Wednesday, 11 March 2015

It's a dog's life

In the late winter of 2000-2001, I was back living with my parents, having finished University and just returned from adventures in Turkey to a sense of directionless confusion.  I was, as is often the way when little else offers itself, tending bar in the pub where I was born, but had little idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

I have a cat now, but growing up I was a dog-boy.  When I was seven years old, I remember spending hours one Cornish afternoon throwing stones into the sea for a passing Collie.  Not a stray, just a local dog.  In and out of the cold water he rushed, and I was utterly smitten with his enthusiasm to endlessly play and the way his eyes appeared to be telling me something.  It was, apparently, that moment when my parents decided to acquiescence to my pestering for a dog of our own.  A few months later, for my eighth birthday, we acquired Sally. 

Sally was a mongrel, rescued from the Dog’s Trust.  She wasn’t a fancy breed; a nothing special dog, fuelled by an insatiable greed (demonstrated by a tendency to slavishly drool), disposition to honk of sweaty socks when wet and a cantankerous aggression towards any other dog which ventured into a square mile of her presence.  But she was fiercely loyal, adoring and grateful for her home.  She was always keen to play, go for a walk or simply hover while I bemoaned whatever minor crisis my small world was enduring, head cocked seemingly listening.  I loved her to bits.

Thirteen years later, that post-Turkey winter, she was deafer, fatter, less mobile and missing one toe, but still devoted to her owners.  She’d had a good day.  She’d been for a decent walk, long pink tongue slavering the way round, argued with a neighbour’s dog and chased an old tennis ball around the hall, the rebounding scuffing marks onto the freshly painted skirting boards.  She was fast asleep, sprawled on the lounge rug when she began to fit.  A series of sharp convulsions and an almost silent whimpering.

She’d had a stroke, but survived, of a sort.  A shadow of nothing.  In the morning, my Mum and I took her to vet, knowing she wouldn’t come back.  I was almost twenty-two years old and inconsolable.

It was those feelings which returned when I read about the Red Setter “murdered” at Crufts last weekend.  Whoever is responsible is, presumably, involved with dogs.  They must know what they mean to their owners.  All that grief, just for a petty trophy.  Some people have lost all sense of perspective.

Iain Duncan Smith is another man who has lost his sense of perspective.

A few years ago Duncan Smith had a much reported epiphany in Glasgow.  It was – he said at the time – a Damascus moment.  The media held it up as compassionate Conservatism.  This was how the party had changed.  It could hold Tory values, but still want to help the most desperate in society. 

Instead, it seems to have been a disguise.  Duncan Smith has been at the spearhead of a concentrated assault on the poorest people in the country, those most in need of our help.  He must be one of the few politicians to lead a consistent maligning in the press of the electorate while holding major office.  An eroding of benefits, ending in the absurdity of the so-called spare bedroom tax, have seen the government gleefully embrace their reputation as the nasty party.  There has been no pretence; their role has been to kick those already down.

Glasgow seems to not have helped Duncan Smith to realise that the death dive circle of economic hardship makes it even more imperative that the state support those in need.   Instead he seems to have seen people who would be only too willing to help themselves if only the government would stop giving them money and leave them to buck their own ideas up. 

He seems to have fundamentally misunderstood what life on benefits is like and who makes claims.  Most people want to be in work and are actively looking for work.  Duncan Smith wants an end to the so-called “life on benefits”.  He assumes that there are people who see making claims as an alternative lifestyle and they will be given short shrift.  The right wing media paints a picture of whole areas of inner-cities and run down rural communities awash with people putting their feet up and waiting for the cash to arrive.  But, in 2011 of the 1.5 million people claiming jobseekers allowance, only 4,220, or 0.3% had been claiming for five years or more (stat courtesy of Polly Tonybee and David Walker’s Cameron’s Coup).

The Tories want to reduce the benefits bill but refuse to acknowledge the two major elephants in the room.  By far the largest proportion of social security funding goes on pensions and related costs, free TV licences, free bus passes, etc.  The demographic most likely to vote Conservative has, unsurprisingly, had their benefits protected.

Of the remaining benefit pot, the biggest pay out is for housing benefits – again, unsurprisingly as this is most people’s largest expenditure.  Housing benefits payments have spiralled massively over the last thirty years thanks to right to buy reducing the social housing stock and pushing people into the unregulated, over-inflated private rental market, increasing the cost to the tax payer and decreasing the security and standards of living for many. 

A Conservative government is never going to instigate significant social housing construction nor sufficiently incentivise developers to build real affordable housing – as opposed to the sort that grudgingly does so to comply with planning regulations and installs a separate entrance for theless desirable tenants.  An increase in housing stock would move young high earning professionals who can’t scrape together a deposit because all their money goes on rent into ownership, but the lack of supply of housing is one of the factors pushing the prices ever upwards, especially in London.  It’s sustaining the whole false economic recovery Austerity Osborne is betting the election result on.

The so-called spare bedroom tax is absurd.  Leaving aside the very sensible reasons people may have for requiring a spare room and that their housing benefit payments may or may not be long term, it completely ignores the importance of people’s communities and assumes that there is an abundance of choice to be made in housing.  There have been stories of people being relocated to one bedroom flats in different cities because nothing is suitable in their current one.  Can you imagine how destructive to confidence and life it must be to be forcibly uprooted in this way, moved away from family, friends and a familiarity with the infrastructure which those already struggling need to help get them through it all?

The assumption here is that the state prevents people from working by offering them an alternative, but the real data doesn’t back this up.  Instead of opening up labour markets and incentivising people to go to work, all this government has managed to do is kick people when they’re down.  It has eroded away the support we offer those at their weakest, lowest moments.  People having gone through the shock and awe of being made redundant no longer have the benefit of getting their head straight for a couple of weeks with the state looking after them.  They have to go straight back out to seeking work, even if that work is a poor use of their skills.  Ten years experience in digital marketing and just laid off?  Never mind, here’s a zero hours contract for JJB Sports, now piss off.

Meanwhile Universal Credit stutters towards hugely expensive delays, another ludicrous government IT system no-one really understands nor necessarily needs.  Plus it assumes that you’ll have a computer and an internet connection at home.  Those are going to be sacrificed before food, I reckon.  Job Centre staff allegedly have secret targets to remove claimants from the benefits register for the most spurious of reasons.  The mantra piles down: we don’t care; we shouldn’t care; let them sort themselves out; they’re better off alone.

All this ignores the fact that national insurance, into which we all pay, is an insurance policy for when we’re down and out.  We are entitled to make a claim on it.  That’s how insurance policies work.

For someone who abhors claimants of aid as much as Duncan-Smith does, perhaps he should think twice before submitting a £100 expenses claim for wet wipes.  Unless they’re provide sanitation for Cameron as he hides out from the country’s media, and refuses to enter into televised debates he insisted become part of the national discussion.

Back in the autumn of 1964 Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the Conservative Prime Minister, could hold on no longer.  In audience with the Queen he asked for permission to dissolve parliament and seek election by the public.  The Conservatives’ thirteen years in power had hardly been smooth.  From Churchill’s bumbling towards retirement, showing himself to be ill-suited to peace time leadership, Eden’s disastrous rose-tinted Imperialist invasion of Egypt and while MacMillan may have been one of the most cultured, intellectual and moderate Tory leaders, even he couldn’t survive the Profumo scandal.  Douglas-Home had taken the reigns barely a year earlier and had been trying to generate a resurgence since the Spring.  It wasn’t coming and he was out of time.

Harold Wilson didn’t exactly romp home to victory, though.  A Labour majority of four was not to help him drive through reforms his predecessors had instigated in 1945, but a win was a win; power, however tempered, is still power.  Two years was enough to create a feel good atmosphere and a majority of 98 in the snap election of 1966.

The curious thing is that, like in 1997, Labour came to power at times of adversity – when the world looked, at least, politically, bleak - and steered the country through periods of social reform.   When outdated morals and misguided opinions are loosened.   While the notion of an uber-cool swinging society was mainly confined to London, in 1964 the rest of the country resembled something more akin to the Nottingham of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning.  A grind of back-to-back terraces and manual labour, interrupted by heady drinking and simple distractions.  As the decade progressed, the world lit up.

We approach 2015 in a similar state, only rather than an ill-informed view of pop music, the young, drugs or homosexuals the current government has fostered a hatred of the poor.  If we let them keep going, we we’ll have regressed back beyond 1964, back before national insurance was introduced in 1911 and to a time when being out of work meant being on the streets, being unable to pay your debts meant going to prison and being disabled meant you were better off dead. 

Governments are like dogs.  They’re supposed to do what we tell them, but always insist on heading off in their own direction.  And the ones you have the longest leave the most lasting impression.  Let’s leave this tied up on the motorway hard shoulder.

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