On Saturday I marched through London supporting the TUC’s call for a change in economic policy. I met someone I hadn’t seen for twenty years or so. I mentioned that I still lived in Beeston and his face grew grim “How is Beeston these days?” he asked. I reported that we’d had a good decade (do we call them the “noughties”?), but I was bracing myself for a decline back to the awful eighties and nineties. That was the time when too many people didn’t have enough to do, or enough money to get by.
This led to drug use, house and car crime, increased fear and isolation and degradation of the environment – all the things we gradually improved during the noughties.
On Monday I was at a meeting of the JESS Cluster – fifteen schools in Holbeck, Beeston Hill, Hunslet and Belle Isle. The cluster looks at how children’s services are delivered, both educational services and social services. I heard that 800 children had been referred to Social Care (Social Services, as was) in the last six months. That’s one of the highest figures in the city.
I watched New Tricks that evening. There was the old boy network at work – these people knew each other at public school, Oxbridge, Sandhurst. Now they are running the police and MI5 and making inconvenient people and crime scenes disappear.
I also caught David Attenborough on a programme about Grammar Schools. As a sixth former in Leicester during the war he had helped out in schools in poorer parts of the city. When he got to Oxford, the chap in the room next door had been to Eton. Attenborough said he felt sorry for this old Etonian – he’d had a sheltered upbringing and knew so little of life. Of course what he did know was privilege, he had an expectation to get what he wanted.
The wartime generation was radicalised. They lived much closer to death of course, but there was some very interesting social mixing going on too. Within the forces and also as a result of the evacuation of children from the cities. People found out about and had to face up to the different lives people from different classes lived. That radicalisation – an understanding for the need for social solidarity – brought in the Welfare State. Not just benefits, but the NHS and legal aid and much more.
I’m not a Labour supporter, although I usually end up voting for them as the best on offer. However, there is a clear difference between Cameron’s schooling at Eton and Ed Milliband’s experience at Haverstock comprehensive (or Hilary Benn’s at Holland Park, or mine at Pimlico for that matter). Our current government are just completely out of touch – they have no clue how people in South Leeds live. They don’t understand the implications of their cuts to public services and they don’t appear to care.
We need social solidarity today – making sure everyone in society is looked after – and not just to make South Leeds a better place to live.
There is a fascinating book called The Spirit Level. The authors measured the difference in incomes between rich and poor in countries around the world. Then they compared that to a whole range of things: the murder rate, infant mortality, incidence of mental health problems. Whatever they measured they found the same result – things are better in fairer societies. And not just for the poor, all sections, even the rich, had better lives.
Back to “Fear and Loathing”. The government wants a “small state” without understanding what that means for ordinary people. This week I found out that it means the council can only provide two social work teams instead of three (or four) to meet the needs of the 800 children and their families that have been referred in the last six months.
I fear what will happen in our community in the coming years. I fear for those children, for the under twenty fives who can’t get Housing Benefits, for the job seekers barred from benefits for three years for not taking a sweatshop job, for the disabled people told they are fit for work. The list goes on.
And I loathe this government, because they have such contempt for plebs like you and me.
I apologise if you found this column too political this week. Well, actually I don’t. I’m afraid that’s my view from South of the River. Jeremy Morton will be back next week. You can follow him on Twitter @BeestonJeremy.