Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and the Prospective Parliamentary candidate for the City of Durham.
I met someone the other day who’d just begun a new job. His first job in, I think, six years – and he struggled to explain how much this means to him. The recollection that work provides more than financial security. The mislaid sense of self-worth. The new responsibility and positivity that will encourage his family, and allow him to choose to help others, too.
Since 2010, this has happened to almost 50,000 people in the North East – 50,000 more people now in employment, up here. And, contrary to popular belief, they’re mostly in full-time jobs. This is the case for over 70 per cent of Britain’s two million newly employed. It’s the unemployment drain – the thousand-jobs-a-day miracle.
But, wait. Those are just numbers, aren’t they? Numbers you’ve heard in every practised speech, and read in every automated press release. Except that they’re not.
You know the ferris wheel scene in The Third Man? That moment when Orson Welles finally reveals his horrific amorality by pointing out the meaningless ‘dots’ on the ground beneath? It’s that – or rather the opposite. Those dots – these numbers – are people. People like the man I met the other day; numerous people, whose lives are improving.
So, here are some more North East ‘numbers’: 40,815 more children in schools deemed good or outstanding. Around 123,000 fewer North Easterners paying income tax. 143,780 more people who’ve started apprenticeships. 27,000 new businesses, 22,090 new houses, 588 more doctors, and 243 more nurses.
And we need more of this. As I’ve written before, much of this recent improvement largely owes to our region having trawled in the wake of the rest of the country for far too long. That wages here are increasing at four times the national average is comparative – not that this is any reason to halt progress. Yet the politicians who had held the North East in stagnation, are the same politicians who are now trying to claim that it continues to fail, that its people’s lives aren’t improving.
To them, easy words – rather than dry numbers – have come to define this election. And they’ve succeeded in polarising opinion: it’s why we’re not ahead in the polls. It’s the ABC of austerity, bedroom tax, and cuts. All the way to the Z of zero-hours.
Of course, we prefer to rechristen these words reform, subsidy reduction, savings, and flexibility. And, yes, I could remind you of the previous government’s unsupportable welfare spending, straining exorbitantly at the shrinking social housing stock. Or that we’ve already banned the exclusivity clauses that can make zero-hours contracts highly unfair and exploitative, and that most of the 2 per cent on these contracts are students, single parents, and carers, who appreciate – and often depend upon – this form of employment.
However, those people who remain resolute about the biggest word – austerity – won’t trust these truths, anyway. (That’s the problem with facts: they’re convincingly countered with disbelief). Austerity sounds like hell, doesn’t it? A brutal combination of hair-shirt flagellation and puritan post-war rationing. But austerity isn’t third-world conditions. It’s a technical term for an economic approach – one of deficit reduction – which is working.
This approach is securing the country’s future, making public services more efficient, allowing investment in necessary infrastructure, and helping people to find work. Two million people. (Which, in a country with a working-age population of around 40 million, is a prodigious amount.)
And, surely, it’s significant that they aren’t the ones attacking us with unsubstantiated words. Neither, really, does it seem to be those who are yet to benefit from our decisions – or, indeed, even those who some might consider to have been negatively affected by them.
Instead, it’s mostly the middle-class hustings attenders, the supercilious commentators: the comfortably guilty. Those who – admirably – want to help others so much that they – unwittingly – try to keep them in a position in which they can.
We all know that there are still people who struggle here. But, this isn’t surprising, is it? We don’t live in a utopia, and we’ve just come out of an incapacitating recession. You can’t blame all the inequalities, tragedies, and down-right badness of the world on five years of government.
Again, the only relevant question is whether – overall – things are, and will be, better (or less worse), and how this relates to what we’re doing, or not. That we continue to ask this is where we differ from other political parties: classic Conservatism is empirical. It’s responsive; it doesn’t impose. We choose those methods that we are convinced will work, rather than those we simply admire. And we react and adapt, where necessary. Our opponents don’t understand this mentality. They need to think that our cuts must be ideological – so they determine for us an ideology of cruelty.
There are strong arguments to suggest that people are better off without unnecessary welfare. That it’s good to help others to help themselves rather than abandoning them to a cycle of dependency. That, wherever possible, we should make decisions about our lives, instead of letting the state do so.
Decreasing the welfare budget – whilst concurrently making the benefit system simpler – not only protects essential support for the vulnerable, it also forces people to work when they are able. Cutting public spending – by demanding efficiency, and opening up train lines, tenures, and treatment provision to the private sector – not only reserves it for the most necessary costs, it also increases funding and standards.
But this government hasn’t consistently used these arguments as an overriding justification for its economic policies. No, mostly we’ve celebrated these outcomes as useful side effects. Might it have given us more credence if we had?
Aside from ideological justification, the Conservative Party has – understandably – also been too busy to deal with its image. This is why people can still call us the party of the rich (even though the rich now contribute more than ever before, and we’ve managed to increase the personal allowance for all but them), or the blinkered (even though we’ve introduced equal marriage, increased opportunities for women without resorting to the mask of contradictory positive discrimination, and refused to cut foreign aid). Maybe our detractors might have recognised all of this, if we’d continued to mark it clearly as the family-friendly Big Society?
Labels are superficial; we don’t always have time for placatory words. We’re all aware of the economic plight we faced in 2010 – regardless of whose fault this was. Where are the numbers to contradict those which suggest real improvement? Where’s the convincing alternative approach?
In truth, nobody (sensible) disagrees that we need to balance spending and income. With regards to austerity, would our traditional opposition control Britain’s finances much differently? In an attempt to be balanced, I think probably not (remember, tax raises are austerity economics, too), although many of their regressions would certainly be dangerously counter-productive. I still want to believe that our mainstream parties do, generally, want to bring about good – that they just disagree about how best to do this.
But, there’s a problem with this argument. And I hesitate here, because – at first glance – it seems like the distracting, negative style of politics I hate. But, if this bothers even John Major, then I’d better consider it. (I’ve always been a major Major fan). Yes, the SNP thing.
Our opposition no longer simply consists of Labour (whatever that is, post-Blair). It’s unfathomable to see how the opposition’s government wouldn’t also include a radical single-track party – a party that refuses even to consider the way in which its socialist ransoms would destroy the difficult work we’ve done. The SNP doesn’t understand what austerity is. Neither do the Greens. They don’t need to: they can indulge in the luxury of this.
We can’t. It’s not about word games. Or ignoring the OECD, ignoring the IMF, and ignoring the general consensus of the world’s economists, in order to win votes by claiming that the country isn’t in recovery. It’s not about suggesting that things can’t and won’t get better.
Rather, like most things, it comes back to Graham Greene. The ferris wheel and the dots. The numbers. The man I met the other day. Those people whose lives are finally improving, and those people whose lives will – but only if we’re given the chance to continue.