Thirteen years of Labour government will come to an end this evening; thirteen years in which the gap between the rich and the poor has widened; in which public services have declined; and, in more recent years, in which working people have been left to bail out banks owing billions. Neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown had the vision (or the desire) to create a new consensus. Despite having the most commanding victory since Clement Attlee gained the first majority for a Labour government in 1945, the years after 1997 were frittered away. There was no comprehensive programme to lift the poorest from dependency, no manifesto to empower the ordinary people.
Welfare dependency, which traps people in often grim lives, has been replicated here in Ireland.
Deirdre called here at the beginning of last week. “You’ll be relieved to move”, she said, “you’ll get away from me”. It was hard to remember how many conversations we had had about a system that leaves her struggling for an existence. Five years ago, on 22nd April 2005, there was a post here about her plight.
“I have known Deirdre (not her real name) for six years. She looked about 40 when I first met her, six years later, she could pass for 50. Her actual age in that time has increased from 23 to 29.
She lives in a grim housing estate some miles from here. When I first met her on my doorstep she told me that she would beg help for her family from anyone who would give it to her and if I helped her she promised not to tell anyone else. Deirdre has a flag with ‘IRA’ underneath tattooed on her arm – but maybe I would if my life chances were as limited as hers.
Deirdre calls maybe every couple of months. At the beginning of March, she asked if it would be possible for me to get some Easter eggs for her kids. I delivered them to her house in the week before Easter and was pleased to see that the house had improved a bit. On one occasion when I had dropped some things for Christmas a couple of years ago I had been shown into the living room, the only furniture was a wide screen television rented on a weekly basis, the children sat on bare floorboards.
Deirdre called last night. I’m not sure why. She talked about her father’s suicide and the rows it was causing with his various family elements, particularly disputes over the gravestone inscription. The undertaker is being paid in instalments from monthly social welfare payments. As usual, Deirdre was short of money.
I said I would give her a few quid, but that it would only be a few quid to get some shopping. I usually give Tesco vouchers.
‘Do you ever talk to MABS?’ I asked. (MABS is the state supported Money Advice and Budgeting Service that gives free help to people with debt problems).
‘Yes’, she said, ‘they’re very good. I was paying €15 a week to the money lender and they got it down to €5′
I asked about the children. One of them seems to have particular problems and she was worried about him. ‘Did you ever talk to a social worker?’ I asked her
‘No’, she said, ‘but the community health nurse is good and there’s a psychologist who sees him’.
‘What about school?’
‘They give him a lot of attention. There is a teacher and two classroom assistants in his class, but even then they can’t control him’.
I did not ask about her husband, whom I met once. He might be twenty years older than her – it’s hard to tell – whatever his age, his main contribution seems to be to spend the family’s money on himself.
I realized that the entire arsenal of state support was being directed at this family and it was not working. In 10-15 years time the whole cycle will be repeating itself.
Who is the welfare system as it is currently managed serving? Certainly not Deirdre, who lives in persistent poverty.
The only long-term solution to situations like that of Deirdre is a shift from welfare to responsibility. The state needs to wean people from dependency to independence. Situations where men simply drink the household income and share no burden of responsibility should be addressed.
People like Deirdre should be given a chance to work, a chance to do something with their lives; she often says she would like to work and to have some money for herself. Welfare keeps people in poverty. Human dignity demands more creative thinking. Deirdre’s father killed himself at the age of 49. If the only answer we have is what currently applies, then there is a danger of history repeating itself”.
Deirdre would have her counterparts in many places in Britain; people trapped in bad estates; people living in fear of crime; people feeling they must remain in violent relationships; people whose daily lives are a struggle to stretch their social security money through the week.
As someone who has voted for the Labour Party, on both sides of the Irish Sea, at every opportunity, there is no joy in watching Labour seats going blue, but they have only themselves to blame.