I went to the RSA to hear Stephen Armstrong talk about his journey last year, following in the footsteps of George Orwell, which he describes in The Road To Wigan Pier Revisited. It was a disturbing and challenging talk, because it suggested to me that there had ben a systematic failure of politicians of all hues over the last fifty years.
Armstrong described how, despite the growth in wealth and incomes in this country, the poor were in much the same situation as Orwell described in 1936.
Armstrong told lots of stories – he is a journalist, so that is what he does. Most were depressing – housing estates designed to isolate those living there; employment contracts which won’t guarantee to pay you, but will stop you claiming benefits; short term employment contracts which disincentivise working since leaving and rejoining the benefits system means the worker may go weeks without money; workers too scared to talk openly about their working conditions because they fear reprisals from their employers; the police enforcing civil contacts by arresting debtors so debt collectors could take back property.
Some stories were heart-warning too: the community centre putting on art classes which seem to change the way local people view themselves and the works around them; communities coming together in the face of adversity; a former steel worker with a tattoo of George Orwell on his arm, telling Armstrong “not to fuck up” the book.
Most of the stories told how those in power had let down the people below them – those at the bottom of the pile. Inequality in Britain is at the same level as 1936. (I can’t find the figures, but this data and infographic show a dramatic increase in inequality between mid-1970s and 2000s.) The transfer of population and jobs from the north to the south has taken the heart from communities – just as the relocation of people from slums to new estates broke long-held ties. The de-industrialisation from the 1980s onwards has created a non-working class, whom the demonisation of “chav culture” has left unrepresented. It is easier for politicians to point the blame at “benefits fraudsters” (despite getting his figures very wrong – as pointed out by that well know left-wing paper, the Daily Telegraph) than it is to collect taxes from global corporations.
Armstrong didn’t mention it, but that much of this happened under 13 years of Labour government is a shocking indictment.
(This makes me sound like a rabid socialist; I am not. But the gross wrongs undertaken by politicians seem – well, so wrong!)
Armstrong didn’t have any solutions; nor did the audience. There are no simple answers to complex problems. But the failure of party politics to meet the needs of much of the population suggests to me that party politics won’t be able to supply the answers.
Armstrong believed that much of the problem lay with the disruption of established communities: so perhaps the answers lie within the communities themselves. He mentioned on community leader who, on being asked if the “big society” might be one answer, responded that the big society would fail because it was imposed from above: it had to be communities which solve their own problems.
This may be too much of a get-out clause for central government: they need to take steps to enable communities to tackle local issues. Party politics at a local level has not provided any answers. Is there another model that could enable local communities to coalesce and take locally-oriented action? What would central and local government need to do to facilitate true localisation? To put power in the hands of local people? And can they do it before the underclass we have created decide to do it inspite of, not because of, their representative politicians?