I started writing this blog on the day of the budget. Reeling from the news that 18-21 year olds will no longer be able to claim housing benefit and that employees under the age of 25 will miss out on the so-called living wage, I started writing about the reality for so many young people who need a helping hand, who don’t and can’t earn enough to pay extortionate rents and have no option to move “home”. But the more I wrote, the more disheartened I became and for several days I wallowed, wondering if we could ever fight back against the most inhumane British government in living memory. Then I re-read my last blog – about learning from history and from the movements that have come before. About the alternative societies established by people just like us in the face of overwhelming adversity. So this is my collection of thoughts on what we do next…
The awfulness of Wednesday
Osborne announced in Wednesday’s budget that the rich will get richer and the poor poorer, all under cover of a so-called “living wage” (it isn’t one. More on this here). Amongst the corporate tax cuts and allowing millionaires to pay less inheritance tax was news of £4.5bn cuts to tax credits and the abolition of housing benefit for 18-21 year olds. On housing benefit, the assumption, of course, is that 18-21 year olds should be in work or in education. If they’re in neither then they should ruddy well move home with their parents who are clearly obliged to look after them until they’re married off. Or something.
This is of course, complete nonsense and based on the idea that all young people have the same sort of privileged upbringing as the cabinet who will implement the policies. An upbringing where your comfortably-off parents can easily afford to put you up – that you’ll always have somewhere to go. It also assumes that a) young people would have parents or other family who could support them; b) the family members would be willing to take them back (what happens in families where young people have been kicked out because of sexual orientation, addiction problems, mental health issues etc?) and c) that the person wants to move in with family and would be safe there (what about cases of abusive family members?).
I’ve always been privileged enough to have a family safety net. My parents split when I was seven so I even have two options of which parent I could stay with if I ever needed. Neither has ever been well off but I know they’re there and that they’d take me in if I were to lose my job or fall ill. Even so, I claimed housing benefit when I was 21. It was only for a month but had I not had that safety net, I would have had no option but to move out of the city where the jobs were and back in with one of my parents. As it was, I managed to pay my rent, find a job and set out on a path of adult independence. How many people will be denied that opportunity by this utterly backwards move to remove benefits from the young?
Almost immediately after the budget announcements, the fear and anxiety set in amongst the young, the unemployed, low paid, public sector workers and women. I watched a video of a young woman in Southend who lives in the YMCA, the roof over her head paid for by housing benefit. As she said, without that money, the 30+ young people in that hostel will be out on the streets and in danger all over again.
Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity, had a great social media campaign which started almost right away. Tragically, it was in part a call for funds in order to support the thousands who will face homelessness because of Tory cuts.
As Polly Toynbee said in her Guardian article, this is punishment of the young and poor (who by and large don’t vote Tory) and rewards for the rich and the elderly (who are much more likely to have voted for Cameron). This callous disregard for the safety and prospects of young people is in part based on the assumption that we won’t fight back. The assumption is that there won’t be riots on the street and that even if we did fight back in traditional protest, we could simply be ignored as radical or extremists, unwilling to work hard or better ourselves. But this is what they’re counting on.
For years I’ve heard many people jokingly saying “so when’s the revolution?”, knowing that there is very little prospect of real reform without a strong and powerful people’s movement. Honestly, whilst I’d love to see an end to Tory rule and a socially just government with greater devolution to the nations and regions of the UK (and obvs independence for Scotland) I don’t think that change is about to come about through one movement or one action. There will be no Arab Spring here. But where I think change is possible is in a large number of small actions, rather than a small number of large ones. Democracy Now recently aired an old interview with legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger who had a beautiful way of putting it;
I honestly believe that the future is going to be millions of little things saving us. I imagine a big seesaw, and at one end of this seesaw is on the ground with a basket half-full of big rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air. It’s got a basket one-quarter full of sand. And some of us got teaspoons, and we’re trying to fill up sand. A lot of people are laughing at us, and they say, “Ah, people like you have been trying to do that for thousands of years, and it’s leaking out as fast as you’re putting it in.” But we’re saying, “We’re getting more people with teaspoons all the time.” And we think, “One of these years, you’ll see that whole seesaw go zooop in the other direction.” And people will say, “Gee, how did it happen so suddenly?” Us and all our little teaspoons.
For me, the kind of actions we need are things like strikes and rent strikes; mixed with blockades and traditional protests. We need to mix these actions with the kind of alternative social security net that women’s movements and civil rights movements have built before – food and shelter for those who have neither, provided by the people because the state won’t do it. We need to learn from history but also from each other, connecting these small actions together so we know we’re not alone. And we must have solidarity with one another – support the strikes, give generously to homelessness services and stand with others whose voices may not be heard. Who knows, maybe these many actions, together, can change the balance.