When I watch BBC Question Time from my sofa at home, I often only hear the first few comments before I start shouting at the TV, and texting my mates making fun of the ridiculous argument that was just put forward.
So when I heard BBC Question Time was coming to Lewisham, I had to go: a chance to give these politicians what for, to give them my opinion on absolutely everything, and to ask the most insightful question that has ever been asked… Of course, everyone else came with the same idea.
It didn’t take long to realise that sitting in the audience is very different to sitting on my living room sofa. The atmosphere was powerful. We had been told to keep the applause loud, to vocalise our support and to keep the panel on their toes, which we did.
I knew I wanted to say something, to make a point. It took a long time to work out what I was going to say and how I was going to say it, and all I could think of was, “Don’t mess up, everyone is watching.”
The first question focused on welfare: “should the young and poor pay to maintain the living standards of rich pensioners”, in light of the Chancellor’s statement that the welfare budget was potentially in line for a further £12bn worth of cuts. Nadine Doris (Cons) assured the audience that this is not policy, merely a “direction of travel” and that we are still definitely “all in this together”. The audience was not convinced, and neither was I.
I found it difficult to see how this “direction” would not fail to disproportionally impact the most vulnerable in society and will be unlikely to save money, with the costs being felt further down the line. I was also surprised that no one on the panel raised the subject of Universal Credit in the context of this welfare debate, given that it has cross party support and is an example of welfare reform rather than deficit reduction.
At the time my mind went completely blank, the following words just fell out of my mouth:
“I think at the heart of the question is whether we feel those with less should shoulder the burden in times of hardship; and actually I don’t think we are “all in it together”. If you look over the last few years, there are people on benefits who are really struggling. So I think rather than cutting welfare we should be promoting growth, and I don’t mean growth in terms of what George Osborne has been saying about coming out of the recession, because people still aren’t feeling it at the bottom. It means job creation, it means opportunities; not just London focused jobs, it means jobs everywhere.”
Having watched it back and had a chance to think through the wider point that I was trying to make, I know that it came from a very important belief of mine: that we all deserve equality of opportunity and that during hard times we have to take care of those in need.
For me the issues were:
- Unequal growth: the effects of economic recovery are not being felt by everyone. Rising prices, e.g. travel and household bills, mean those on lower wages are facing tougher choices and having to significantly cut their budgets.
- London centric policies: not enough opportunities being created outside of the Capital. Since 2010, London has created 10 times more private sector jobs than any other UK city. The gap between the richest (London) and poorest regions in the UK is one of the largest in Europe.
- Cost of recovery: who should shoulder the burden of our deficit reduction? It should be shared out, but those less fortunate should not bear the greatest load.
I could see that it resonated with people in the audience and that it perhaps reflected a sentiment that was felt by others. I at least got a round of applause for it!
As a solution, Nick Burrows (Lib Dem) suggested raising revenue by imposing a mansion tax and Paul Nutall (UKIP) advocated cutting the UK’s foreign aid budget. Although I think Chuka Umunna’s (Lab) point carried the most weight: that we should be working to get more people into work and encourage employers to pay a living wage.
There are however many challenges to this path.
Path to sustainable employment
Finding a job that is sustainable, enjoyable and that pays a decent wage is an admirable goal and one that we should be striving towards for all those out of work. But reaching this target is a process.
Take for example, someone with a drug addiction looking to get into work. The steps on the journey might look like this:
- Overcome Addiction, stay clean – getting the support they need to do that should be the first priority.
- Engage in finding work – this might involve meeting an advisor at JCP or completing a CV. Opening up a dialogue about your skills, interests and how to develop them further makes this stage inherently valuable.
- Apply for work, and if unsuccessful, get effective help in finding work.
- Stay in work – a challenge that is often forgotten
- Progress to a position that is more rewarding, whether financially or in terms of job satisfaction and work-life balance.
The two key things to recognise here is that there is value in each step, and that there is a responsibility of both the individual and the state to engage in the process. To give Nadine some credit, whilst “any job” might not be the ultimate goal, it can improve your chances of finding other work, help you understand and develop your skills as well as providing stability and security. It is a vital stage of the journey.
What does this mean for welfare policy?
Cuts to the welfare budget taken in isolation may indeed have disproportionate effects and personally I would not favour that approach.
The argument shouldn’t just focus on deficit reduction. Structural reform of the welfare system itself is just as important, if not more. A system that provides the right incentives to work, simplifies the process of getting into work and ensures that you are always better off in work, can help to mitigate the disproportionate effects of austerity and deliver real opportunities for people.
In the fifteen minutes given to this question, no one from the panel addressed the mechanism of welfare, of how we get people into work and how we support those affected by austerity. Perhaps that reflects the nature of Question Time. Perhaps it is why I shout at the TV. With little time to deliver the party message and under pressure from the audience, politicians tend to focus on what they would do rather than how they would do it. It’s a shame, but that said, it’s a way of putting policy makers on the spot…
Now it is up to the voters to hold them to account.