“For fairness, sustainability, and for the future.” #GPCONF speech in Brighton, 14th September

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Austerity works, according to our chancellor George Osborne. Austerity works. But apart from the Government’s pals at Wonga, who revealed last week that they make £1 million in profit a week by lending an average of £600 to people the week before payday, who does austerity actually work for?

Certainly not the 13 million people living in poverty in the UK.

Certainly not the half a million people that rely on emergency food handouts to feed themselves and their families.

When I say ‘poverty’, you probably conjure up images of children far away, emotive TV appeals, and ruthless dictators. How many of you think of the homeless that sit outside supermarket entrances and cash machines? How many of you have seen the queue at your local food bank, or even know where it is?

But of course. That’s not poverty. Not in the sixth or seventh richest country in the world. That’s ‘austerity’.

An article in the Guardian recently claimed that ‘austerity has been hijacked by the moralisers’ – and judging by George Osborne’s latest announcement that ‘austerity works’, it seems they were right. As though it’s all just ‘cosy frugality’, as though we are all just living in a snapshot of a nostalgic poster of post-War Britain. I’m surprised the posters haven’t made a reappearance, unaltered, to back up the chancellors claims.

Eat less bread. Food is a weapon. Your own vegetables all year round. Dig for victory. Home grown food. Make do and mend. Keep calm and carry on.

But there’s nothing cosy and nostalgic about missing days of meals, turning the heating off for two consecutive winters and every bloody day and night in between.

There’s nothing cosy and nostalgic about unscrewing the light bulbs so you can’t accidentally turn them on, or selling your son’s shoes, or drinking the formula milk that the food bank gave you because there’s nothing else. If that’s cosy frugality, the moralisers and apologisers ought to try it. For a month. Or six. Or eighteen.

Turn off the fridge, because it’s empty anyway. Sell anything you can see lying around that you might get more than a quid for. Walk everywhere in the pouring rain, in your only pair of shoes, with a soaking wet and sobbing toddler old trailing behind you. Drag that toddler into every pub and shop in unreasonable walking distance and ask them if they have any job vacancies. Try not to go red as the girl behind the counter appraises your tatty jumper and dirty jeans before telling you that they have no jobs available. “For you”, you add in your head, and you drag that toddler home, still soaking, still unemployed, to not-quite dry out in your freezing cold flat.

Put two jumpers on that you’ll wear all week, to keep washing to a minimum. You sit at home in your coat anyway, and nobody’s there to notice.

Drag yourself to the cooker to pour some tinned tomatoes over some cold pasta, and try not to hurl it across the room in frustration when your toddler tells you he doesn’t want it. I want something else, Mummy. But there isn’t anything else. But aren’t we supposed to just keep calm and carry on?

You get up the next morning and give your child one of the last weetabix, mashed with a little water, with a glass of tap water to wash it down with.

Where’s mummys breakfast? He asks, all big blue eyes and innocent concern. You tell him you aren’t hungry, but you weren’t hungry last night either, and sooner or later he’ll notice that mummy never seems hungry any more.

Hunger hurts. Hunger distresses, and depresses. Admitting that you cannot afford to feed your child is both terrifying and humiliating. Professionals that signpost people to food banks for help often report that they are reluctant to go, because it feels like begging. And my god, it feels like begging.

And you think if you admit to skipping meals, to feeding your child the same cold pasta for nights on end, you think if anyone notices the badly damaged wrists from your recent suicide attempt, that you might lose your son. He might be taken into care. And despite the cold and the despair and the mind raging with doubt and fear and uselessness, there’s a little boy that relies on you to provide his meals – no matter how rubbish they are – and to put his jumper on before he goes to bed at night. So you say you’re fine. But you’re not. You’re full of rain and heartache and anger and it’s starting to seep through the cracks in the kept up appearances. But don’t you just keep calm, and carry on?

My circumstances were not unique to me. The Oxfam report – Walking The Breadline, published in June this year, states that half a million people in the UK rely on food banks. Yet the Government puts their fingers in their ears, blaming feckless parenting and scroungers. Half a million feckless parents. Half a million scroungers. They claim that there is no link between cuts to welfare and the growing demand for food banks.

Lord Freud claims that people ‘turn up for free food’ – painting a picture of people waltzing in and topping up the Ocado delivery with a few battered fruits and some dented tins of tomatoes. Such comments display a complete disconnect from reality. You can’t just ‘turn up’ to a food bank. You need to be referred – by a childcare professional, a health visitor, social services or similar agency. Someone needs to recognise that your household is at serious risk of going hungry if they don’t intervene. And intervention is a feared word. So people become adept at pretending they don’t need help.

Michael Gove blames child poverty and hunger on reckless parenting – with no acknowledgement to the fact that many people using food banks are doing so because of benefit delays, sanctions, low income, and unemployment. No acknowledgement that many people who use food banks are IN WORK. What sort of a society do we live in where people who go out to work to support their families, need emergency food handouts?

Many parents tell of going to bed hungry themselves in order to feed their children. Gove would call that reckless parenting. And they repeat, they bleat, that food bank use has nothing to do with welfare cuts.

So here’s a figure.:

Since April 2013, and the introduction of the Bedroom Tax, food bank use in the UK has increased 175%.

The number one reason cited for food bank referral is cuts or delays to benefits, including sanctions and Bedroom Tax.

I’m here today, because as far as I can see, the Green party is the party for the future, for fairness and sustainability. But where’s the fairness, the sustainability, the hope for the future, for today’s children who are growing up hungry with no jobs to look forward to?

We need a short term solution, and a long term solution.

Short term – donate something to your local food bank. Pasta, rice, tinned vegetables, UHT milk, tinned fruit, whole grains – anything that doesn’t need to be stored in the fridge or freezer. Because although food banks aren’t THE solution, at the moment they’re all we have.

And long term, what can you do? Get behind the living wage campaign. Because an extra pound or so an hour to our lowest paid workers means that they will depend on less benefit top ups than they currently do. They will have more disposable income to support themselves and their families – buying more, feeding into the economy, and paying more tax. It’s a solution my three year old son could have come up with, so please, sign the petitions, put pressure on the Government, and help your fellow citizens – the people that sit on the supermarket checkouts until 11pm so you can buy a bottle of wine after work, the people that clean your office, and look after your elderly relatives – help them to live a life that is not dependent on food banks and top ups from this Government that they are slowly taking away.

As Desmond Tutu said – there comes a point where we need to stop pulling people out of the river.

We need to go upstream and stop them from falling in.

Jack Monroe at Green Party conference, 14th September 2013.

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Categories: Blog

38 Comments »

  1. Every word of your speech is completely true, utterly miserably devastatingly true- keep fighting jack, we need strong passionate women like you jack, ignore the hates and trolls, when I read your blog it gives me hope that one day things might get better – thank you for that Hope x

  2. The government needs to somehow reduce the price of fruit and veg. Its far too expensive. They reckon we should eat 5 portions a day, that’s 20 portions a day in my house. Just can’t afford that. All they’d need to do is tax junk food, chocolate, crisps etc and use that money to bring down the cost of fruit and veg. But do they? Nope. The state is full of useless platitudes, and rubbish advice as they sit back and have the good things in life.

    • I know that fruit and veg is expensive. On the other hand I am astonished that in our little town , in the middle of a ‘poor’ council estate there are two apple trees full of beautiful apples and about five bushes of fantastic blackberries. I have NEVER seen anybody pick a single apple, they just rot on the street. It is only me (Eastern European) who picks them and also preserves them so I do not have to buy any during the winter. I have never seen any of the 10 kids on our street – all from families on various benefits – to eat those blackberries despite passing it many times every day. I have actually never seen anybody here picking fruit, herbs or whatever in the wild except on the telly in the posh cooking programs. So for the short term perhaps more focus on this type of self sufficiency might be more useful as shouting at the government does not seem to make much difference, regardless whether it is the ‘toffs’ or the ‘hard working families ambassadors’ type.

      • Go Martina! Down here in North Cornwall we fight over the blackberries in the hedgerows but I walked past a richly-laden apple tree in Salisbury last week; it was situated at the edge of a town car park & being completely ignored! Fallers already surrounded its base.
        I wonder whether it’s the difference between town & country mentality….

      • Martina ,the blackberries up here I’m South Yorkshire have been so abundant , pickethe living oads and given most of them away . Couldn’t believe it that Sainsburys were selling rubbish looking blackberries at about £15 a kilo .
        People need to take matters in their own hands , turn off the one eyed monster pumping propaganda into their lives , and live a real life .
        Teach your children well , because the state will only teach them to be selfish individuals with no respect for anyone or anything..

      • Couldn’t agree more! I’m up on the outskirts of Manchester, on a council estate, in a home we have a mortgage on and call our own. In my front garden I grow herbs and rhubarb, lettuces, and beets. The children on my street see me in the garden picking things for tea etc and couldn’t believe that it was food as it didn’t come from a supermarket! There are literally 100s of BlackBerry bushes behind the houses on the estate growing through many if the back garden feturned that are never picked, just from the ones growing in to my back garden (where I have grown potatoes from scraps and have a £9 apple tree which has given us 20 cooking apples this year that bought as gift growing) I have well DH has picked 3 kilo of fruit!

        We went for a drive to a local reservoir and picked wimberries which cost a fortune in the shops if you can find them at all!
        I was taught by my grandmother not to waste what’s freely available as one day it may be all you have and need to get you through tough times. But it seems this mentality is lacking nowadays, that for many in my generation wasn’t taught how to survive on little because no one likes to believe there could come a time there children may have too! A costly mistake for the future of generations to come.

        My step daughter bemoans how she struggling now on benefits to feed her self and her son, how nappies take most of her benefits that are left afte bills. But doesn’t /won’t use the washable cloth nappies she has in the cupboard, too much hard work I guess. And she will take hand outs of food from family but it’s too much work to blend something she has cooked, to give some to feed her baby, prefering the ease of opening a shop bought expensive baby food. And she turned down the pots of herb plants and vegetables for her garden.

        So yes the government shouldbbe doing more, BUT from my experience, people like Jack are often the exception, not the rule when it comes to doing everything you can to help yourself survive a terrible situation.

  3. Wonderful words Jack. Such a shame that the ears that should hear them are plugged up tight.
    ‘Austerity Works’ is a frightening phrase because of all that underpins it. I feel as though we are regressing to the worst of Victorian times.
    My husband volunteers at a food bank and I try to fill a bag with as much food as I can for £1 each week. We live on a tiny budget, but we never go hungry and I can’t bear to think that anyone should go hungry.

  4. Dear Jack…I love your blog, I love your ideals and your spirit but I have to argue for the small business owner….don’t get me wrong Im so with you on increasing wages but as a now defeated and demolished retailer I can tell you that for business today to be able to pay good wages we need to see some controls on rents, rates and business utilities to be able to do that , we need people to be able to afford to buy things from us to stay in business. The customer needs more than just to cover the daily grind so controls on food prices and living costs are essential too. It never used to be like this, for over 25 years we ran a happy little shop employing young mums like myself that all struggled with childcare and family problems and we all helped each other out, it was fun and everyone was paid more than minimum wages, we survived Maggie and other recessions but then things changed, people didn’t have the money to spend on non essentials, food costs, utilities all rising so rapidly, our business costs rising out of control too meaning we couldn’t give the pay rises we wanted to…having to cut hours and lose staff eventually when we had to..the owners.working without wages at all towards the end….just look around at the empty shops and businesses closing all around you..it isn’t as simple as just paying “a living wage” we need living and business costs to stop rising or else it is just a vicious circle…whatever you get is never going to be enough to stay out of poverty for very long, more businesses close, more people out of work.

      • Yes agreed Jack but the government will just sit back and let the small business owner pay more wages that they cant afford and go out of business in doing so…..and that is what is happening NOW..putting more people on benefits.. I actually think the main argument from the man on the street should be on controlling/reducing the cost of living rather than the wages..then the wages would be adequate!

      • I’m not disagreeing with the sentiment, but the argument for a living wage is fundamentally flawed. When people’s wages rise, so does the cost of living. Unless of course, the government intervenes to control pricing. Is that what you are advocating? Prices also rise when people have easy access to money (credit), which is why the prices or houses and cars have risen so astronomically over the years. If you take a bell curve of people’s income, prices will fall in line with what the majority of people in the middle can afford (either earned or borrowed) – the poor and the rich on the fringes have much less effect on pricing. But, if you try to make the fringes (poor) the baseline for pricing (by lifting their income) everything shifts back towards the middle making prices rise for everybody.

      • I agree with CookaholicKate. The most important thing is to reduce the cost of living. None of the political parties advocate it: instead they all compete to spend more and regulate more, pushing up taxes and costs. Government activity and its appetite to spend everyone’s money needs to be slashed: it’s not even very good at what it does: overbearing, unresponsive, wasteful, and inefficient

        The minimum wage means anyone who cannot generate that much return to an employer is unemployable. The higher the minimum wage the more people are driven out of work.

        There are all sorts of ways to cut the cost of living: e.g. abolish the TV licence, abolish the renewable energy subsidies, reduce the frequency and stringency of MoT tests, abolish restrictions on landfill waste and the landfill tax, abolish planning permissions, stop state funded vanity schemes like HS2, reduce the ability of councils to take children into care, abolish residents’ parking schemes, stop foreign aid, stop government grants to business.

        There are many other things that could be reformed, some contentious perhaps. But the state is useless at doing things and gets in the way. It is better people and local communities sort out their own solutions to problems and for things they need.

  5. Austerity is rooted in Conservative ideology and is not the result of the economic conditions. The UK has an unlimited supply of money and is not fiscally constrained by tax revenues.

    Austerity DOES WORK. But not for everybody. Just like every policy put forward by every political party and pub-talk politician. The problem isn’t austerity, it’s the one size fits all approach to governing that ALL political parties seem to apply. They equate applying the same rules equally to all people as fairness, but equal and fair are two completely different things when applied to a population of 60 million people who all have unique and individual circumstances.

  6. We can afford to provide a decent basic life to all. We just need to do it. Start Community Kitchens, give everyone a free bus pass and basic Internet/phone.
    The Living Wage as instant appeal but it is still pulling people out of the river. To quote the Resolution Foundation’s paper on the Living Wage this year “no realistic hourly pay rate can ever lift every family to an adequate living standard”.
    It is not enough to lobby for higher pay. We don’t need to lobby for higher pay. We already have enough tax revenue to deliver the basics of life to all as services, not as cash benefits. A decent life for all is not a utopian dream, it is a very practical possibility now.

  7. Someone on another thread mentioned the 1923 book ‘Round About a Pound a Week’, a qualitative study of how poor people were coping ( or not ) in Lambeth before the advent of the welfare state.

    For its time its a very gentle attempt to understand the lives of people on the breadline.

    I re-read it over the weekend and there were two things stand out as basic necessities for families to thrive: housing security and employment.

    If we assume all people want to and need to work, there have to be industries for that. The Green Party I see as a ‘checks and balances’ organisation, to counter many industrial processes’ depletion of the planet, the landscape, the working environment. I don’t see them as delivering jobs or housing from their current manifesto http://greenparty.org.uk/policies.html simply because they have ideals but do not say how they can or will be delivered.

    Some of their policies- ecologically sound as they may be- fly in the face of job-creation http://my.greenparty.org.uk/civicrm/petition/sign?sid=3&reset=1

    The biggest failure of UK government in recent years has been to provide housing for working people: Margaret Thatcher seemed to think anyone and everyone could purchase and maintain their own housing, based on the model of original migration to the US and ‘ Reaganomics’. Social housing which was the solution to poverty originating from the slum Victorian era landlord-tenant relationship was developed to prevent many of the crises we see today. And abandonned, just as it was reaching fruition. So now thousands of people need to claim benefits just to sustain housing?

    As British people have discovered since- there is no such thing as ‘trickle-down-economics’. When a wealthy corporation or individual wants to maintain market share or increase profits- the people at the low end of the scheme are the first to be squeezed down or out.

    More and more so: as soon as the door of collective ownership and collective pride in state industry is closed there is no voice or place for ordinary working people. Everything comes down to extreme profit. Which is how the US was founded: with many many casualties along the way. Which is what Thatcher politics did not spell out, the ‘collateral damage’.

    Yet she was recently treated to this enormous expensive funeral in a time of austerity…

    Which suggests to me the UK is undergoing a political national identity crisis.

  8. Brilliant Jack, as usual you hit the nail on the head. Things are just the same here in Spain. If anyone reading is going on a spanish holiday look arond you, and take note of all the shops up for sale/rent and collection points in supermarkets for food banks, so many being evicted every day because they can’t pay the mortgage/rent.

  9. There is enough to go around, but the rich it seems want to own everything, control everything and heap all the taxes onto everyone else. Now it’s the poor, unemployed and disabled somehow carrying the blame for the economic mess that they didn’t create, but also you notice that small business owners too are saying that high rents, business rates, VAT, the cost of running utilities and other things are sky high, so they just truly cannot afford to pay their staff better than minimum wage. And who then is allowing business people to be overcharged, or doing nothing about it? Our governments. And governments really represent the wealthy, in one way or another, or those affluent and privileged.

    There can be no political solution against greed, but with proper checks and balances we can halt the worst excesses. However, no party seems to want to really change anything except tinker around the edges. Making corporations and wealthy people pay a fair rate of tax and enforcing it would be the first step. Progressive and fair taxes another; simply put, the more you earn the more you pay. Unfair? No. A fair minimum wage, that is realistic but can be lived on. Also, may I add, that we should start to ask why very big businesses like supermarkets for example that make hundreds of millions or even billions in profits pay only minimum wage to their staff when they can obviously pay more; no one as yet seems to have talked about that anywhere. Help for those starting up in small business. I could go on and on here, but I will finally add that amongst all decent people who want to see genuine fairness in this society, an acceptance that wealth has to be more fairly redistributed. Anything less is just fudging and evading the issue. Until we address the deeply unjust economic inequality at the heart of our nation, most other arguments are just side issues.

  10. Jack, you’re entirely right . And I must point that there’s actually no problem with government’s finances. It’s simply a matter of distribution. For instance, instead of choking ordinary citizens and small business with taxes, why not loosen up the tie on these men and women and start getting a grip on the immoral profits of some corporate CEO’s? Add the major corporations profits being taxed and you’ll see that money is not lacking anywhere in the world, there’s plenty to go around. What’s missing is just distribution, as you cleverly stress out. Congratulations one more time, your blog is amazing and a profound source of inspiration.

  11. Thanks for your work bringing poverty to everyone`s attention. I volunteer in a foodbank centre and its heartbreaking to see the amount of people needing help. I am also a carer and have just lost my appeal, like many others have, over this crippling `bedroom` tax. I fear this winter, like lots of people do, I wonder if attitudes will change when all ages are dying of the cold. Or will it simply be ignored.

  12. ‘we should start to ask why very big businesses like supermarkets for example that make hundreds of millions or even billions in profits pay only minimum wage to their staff when they can obviously pay more’

    Matthew Compton published a book last year about the Trebor company, title ‘The Trebor Story: How a Tiny Family Firm Making Sweets in London’s East End Became Britain’s Biggest Sugar Confectioner, Creating Iconic Brands Before Selling to Cadbury and Later Kraft Foods’.

    ( http://www.amazon.com/Trebor-Story-Britains-Confectioner-Creating/dp/0956136117/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1379307905&sr=1-5&keywords=story+of+the+trebor+company )

    The original factory owners cared so much about their workers they did not allow night shifts because they believed that eroded family life…imagine the CEO of today being free to make such a decision…they would be out of a job immediately.

    Although earlier industry might have somewhat despotic owners, they were close enough to the workforce to develop relationships and to care. It was in their financial interest to care!

    CEOs seem to be paid the most today who don’t care who or what they squeeze to maximise profit.

    Why? is an interesting question.

    Because we pay people we value- that’s fundamental to capitalism. Money=personal worth to your industry.

    One area I have been fascinated with in recent years is the growing industry of care for the elderly. Why would anyone want their care or their relative’s care daily in the hands of someone who is being paid minimum wage? It’s so expensive to fund nursing home care, yet so often the story is of cheap-ness of services, high turnover of staff and ultimate disappointment in the organisation.

    Yet these organisations thrive…

    Somewhere in there there’s an answer, I know it!

    • Perhaps there’s a big difference between small, privately-owned family-run businesses and large public corporations. The latter have to run things for the benefit of their shareholders, who are usually interested in nothing more than maximising the return on their investment. (Consider a lot of it is tied up in investment funds which are managed- so the real investors probably don’t even know what they’re investing in!) The CEOs are not necessarily the full owners of the business, so they’re not there to run it as they see fit, whereas private owners who run the business themselves are free to run it how they like, and presumably take risks like this. (Cutting nightshift being as a risk as it represents the possibility of a drop in production). They are, as you suggest, likely to be closer to their workforce and actually able to see, and thus care about, the real needs of their employees.

      I may be wrong of course.

  13. Hi – here’s some ammunition for you. Guess what? Austerity doesn’t work. (I can see you reeling back with shock). No, that’s neither emotion nor ideology – that’s the conclusion all the data points to as analysed in a new book called “The Body Economic – Why Austerity Kills” by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, Allen Lane ISBN 978 1846 177838. In every case where a nation chose or was forced into “austerity”, the results were far WORSE in terms of economic indicators, public health and even suicide rates than they were in countries that stuck to mild stimulus and keeping the social support system going (which in itself provides useful stimulus). I have nothing to do with the writers or publishers of this book – I just think it needs to be spread around a lot!

  14. The problem with using the term “austerity” by analogy to wartime is that at least in wartime hardship was probably a lot more equally spread than it is now. Everybody had to endure pretty much the same rations (the only exception I can think of being the Queen’s* clothing ration was, owing to her position, more than most people’s, so says my aunt), and there was probably little employment as everyone available would have been either called-up or required to do some sort of war work. Nowadays, the minor hardships are probably limited to the so-called “squeezed middle” and the people who are poorest or otherwise most disadvantaged who suffer the greatest.

    I’ll add my own concerns about the “living wage” concept- my main concern is that, being as the capitalist system as currently envisaged is focussed on profit, some larger businesses may find it easier to simply cut costs by moving or outsourcing their operations elsewhere in the world where the going rate for work is cheaper, which does little good for jobs over here. On top of this is the aforementioned concerns of those small business owners who are already struggling and whose profit is their livelihood, yet presumably don’t have this option as much. (I do realise there are some benefits to the living wage concept, but doubt it would be so simple to apply across the board.)

    *That is, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Consort and later Queen Mother, the reigning monarch being King George VI. And lest you think her extra ration unfair, note at least Buckingham Palace didn’t escape the bombing!

  15. Thanks Jack, for sharing so powerfully.
    I’m a Green Party councillor in Norwich. Just two examples from last week. Firstly, a lady in tears over her poorly insulated council house, where she has to feed the meter constantly in the winter; she is paying extra now and is in arrears as she has a spare room. Yet she applied months ago for a smaller house and would move immediately – but there aren’t any. She is terrified of eviction.
    A few doors down, another woman working over 50 hours a week nights on a switchboard to keep her family fed. Her husband grows veg but can’t get a job as a carpenter using his skills. Despite having many years of experience, he was made redundant from a company that closed down.
    It angers me that no government – this one or the last – has taken responsibility for the economic mess.
    It angers me because people are suffering – and also because the far right are using the confusion to blame people coming in to this country. While the main parties play a game of blaming each other from their comfort zones, the far right profit from the fear that is growing out there.
    There are things we can do and as Green councillors we do them. But frankly the main parties need to get their fingers out.
    Thanks again for giving voice to this.

  16. Brilliant speech. This actually had me on the brink of tears thinking of those who live in that amount of stress with small children. I’ve been not far off that at times. The UK can’t carry on like this.

  17. I enjoy your work Jack and would like to say great .Let’s advocate austerity for MP’s . I mean this ! What I would love to see is abolition of 2nd house allowance for ALL MP’s .Let them have a halls of residence ( as I had when at college ) Nothing fancy but hey why should they have a a swish 2nd house at our expense when many don’t even get 1 .Secondly we should insist that starting as of now all G8’s etc and simlar ‘bunfights’ at luxury resorts be abolished . The host country could use an army base .Accomodation and food along with troops + this do away with a huge security bill normally paid as usual by the taxpayer . We need to insist on these measures . Life is no good as a one way street and that’s what it has become for us. The government all do themselves proud at our expense … Time we stopped it .

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