Surfing accident in Reading: What I learned on the Austerity Uncovered tour
You need to know two facts about me to understand this blog. First, I was born at home in South London in a two up two down house with no bathroom and an out-house bog at the end of the yard. When the house was condemned, I was 10 and it was 110. The rest of my school-aged years were spent on a council estate, where my mother still lives. We were poor but my brother and I were never left hungry. Fact one; education was my route out of poverty. Fact two, I have three adult children who are now 24, 21 and 19.
As I sat in Queen Victoria Street in Reading I could hear the echo of those quizzical voices who had said to me “Why is the TUC taking the Austerity Uncovered Bus to Reading? It’s a nice place, isn’t it?” Indeed I sat there surrounded by vibrant shop fronts including top end retailers and judging by the volume of white vans and delivery truck trying to beat the delivery curfew, the logistics sector is strong and the consumer economy vibrant in Reading.
When it arrived the TUC Austerity Bus came face to face with an immense truck driven by a Dutchman, driving in the wrong direction, and within moments Broad Street was gridlocked. It might have been a good opportunity to talk to lots of white van drivers about their experience of austerity, the pay squeeze and public sector cuts, but for some reason they were not in a good mood. I wondered whether it would a good thing if the TUC featured as a hazard on early morning radio traffic reports? Heck yes.
With the bus eventually in position, ground crew assembled and briefed, photo call done and my George Osborne mask put away until Halloween, we could start the hitting the pavements to collect people’s real stories of austerity, the pay and working hours squeeze and cuts to services.
It is sincerely an honour and a privilege when people in real need, or who have problems, let you into their lives. Their first hand testimony, which often means their pain, turns data into truths. Here are some of those stories.
Recession and austerity economics affects virtually every community and so behind Reading’s shop fronts there are shop assistants and cleaners whose lives have become more and more difficult. I spoke at length to Jas, a female shop assistant. She is contracted to work 19 hours a week but cannot survive on the income that gives her. She wants dignity and respect at work and to illustrate this she stood up straight and proud, eyes forward and tapped the underside of her chin with the tops of her fingers held horizontally. And then she said, “But if I want to win overtime from my manager I have to ‘kiss his boots’, otherwise he chooses his favourites”. She added, “Before this job I had three cleaning jobs at the same time. I cannot have children when my life is like this, I cannot have a family. This makes me sad but it is impossible to care for children in a world like mine”.
I sat and talked to a woman and her daughter. The woman is a qualified pharmacy assistant and she had seemingly had a typical working life for decades. But her husband had developed a terminal illness and she had given up work to care for him in his last days. Following his death she had suffered from stress and depression and particularly from panic attacks. She admitted that without a buddy by her, she cannot cope with everyday situations that most people would not find challenging, but ATOS declared her to be in virtually perfect health and fit for work. This meant she had to make a new claim for Job Seeker’s Allowance on-line and demonstrate that she was actively seeking work, but she has no computer or computer skills. She was apparently told to “go away and go to the library”. And she cannot contemplate attending a job interview alone. As you can imagine all was downhill from there as far as the ‘system’ was concerned. If it wasn’t for the charity and protection of friends and family, she would have been completely lost. She has worked all her life, but when she needed help, the system was not there for her.
An experienced fire fighter, still in his uniform, stopped for a chat. He was very proud of job and of the public service he helps provide. Despite the years of pay freeze he said that given the crap a lot of people have to put up with, such as low pay, zero hours contracts etc, it is good to have a relatively secure job that you are committed to rather than solely going to work for the money or out of desperation. But managers in the fire service are now alert to any cause that might get fire-fighters dismissed from the service on medical grounds, so knows that potentially he is just one injury away from the chop. He added, “When I look at what we have left I can’t see where we can make any more cuts in the fire service, but then I look at the cuts they are trying to impose on the service in London and I can see that they are thinking the unthinkable. People don’t realise that we are already running engines with four fire fighters instead of five. That means in life critical situations lives are put at risk, both the public’s and the fire-fighters”.
Throughout the day, when I spoke to people about their experience of austerity, I tried to remember to ask them about transport. Reading is a commuter hub, with people coming into town for the shops and town centre facilities and a lot of workers using the trains to get to London. Peak rate train fares got dog’s abuse and we were not even able to speak to commuters themselves because they had left town on the 06.30. But everyone kept saying; “No, the bus service is fine”. It finally dawned on me to ask whether the bus service was run by Reading Borough Council, which it is, and has been since 1878. Although the private sector sharks have circled from time to time, attempting to ‘compete’ with the public service, all have failed. Local people should not take their buses for granted.
I have been a trade unionist since the last ice-age, grew up on a south London Council estate, worked in an independent welfare benefit advice centre for unemployed and low waged during the 1990s recession and helped to organise campaigns against unfair benefit reform, poor training programmes and draconian sanction regimes.
I ‘totally’ do not know it all and am not blasé or complacent but I did think that I would be able to anticipate the issues that would confront me during my two days on the bus. Like a surfer on her board, watching the waves, catching the waves and going with them, maximising the ride. And near the end of day two I had spoken intimately with a lot of people and I had anticipated all the waves. Yes, I had learned new technical things that I did not know before and yes the conversations had highlighted some things as a much more common or deeper problem than I realised. But in the two days, I hadn’t fallen off my surf board.
My last organised meeting was with members of the Reading Youth Cabinet. I was looking forward to this and fantastic; they are bright, eloquent and deadly serious. They are not just young adults, they have thought about being young adults and they have organised their thoughts. I am not being patronising but I did have a mental check list of what they might want to talk about, and here we go. Young people are given a really bad image by the media and politicians; tick. There is little for young people to do around here, and few non-commercial places for young people to meet, and the cuts have made this worse; tick. The usefulness of work experience schemes organised by schools has collapsed because employers are reluctant and the government will not give schools the money for the necessary insurance cover; tick. It has become virtually impossible to get a Saturday or a holiday job, even paper-rounds are like gold dust, because the jobs we used to do are now done by casualised older workers aka 18-24s; big tick, because I had not comprehended how the new fragmented labour market had cascaded downwards and squeezed out young people. Nine thousand pound university fees are ridiculous. We hear all the time about how it is bad to be in debt and if we do a four year course we could be £60,000 in debt aged 22. “Yes, we will still try and go to Uni but we will do a course with a clear vocational outcome or have a definite work plan; tick. The only way to get a start at work seems to be through internships and voluntary work, but this is so unfair, “locking in inequality”; tick. It is a stimulating conversation, but I am still on my surf board.
Then a young women looks at me, eye contact; she is not talking to her shoes. She says “The government doesn’t see us as people, it just sees us as exam grades. The pressure on us is immense”. She is still looking at me, and of course she does not mean that it is just the government doing this to her and her friends, she means everyone, government, school and parents or carers – everyone. This is personal, and I misjudged this wave, my Tsunami moment, and I have been swept off my surf board.
Five years of recession and three years of austerity economics have had a massive impact on society, on standards of living and the on labour market. In response, parents like me, who are determined that their kids achieve their full potential so that they can go out and not just be happy, but help shape the world into a better place, put an ever greater emphasis on exams because the world is a nastier and rougher place than it used to be. Among the front-line victims of a world in which austerity is ‘the new normal’ are young adults facing the relentless pressure of ramped up exam pressure. And parents like me have become austerity’s accomplices.
Fortunately, some young people are wise, organised and concerned about their peers. Reading Youth cabinet priority for this year is an action plan to secure better mental health and well-being for young people. In an age of austerity, they have been very astute and we should all be listening. The TUC certainly is.