Sunday, 6 April 2014

Bedroom tax protesters take to the streets in Hanley.

Yesterday people around the country took to the streets to mark the first birthday of the government’s ‘bedroom tax.’

Riding by bus up to Hanley to take part in the local protest I couldn’t help looking out at the suburban streets passing the window and wondering how many people living there had had their lives blighted by the ‘bedroom tax.’ Out of all the austerity policies inflicted by the coalition it seems the most overtly cruel, striking as it does at one of the most basic requirements of a worthwhile life, the need for shelter.

The figures are stark, on Friday the Sentinel reported that since the introduction of the ‘bedroom tax’ 1304 people have fallen behind with their rent, many of whom have never previously been in arrears; 5189 people have applied for emergency help to pay from the council and the number of people using food banks has also increased.

When I get to the town centre the protest is smaller than might have been expected, this isn’t a carnival of outrage like the March on Stoke, just half a dozen or so people gathered around a trestle table in the rain. All around them shoppers rushed here and there clutching bags on the hunt for a bargain they probably didn’t need, a symbol, perhaps, of a culture where retail therapy is the treatment of choice when it comes to dealing with the uncertainties of modern life.

The placards several of the protesters hold are mostly handwritten, emphasising this is very much a grassroots driven protest, mainstream politicians seem to have a somewhat tortured relationship with the ‘bedroom tax’ and the whole austerity agenda. Nationally the Labour Party have intimated they will scrap the tax but few people at the protest believe this is more than an election promise liable to be broken rather than kept. Locally the ruling Labour group has won few friends by implementing savage cuts to public services whilst at the same time lavishing money on a new council headquarters.

Darryl, the quietly spoken young man who seems to be nominally in charge of proceedings, tells me the main purpose of the event is to highlight the help available to people struggling to pay the tax, the council fund set aside for this purpose has been poorly advertised. When I tell him I used to be a member of the Labour Party but left when the lack of internal democracy within the organisation became unbearable and have since joined the Green Party he says his own allegiance lies with ‘revolutionary’ politics, specifically the Socialist Workers Party.

He might just have a point, locally and nationally there is a need for some kind of radical change. The political system seems ever more like a cosy club for people who all went to the same schools and universities and have only a limited understanding of what life is like for average families. Quite how that change will come about though is unclear, the first past the post system makes it all but impossible for parties outside the three dusty monoliths to make a real impact and many voters seem to operate on instinct when they get to the ballot box.

The atmosphere is convivial, most people seem to know each other from one protest group or another, and many are involved with several groups, a reminder that the pool of politically active people is small.

Gillian, who works for a housing association and has travelled to the protest from Stafford tells me that she sees the impact of the ‘bedroom tax’ at first hand every day of her working life. She tells me about people being driven to despair by the financial burden of paying the ‘bedroom tax’ whilst struggling with the brutal and arbitrary sanctions imposed by the benefits system.

The worst of it, she says, is that the public seem to support the welfare reforms even though they are both ineffective and demonstrably unfair. Most people seem unaware that one stroke of bad luck could put them on benefits and in an often intolerably pressurises situation with little support, as Martin Niemoller might have put it if when they came for the benefits ‘scroungers’ you went shopping who will be there when they come for you next?

Lisa, another protester with an impressive list of groups she actively supports talks enthusiastically about the soon to be launched North Staffs Peoples Assembly. It certainly offers an opportunity for the disparate and sometimes fragmented network of groups opposing austerity to work together and make more of an impact.

She also tells the half dozen of us still standing around the trestle table that a friend attending a similar protest in London has called to say they’ve had more than a hundred people attending and even had a positive reaction from ‘white van man’.

It would be wishful thinking to say the Hanley protest has made anything like that much of an impact. A few members of the public have approached the stall and most have been supportive, but the day has really been more about people who are already politically active networking.

By one o’clock the whole thing has come to an end, the trestle table and leaflets have been packed away, the handful of protesters still standing around the stall shake hands and go their separate ways. Sitting in a nearby pub making notes about the day I watch the shoppers rushing past the window and think that most view the crisis of social justice slowly unfolding in this country through the media generated prism of a conflict between ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’.

I couldn’t help thinking of Gillian and the tales she told me of people knocked flat by the system that should be giving them a hand up. How many of the people rushing past the window, I wondered, realised they were walking an economic tightrope with only the flimsiest of nets there to catch them were they to fall off?

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