If the Labour Party has excelled in the shooting-yourself-in-the-foot discipline of late, we shouldn’t forget the Tories are just as expert at this particular event. Whereas Labour’s vote-winning idea of reclaiming the Red Wall is to embroil itself in a Lewis Carroll-like nonsensical strain of Identity Politics (guaranteed to woo Brenda of Bristol back to the fold), the Conservative Party cannot help itself from alienating the members of the electorate it borrowed in 2019 by reverting to type, pedalling an outdated Home Counties view of the vulnerable as a drain on the nation’s resources. They don’t need to do it anymore, for they’re no longer dependent on the patronage of the Murdoch Empire to secure them a majority; yet the default position remains falling back on archaic assumptions that the prejudices of the traditional Tory shires must be catered to at all costs. Following in the clumsy footsteps of Iain Duncan Smith, another beneficiary of inherited wealth by the name of Jacob Rees-Mogg has enhanced his reputation as ‘Minister for the 18th century’ at the party’s annual conference with a casual dismissal of the needs of those who always stood to lose the most from the aftermath of the past year and-a-half.
At a point when National Insurance increases, rising energy prices and inflation are poised to dig deep into the piggy banks of the people least able to afford them, Reese-Mogg has been especially indelicate by issuing the far-from helpful advice that benefits are not ‘an insurance scheme’ during a conference debate on the cuts to Universal Credit; and when such statements emanate from a man not exactly familiar with the harsh realities of juggling household bills every month, they serve to reinforce the antiquated stereotype of both the uncaring Tory and the underclass dole-scrounger – despite the fact that upwards of 40% claiming benefits are actually in work. The impending end of the weekly £20 ‘Covid boost’ on Universal Credit has been criticised by some within the Conservative party, with an estimated 80,000 people on the cusp of poverty as a consequence, many of whom have been unable to earn a full wage for the past eighteen months due to lockdowns and Covid restrictions.
When it’s speculated that over £1,000 could vanish from the household income of the most affected, the Tories don’t do themselves any favours as saviours of ‘hard-working families’ when some of their Honourable Members engage their mouths without considering what comes out of them might sound like to the less privileged. The latest Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey claims the loss of the £20 uplift will be made up via a mere two hours additional work – a theory she obviously won’t be called upon to test out in person; meanwhile, the ongoing death toll of rejected disabled claimants declared ‘fit for work’ continues to cast a toxic shadow over a system that those with the power to change seem unwilling to change, perpetuating the perceived lack of empathy Ministers tend to exhibit towards those most in need of help. At the same time, the resumption of landlords being able to evict tenants who have fallen into rent arrears courtesy of lockdowns finds one-third of renters unable to keep up payments laying the blame squarely at the door of the pandemic policy.
Those who happened to be between jobs at the time of Lockdown Mk I weren’t eligible for the furlough scheme if they had voluntarily left their previous position rather than being laid off by lockdown, heaping further pressure on individuals and families sucked into a cycle of debt that wasn’t their own doing. Robert Jenrick, the former Housing Secretary, had said in May that no one should lose their home as a result of the pandemic, yet as soon as the ban on bailiff evictions ended that same month, people began losing their homes. 555 private and social landlord hearings in the county courts of England and Wales were observed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism during the summer, with 270 of them ending in an outright possession order and 88 of those orders citing the financial impact of Covid as the main factor in falling behind payments. There was such a backlog of hearings that most lasted barely ten minutes, which is hardly adequate time to contest a case or to decide someone’s immediate future. Despite the fact that the MPs on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee last year could see the direction the wind would take come the end of lockdown and recommended the law being changed so that judges would have discretion when it came to a fair and fitting verdict on each individual case, the Government ignored their advice.
A married couple recently profiled on the BBC News website had just become first-time parents on the eve of the first lockdown and went from a monthly income of £2,000 when both were in full-time work to surviving on £150 maternity pay during the interminable wait for a Universal Credit payment for the suddenly unemployed male breadwinner. Their rent stood at £450 a month and the inevitable happened during lockdown, with them eventually reaching £4,000 in rent arrears; served with a Section Eight order – giving a landlord grounds for repossession if the rent arrears number two months or more – the pair are now preparing for eviction. They are not alone. The swift turnover of hearings at the nation’s county courts – where possession orders can be stamped and certified in less than five minutes – makes for sober reading when it comes to the fate of those suddenly plunged into society’s relegation zone, few of whom fit the irrelevant old image of the ‘lifestyle choice’ scrounger of George Osborne’s imagination.
Another case covered in the BBC report concerned a woman whose usual job as an agency-employed executive PA was curtailed by lockdown; residing at a one-bedroom property in Hammersmith with a monthly rent of £1,600 meant her slide into rent arrears of £24,000 didn’t take long, though the case going against her at the local county court also left her having to pay £604 in interest as well as her landlord’s legal costs of £3,000. This individual has since found another job, but her credit rating is now as bad as the aforementioned married couple, who no longer have any savings to pay a deposit for a new home. The average rent arrears in the cases observed at the county courts by the Bureau of Investigate Journalism in July and August was around £6,500, though some far exceeded this amount. Naturally, the situation is also a headache for landlords themselves, with some tenants exploiting the crisis and playing the Covid card even when the pandemic has no bearing on their arrears, leaving courts often unable to distinguish between the ones who can’t pay and the ones who won’t.
As with every element of the inevitable fallout from closing down the economy for months on end since the spring of 2020, the already-delicate housing crisis was destined to ricochet through countless lives once payback time arrived; but such scenarios can be cruel levellers. I recall a TV report on Spain’s economic crisis in the wake of the financial crash of 2007/08, wherein many holding traditionally well-paid, middle-class jobs such as teaching were just as likely to be found sleeping on the streets or squatting in derelict properties as the more conventional casualties of capitalism one would sadly expect to be in dire straits. When people play by the rules, toe the line, pay their taxes, work hard and provide the backbone of the orderly society they venerate, some form of reward is anticipated, and that doesn’t necessarily have to translate as extreme wealth but simply not having to worry about their home being repossessed or never having to claim benefits. The Government on whose watch such people plummeted down the social ladder needs to remember the shock to the system these valuable members of the electorate have suffered will linger for a long time, and the way it publicly articulates its opinions on their predicament ought to be handled with care.
© The Editor