Nick Cohen

Why the poor loathe the Coalition

Why the poor loathe the Coalition
Text settings
Comments

Conservative readers still don’t understand why the Coalition is hated in the poor areas of Britain. They would grasp the loathing better if they went back through the arguments they made in opposition, and realised that their leaders have failed to follow through the logic of the ideas they once espoused.

The best Tory criticism of Gordon Brown to my mind was that he had stood by while the boom bypassed large parts of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the North and South West. He left them with Soviet-style local economies, dominated by the public sector. Their populations’ prosperity depended on state subsidy rather than private endeavour.

True enough, but now Conservatives and Liberals are cutting the public sector, without ensuring that the private sector is ready to plug the gaps.

Conservatives, if not Liberals, used to be tough on crime. Obviously, people of all conditions are the victims of criminals, but crime is still a class issue. Criminals are overwhelming poor young men who rob or abuse their equally poor neighbours. Hence the first ambition of anyone from the working or under-class, who strikes lucky, is to move to a “good” – i.e. safe – neighbourhood. Tories once knew that, yet now they are in power they have decided to cut law and order harder than any other service.

Below is an uncut version of a report from Worksop by Susie Boniface of the Sunday Mirror, which appeared in truncated form here.

It is worth reading in full because journalism about working-class Britain barely features in the mainstream media. Note the fear of people who had once worked in the pits. They lost their jobs, found menial work in the public sector and now believe that they will lose that too.

Note as well their belief that the government will withdraw what protection the police offer them from the violent drunks and addicts, who infest their town.

 

George Osborne Wreaks Havoc

 

By Susie Boniface.

 

IF GEORGE Osborne’s aristocratic ancestors ever visited Worksop in its prime, they would have peered out of their carriage windows to see a small market town thriving on canals, railways and coal.

The town’s working class was exactly that - proud grafters whose efforts lifted them out of the medieval mud which was all the town consisted of when local hero Robin Hood was robbing the passing posh.

They became prosperous and Worksop expanded to include the massive colliery at nearby Manton, while its market provided for dozens of local pit villages.

Then hard times came and in the 1980s the town was crippled by mining strikes as Margaret Thatcher fought an ideological battle with the unions. One after another the collieries closed and by the mid-1990s Worksop was awash with unemployment and heroin addiction.

“It’s taken us a generation but we’ve finally got back on our feet,” said local Labour MP John Mann. “We’ve got thousands of new jobs in, we’ve got on top of the drugs problem. And now we’ve been kicked right back down again.”

When George Osborne announced his drastic spending cuts on Wednesday economists, politicians and pundits were quick to express an opinion about his toughness, the nation’s deficit and the need for drastic measures to cut back the bloated public sector.

What no-one mentioned is what the public sector does in places like Worksop. Here it pays for such frivolous and unnecessary things as the police station, the fire crew, the hospital, the library, the court - around 200 jobs. It provides state-run care homes for the elderly and frail, grants which have attracted new businesses to invest in the area, and support homeless shelters, drug rehab programmes, and domestic violence support.

And despite George’s promise that frontline services would not suffer all of those things - each and every one of them - is going to be cut. The bloodletting has already begun.

Nottinghamshire County Council plans to privatise its care homes and shed 3,000 jobs. Nottinghamshire police force faces a £50m cut from a £200m budget and is likely to close Worksop police station and move its 50 or so officers to brigade headquarters in Arnold, 24 miles away. Nottinghamshire fire brigade faces a 25 per cent cut and there is talk of merging Worksop fire station, with 30 full-time and another dozen retained firefighters, with nearby Retford and losing some of the part-time crews. The same is being considered with the ambulance service.

The trust which runs Bassetlaw Hospital has to make £38m of savings over three years from a budget of £327m - an 11 per cent cut. It has already closed the hospital’s mortuary, is sacking 50 laundry staff and running a public consultation which, if approved, would mean running an A&E department without a consultant, closing the nursery and the paediatric department, ending acute surgery and meaning everyone in Worksop who has a serious and sudden need for medical care will have to travel 18 miles, or 45 minutes if traffic is light, to Doncaster Royal Infirmary.

John Mann said: “They’re turning it into a cottage hospital where you’ll be able to get treated for cuts and bruises or have an uncomplicated pregnancy. Anything else and you’re in trouble. Laundry staff might not be frontline but what happens to hygiene, and infections, and superbugs, without them?”

Pauline Hanson of the Worksop and District Stroke Club said: “They say there’s not enough people having strokes to justify an acute unit at the hospital. So if you have a stroke you’ll have to travel further, and wait longer, to get to a doctor who will administer the drugs you need to thin the clot in your brain.

“The chance of permanent brain damage will go up and a patient’s chance of a good recovery will go down. After a stroke they are more likely to need care, and welfare, and hospital than if they are treated early.”

And that is the obvious and saddening logic to what these cuts will mean in the years to come. By slashing our welfare bill today, all George has done is massively increase what it will be tomorrow.

A few months ago the council announced that it had to find £150m of savings from its £484m budget over the next three years. To pay for it, the cost of meals on wheels will go up, streetlights will be turned off after midnight, £5m of children’s services will be axed, and Worksop Library - opened only last month at a cost of £8.4m - is to go self-sevice and have its opening hours slashed. Icy roads will have less grit on them, and bus shelters will go uncleaned, and free day care centres for the elderly - a lifeline to many looking after loved ones for free - will close.

But the bulk of the savings will come from selling the county’s 13 care homes  to private firms which, after three years, will be able to shut them down and sell them off for housing.

Douglas and Gladys Hunt are have been at the Westwood care home in Worksop for the past year since their only son John decided, after repeated falls and despite visits from carers, they were too frail to live on their own. Despite a long waiting list, he persuaded staff to accept them.

Douglas, 87, fought his way across Europe in the Second World War all the way to the Baltic as part of the Royal Air Force. Afterwards he returned home to Worksop to work in Manton Colliery and married Gladys, who worked in the pit’s wage office.

He took early retirement with heart trouble and Gladys, who is now 85, lost her job in the strikes. They worked as hard as they could and now, at the end of their lives, they need the support of the state.

John told me: “They sold their home to pay for their care, which is about £1,000 a week for the both of them. If it’s privatised the cost could as much as double, and the care standards will go down. The private homes I’ve visited are not a patch on Westwood. The staff here really care, whereas in private homes it’s all about the profit margins.

“After three years the homes will be sold off or closed down. We’ll all be in the position where we need these homes, but the elderly will have to stay at home, where they’ll need more care visits, or spend more time in hospital. It will cost more to the state in the long run and when they realise that it will be too late to reopen these homes. They’ll be gone.”

George says that this is the point at which the Big Society will step in and charities, staffed by volunteers, will pick up the slack and look after the most vulnerable. Unfortunately he is cutting their budgets too.

Nottinghamshire Women’s Aid runs a refuge, supported housing, counsellors, children’s services, volunteers and community workers. It helps 7,000 women and children a year on a budget of just £900,000 - a cost of £128 a head. It has been warned that its budget, provided from the police, health trusts and county council, will be cut.

General manager Mandy Green said: “Two women have died in Nottinghamshire from domestic violence in the past few weeks. The UK average is only three a week.

“Domestic abuse is about power and control but it is accelerated by drugs, alcohol and unemployment. We are going to see a spike because of the job losses locally.

“If our money is cut we won’t be able to to get to these families early enough. They will be more likely to call the police, have hospital visits, and social services. The cost of that is far, far more than £128 a head. We won’t be able to keep those women safe. We have 10 volunteers and 36 paid staff - we have to be accredited and trained. You can’t do that for free.”

Hope Community Services, which has training courses, a 14-bed hostel and advice for the homeless, helped 940 people last year using a £144,000 county council grant and £70,000 in local fundraising. Its grant has been axed and although it has reserves to survive another year general manager Sandy Smith is worried it will have to close.

She said: “You can’t just take a homeless person on benefits and make them work. If you’ve been a heroin addict, you’ve shoplifted to fund your habit, have a criminal record and have no capacity to hold down a job. Your life has not prepared you for it.

“Even if there were jobs, most businesses won’t employ them. They need training and support. It’s not like waving a magic wand. These new measures will mean the jobless have their benefits cut by 10 per cent after a year. It sounds great but private landlords will just evict them and people will be back sleeping in doorways again. Crime will go up and it will be the nasty crimes - burglaries, robberies, muggings.”

Chris Cattlin, 23, walked out of his stepfather’s house after a row following his mother’s death three months ago. He left school without exams and spent 18 months in prison for GBH. Since his release he has had 20 jobs, none of them for very long. His children Ruby, four, and Coby, two, live with their mum and while he worked he paid what he could. He was hit with a £17,000 claim for child support and lost his last job, at a recycling unit, a month ago. He is now on £82 a fortnight jobseekers’ allowance.

“I’ve never been sacked,” he said. “I’m proud of that. There’s just always been redundancies and I’m the first to go because of my record. If it weren’t for the hostel I’d be on the street.”

He shows me the twin room he shares at the hostel with another homeless man, apologising for leaving his duvet untidy. When I ask him where his belongings are he shrugs and glances down at his jacket, jeans and shoes.

“This is all I’ve got,” he says.

“I want to work but no-one will employ me. I’ll do anything, I’d do two weeks unpaid just to prove I could do it but they always want people with experience and how are you going to get it if they don’t give you a chance?”

I ask him what he’ll do if his benefits are cut and the hostel closes. He shrugs and says: “I’ll be on the streets. I’ll have to nick stuff to put food in my belly.”

But it’s not just the public sector feeling the pain. City analysts PriceWaterhouseCoopers estimated that on top of the 500,000 state jobs to be lost, a similar number will go in private firms, pushing the jobless total to 3.4m.

In Worksop the biggest employers are a local food factory, which among other things produces all of the world’s Oxo cubes, and the headquarters for high street retailer Wilkinson’s. Other smaller firms have been enticed, in the past 10 years, with offers of regional development grants - the state providing the seed money for growth.

There are also hundreds of small businesses which service all the staff in both private and public sectors. Angela and Charlie Kaponas opened their cafe in pedestrianised Bridge Street in 1972 after migrating from Cyprus. They raised three children and seven grandchildren in Worksop but say the town has died.

Charlie, 70, said: “We have survived three recessions and this is the worst. The strikes, the 1990s, and now this. This is the worst. This will close us down.”

Angela, 62, added: “We’ve been here 39 years and have four staff. We don’t want to let them go. But rates are £8,600 a year, rent is £20,000, we have to pay separately for water, dustbins, everything. We went to a bank to ask for a loan and they said no. We have to keep prices low but VAT is going up to 20 per cent next year and if local public sector jobs go who will come in to buy a sandwich? How can I sell a cup of tea for £1 and give 20p to the Chancellor before I even meet those costs?

“They should take the cuts from people who can afford it, not people who are just trying to survive.”

The market which Worksop has relied on for 1,000 years is about to be permanently closed so the council can sell its site at the top of the town for a 900-seat cinema. The traders have been offered stalls in Bridge Street, but many say it’s too small and impractical and will take their trade elsewhere.

The Priory shopping centre recently had a spruce up but in the main street a pawnbroker’s is closed and there is little passing trade - certainly none with much money. When the Sunday Mirror photographer popped into the bank to withdraw £100 cash, the clerk immediately asked him: “What’s brought you to Worksop?”

Grandmothers Janet Pollard, 54, and Patty Dinsdale, 59, were in the town centre for an afternoon out with their granddaughter Elisha, three. Her mum Rebecca runs a hairdressers’ while dad Andrew works away six days a week laying gas pipes, and only gets to see his daughter on Sundays.

“We’ve never been on benefits,” said Janet. “My husband, my dad, his dad, they were all down the pit. We’re grafters and always have been but it’s people like us getting it in the neck. Elisha’s dad has to work away because there’s no jobs here, and they’ve lost the child benefit for her because her mum has her own business. I take care of Elisha after nursery so her mum can work, and at the school gates it’s all nans picking the kids up.

“The towns round here have shops all boarded up. There’s no jobs. When Elisha’s older she won’t be able to go to university because it’s too expensive. Her parents wanted another baby but now they’re wondering how they can afford it.”

Patty added: “My husband Brian worked in the pits since he was 15 and when he lost his job at 50 he walked round every industrial estate looking for work. Eventually he got a job cleaning schools. If that’s hit in the cutbacks I don’t know what we’ll do. I was hoping to retire next year but now I have to keep working. We came here on the bus and it cost us £8 - that’s an expensive day out for us, but people like George Osborne don’t understand.”

After the pits closed crime rocketed as it always does in tough times. Today Worksop still has crime figures higher than the national average and although burglaries, vehicle crime and violence are all falling the one growth area is anti-social beaviour which has rocketed by 16 per cent in the past year alone.

The principle reason is that while heroin has been largely stamped out its addicts, although clean, are ruined people. They remain unemployable and as a result have moved onto cheap booze as a replacement addiction.

The Worksop Guardian carries frequent complaints about drinking, vomiting and abuse in the town’s streets and whereas police could arrest and charge a heroin dealer or an addict, or have them referred for treatment, a drunk simply gets moved on.

Yet the police station could be closed, and the magistrates’ court  - which deals with 50 cases a day, as well as civil hearings and a family court - has been earmarked as one of 100 around the country to be shut by the Ministry of Justice in a £2bn drive which will see shorter sentences, fewer prison places, and less judges.

One court worker, who asked not to be named, said: “A few years ago they got rid of a load of jobs and got a private firm to provide security. We pay the same to the security guard as we did then, but another £11,000 on top to the firm that provides him. Where’s the money saved in that?

“When they close the court people won’t travel to Mansfield for hearings. The police will have to arrest them under warrant, and then drive them back. They’ll be a glorified taxi service and it’ll come to the point soon where you’ll have to murder someone before you go to prison.

“It’ll be anarchy here in a couple of years, you mark my words. The cost of sorting it doesn’t bear thinking about.”

When George got to his feet on Wednesday to announce these cuts he proudly said: “Today is the day when Britain steps back from the brink.” As far as the 39,000 people who live in Worksop are concerned, it was the day they were pushed over it.

George is never going to ask their opinion, he’s never going to visit, and judging from the measures he introduced he is never going to care much for the elderly, the young, or the vulnerable - all the ‘economically inactive’ bits of society which cost us money rather than make it.

He has, nevertheless, decided that we can simply do without them. We can cut them, and what they cost us, by £81bn a year and the George’s world will be a nicer place.

But what remains is this: the banks will still owe us £850bn. And every penny we save with these cuts will have to be repaid, with interest, when the elderly have to stay in hospital because there are no care home places, when stroke victims need more care because they didn’t get help in time, when women are beaten by their husbands because there’s no charity to help them, when the homeless are on the street and shoplifting to stay alive.

This is not just the economics of the madhouse, because lunatics in straitjackets would at least be random. George has deliberately targeted areas like Worksop - and towns just like it in Wales, the north east, the north west, all over the Labour heartland where the working-middle class has spent a generation recovering from the attack by Margaret Thatcher - and thrown them right back into the mud. His measures, ideological rather than practical, are a time machine that will take towns and villages all over the country right back to the 1820s, with peasants scrabbling in the mud as the rich trundle by.

The difference is that this time we will know it could be different.

When George travels around the country in helicopters and private jets donated for his personal use by wealthy businessmen, perhaps he looks out of the window and wonders how the people below live their lives.

Then again, perhaps he doesn’t.    

 

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

Comments
Topics in this articlePolitics