We all need a few basic things in life, with shelter, heat and food being high on that list. It's why many of us go to work in the mornings, to acquire enough agency (money) to ensure those basic things are covered. After a while and some time of being “successful” one starts to forget this, focusing on the new shiny things that one's agency allows access to. Clothing, brands, experiences and interests. The basics of life become “overshadowed” by a comfortable life if you will.
I remember an announcement during David Cameron's tenure in Number Ten that suggested fast broadband be made a legal right in the UK, whilst also suggesting a baseline legal speed for all. It struck me as interesting back then, because this was just at the point where austerity was really beginning to bite both for me personally and on a wider scale, though not so much in London's affluent areas, for their cushion of agency had yet to deflate.
Expectations of living standards have rocketed over the last two generations. The term 'basic need' seems to have lost its meaning, especially if you include internet access within that (4.3 billion – over half of the global population - don't have internet). Most of those without web access are from countries in the developing world, and whilst technological advancement is to be applauded, one cannot live on bytes alone.
So where's my point in all this? Contrast the Conservative government stance on internet access as a 'basic need', to their position on humans rights and the living wage. In recent years the cost of living has risen, yet wages have stagnated, and austerity politics have lead to a very real drop in that agency of which I spoke at the outset.
The hardline conservative view point is often quoted as “you have to work for what you want in life; don't be lazy and rely on benefits.” This of course feeds into the oft-quoted myth of the deserving and undeserving poor. But what of those who are working and yet have insufficient means to meet their basic needs? The conveniently forgotten truth is that the classic benefit sponger is very much in the minority. These days many people, thanks to the nature of poorly paid jobs, are working and claiming simultaneously.
Back in 2015, about the time David Cameron was pontificating about internet access, the Daily Mail wrote of a supposed £11bn benefits subsidy to companies who employ workers in the lowest pay brackets, with tax credits and other subsidies topping up a meagre employee wage that hadn't kept pace with the changes in living cost. Ironically this cost to the tax payer was more than would be recouped in actual taxes of the companies concerned, and amounted to government subsidy of private industry. (See the link below.)
So, fast forward to the point where “austerity bytes” and these benefits are then withdrawn or limited by governmental policy. What of the workers then? First retail workers suffer, since traditionally this is a low - if not the lowest - paid sector. But now we hear of nurses, a profession always unfailingly undervalued, who are addressing their basic needs via food banks. Oddly, the starting wage for a trainee or junior nurse isn't all that much higher than a top-end retail salary, at 17-18K per annum, and much less than the figure of 23K that made headlines and twitter comments recently. Universal credit was blamed by the Trussell Trust for a 7% rise in use across its 420 food banks in the UK last year. Some 436,000 of these emergency food deliveries went to children between April 2016 and March 2017. And this, in 21st century Britain? (See additional link below.)
Those who would refute these arguments, citing 'individual failure to budget' miss the point. Many who had agency have bought their homes, had children, and thus incurred childcare costs. Perhaps they have outgoings that are linked to their income, for example unavoidable travel expenses. These bills and expenses do not magically reduce and the consequences of non-payment can be extremely serious. Asserting personal financial responsibility also shifts the spotlight of failings away from the cause and onto its effects, blaming the disadvantaged for the failures of the blindly over-privileged and entitled.
Furthermore, if this is allowed to continue it just makes bad business sense. In my last piece I wrote of the provision of free health care to soldiers, for very sound business reasons, if not ethical ones. In continuing to allow corporations to utilise the public sector benefits system as a crutch for low wages, governments have created a lower income for themselves in taxation, thus a smaller overall pot from which to draw the benefits. Eventually the pot runs dry, and since there's little to no public money left, “privatisation is the only solution” becomes the mantra, “we can't afford a benefits system” the battle cry.
If I were able to appeal to government I'd say: of course you can't afford a benefits system. You scuppered its income a few years ago, and now the effect has come home to roost. Let us hope that a change can be affected this summer at the voting booth. We will all have to work to collectively refill that pot, and ensure that those who need help continue to get it. However isn't it time to hold business to account too? To collect from them what they should pay, and ensure that where they do business is linked to who benefits from that business? To kick away the crutch and let them stand or fall on their own (hind) quarters?
It's time to get back to the real meaning of “basic needs” and make sure they're covered, by a real achievable & basic living wage. Vote Labour on the 8th June, and let's make sure this election, and the government that follows, has some proper byte.
Sarah Jayne Ellis for Political Provocateur