getting a severe head injury in the war that transformed him into an angry, violent drunk. Bad luck that when he left the family got turfed out of the tied cottage. Bad luck that my mother’s family couldn’t afford to send her to grammar school so she left school and entered domestic service in 1934 at the age of 14. Like I said. Bad luck.
I don’t claim any particular virtue for me or my family here. I only want to illustrate that there are many reasons that make people poor. How is any sensible system of welfare support going to sort out the wheat from the chaff of humanity that comes to it for help? Perhaps we ought to have local citizens’ juries doing it on cable?
That wouldn’t have worked in our case. Being a single parent in rural England in the 1960s gave our village neighbours free rein to label my mother as some sort of scarlet woman. She couldn’t join the Mothers’ Union. I wasn’t even welcome at cubs. No, it took years of quiet and dignified application for us to be accepted. Helped along because my mother did housework for vital extra money for the well-to-do in the village.
Being in public service gives a person great scope to indulge any taste they may have for hypocrisy. From politicians with a limited grasp of why it is wrong to designate a shoe box under a relative’s bed as a second home to organisations spending thousands to find innovative ways of convincing their customers that they are not rubbish. But the hypocrisy of some folks’ anger when they now find the comprehensive spending review may cost them some money is a great addition to the canon.
The importance of universalism as a principle of the post-war social settlement was amply demonstrated by the outrage of those just over the threshold at which the Government proposes child benefit should be withdrawn. Suddenly the welfare state included them. And, not only that, they too were now labelled as being undeserving.
I doubt if there is anyone left near public policy making that remembers the world before our forebears decided to establish the welfare state. It must have been an extraordinary time. Relatives in my parents’ generation told me about the organised debates in demob centres on the future of Britain at the end of the war. Debates that sounded enthrallingly like the Putney Debates at the end of the Civil War.
People scarred and tested in a way that few can now claim decided to do something wonderful to avoid repeating the disasters of the 1930s. Creating a state in which everyone had a stake in a universal safety net of support to banish the Great Evils: Want; Disease; Ignorance; Squalor; and, Idleness.
My mother used to regale us with the story of her first trip to a GP when the NHS was set up. There at the front of the queue on the first day was the squire’s wife who announced that she was there to show the village the way. When anyone expressed outrage at this when hearing the story my mum would put them straight. Mrs Squire was there to show people that it wasn’t a shoddy second-rate service so that word would get around and people would come forward and get help. They were all truly in it together.
Seventy years later we have a political elite generally divorced from everyday life led by a cabinet whose leading figures are even more removed from the exigencies of making the domestic budget work. Together they have decided to do some topiary on the tree planted by that great war-time generation. The result looks suspiciously like a turkey.
For many like me in public service I suspect the benefits cap rang more alarm bells than the child benefit. Although I’m sure colleagues in HMRC will disgree. But the cap is tricky. Particularly with the distinction now being drawn between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ benefits claimants. I don’t think there are many public servants out there who will relish attempting to devise and implement public policy on these lines. How exactly is the cap to be implemented? Are local authority officers going to be escorting the poor over the border into cheaper boroughs or herding them up the motorways northwards to somewhere beyond the Watford Gap?
Probably not. But it seems likely that the local council customer service centre will be the place where people will be told that their benefits are being reduced. Veterans of the Community Charge will be pulling their old body armour out from under the bed.
I mentioned hypocrisy earlier. One of the ironies about the high cost of housing benefit is that it’s the entirely predictable side-effect of property prices. Three things drive rents: the cost of property; the cost of money; and, landlord’s profit margins. So everyone that tut-tutted at the money being spent on housing benefit while sitting on an unearned capital nest egg in their house may like to reflect that they are part of the problem too and be a little less judgemental about others. I won’t hold my breath for that one.
So am I deserving or undeserving? Well according to many, public servants like me richly deserve our long-overdue fate. The Madame Defarges of this brigade will hugely enjoy the head count from their ring-side seats. I just worry that my ‘far better rest’ will be longer than I or my family can cope with. I’m sure I not alone in wondering what we really did to deserve our fates.