It may be hard to believe, in the midst of a benefit sanctions regime that sees one in five universal credit applications turned down, and a “hostile environment” that directly led to the Windrush scandal, but most of the current Conservative government also stood at the 2010 general election with a campaign that centred on something called the “big society”. The idea was that the state, massive and overblown as it apparently was after years of Labour profligacy, was taking up too much space in people’s lives. Move the government out of the way and communities would step in to fill the gaps, giving it some of that old British blitz spirit, reinvigorating civil society along the way.
As with many Tory policies, this was based on the fantasies of people whose only interaction with the realities of the private rental market was checking the yields on their property portfolios. It’s a philosophy that contains a toxic mix of soft-focus nostalgia for a time that never was, and quasi-religious moralising that sees poverty not as a scourge to be eradicated but a tool for disciplining society’s undeserving into better behaviour.
Predictably, this experiment in social engineering did not reveal a hidden population of people with the time and money to spare who had just been held back by the stifling provision of basic public services. The gaps left by the slash-and-burn policies of the Cameron-era coalition were filled not by an army of cheerful local volunteers, but by predators who saw other people’s vulnerability as an opportunity for profit.
As Jennifer Williams reported in the Manchester Evening News, the city’s homelessness crisis has provided a rich opportunity for unscrupulous landlords offering “temporary housing” facilities that are often neither temporary nor really housing, except in the broadest possible interpretation, with people living for years in squalid, dangerous buildings. Vulnerable people are given a stark choice – live in a rundown, dirty, unmaintained and insecure environment, or risk life on the streets. The charitable organisation Justlife estimates that there are tens of thousands of households in the UK living in unsupported temporary accommodation, over and above the official homelessness figures.
As the big society gave way to the hostile environment, so too did the dangers to which migrants were exposed. In their Women Living in a Hostile Environment report, the End Violence Against Women Coalition says: “The impact of No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) conditions on migrant women who have suffered domestic abuse and are financially or otherwise dependent on their spouse or partner has been devastating.” Unable to go to the police or seek public support for fear of falling foul of the Home Office’s opaque rules and obsession with deportation targets, women find themselves dependent on and unable to leave abusive partners.
From loan sharks to exploitative employers, rogue landlords to domestic abusers, rolling back basic public services has created opportunities for the unscrupulous to take advantage of those with nowhere else to turn. The big society has become the predatory society.
The existence of a forgotten and neglected underclass of people is not something unique to the Conservatives’ time in office. Vulnerable people and those who prey on them are not new. The safety nets in the UK have often been badly maintained and easy to slip through, but the Tory solution has been to blame the safety net itself rather than its design, and then to work to make it even worse.
The right wing will argue that this is a negative view of humanity, that they, and they alone, believe that people are noble of spirit and capable of rising above their circumstances. Rather than telling people to rely on “handouts” we should be encouraging them to pull their socks up and get on their bikes. But poverty is a social phenomenon, and public services were the tools that we built to enable people to rise above it. Being poor is exhausting and stressful, and running the gauntlet of a predatory society is a full-time job in itself.
At the sharp end of a brutal and precarious society, people do not have the time or resources to perform the role of “we were poor but we were happy” peasants for the edification of privately schooled landowners looking to justify their monopolistic hoarding of the nation’s wealth. Those who find themselves in this situation are regarded as unworthy and undeserving and therefore eminently ignorable – and it’s easy to do when the people tearing up the safety nets are also writing the rules about what counts as deserving. As the late Terry Pratchett observed: “While it was regarded as pretty good evidence of criminality to be living in a slum, for some reason owning a whole street of them merely got you invited to the very best social occasions.”
Tory policy can – and should – be reversed, but to truly make a difference we have to see through the bankrupt ideology that tries to reimagine letting economic predators off the leash as being socially progressive. Rather than sanctions or deportation targets, we should be setting the target that everyone should have access to a life worthy of living. There should always be an alternative to the loan shark and the slumlord, but it won’t just appear because rightwing theorists say it should. The work has to be put in to make sure everyone has somewhere to turn other than the predators in our society. If not, then what is to stop them taking advantage?
• Phil McDuff writes on economics and social policy
- Social exclusion
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