Widows’ benefits

I read with disgust this morning an article in the Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/8952062/Lord-Freud-plans-shake-up-of-benefits-for-widows.html) on Lord Freud’s plan to “shake up” benefits given to widows.

This blog post may not be one of my most rational, as for me this issue is very personal.  My father passed away suddenly in March 1996, aged just 46-years-old, and left my mum, then 43-years-old, to raise my brother, 12, and me, 8, by herself.  When we lost my dad, he was the breadwinner in my family.  He had worked previously as an upholsterer, and was currently working at an engineering plant at the time of his unexpected death.

My mum has for many years lambasted the lack of support given to widows, some of whom are incredibly vulnerable.  They did not ask or choose to be in this position; they did not ask for their husbands (or wives) to be taken from them, but such is the cruelty of fate.  My mum was working as a cook in a school kitchen at the time, but thanks to the specific hours this kind of work entails, was able to look after me and my brother and see us to and from school.  But when my dad passed, we did not just lose a loved one.  We did not just lose a parent and husband.  We also lost income, security and stability.

Thankfully, my dad had two pensions, one from a former employer and one from his current employer at the time of his death.  Combined with my mum’s meagre widow’s pension, we were able to get by, and we never wanted for anything during our childhood and adolescent years.

But the fact remains that widows are victims.  And they are ignored.  Whilst some, such as military widows, get a little more attention than others, which is understandable, many struggle on in the background.  My mum is one.  Her widow’s pension has never increased by much in the almost 16 years since my dad died – I have no problem with this, as of course my brother and myself are now in our twenties and work, pay taxes etc.  But this is happening to other widows too – widows with dependent children, children with special needs, and a whole other variety of circumstances that we can’t even comprehend.  It is a silent struggle.  My mum was often too proud to ask for help.  I imagine many others – widows and widowers alike – feel the same.

And the phrase that really turned my stomach concerned the idea that benefits must be changed in order to encourage widows to go back to work sooner.  Has Lord Freud no humanity?  There is no timeline or deadline on grief.  You do not just wake up one morning, say “I’m over it” and get on with life.  It is a daily battle to face the days, but you do it in your own time.  Mourning is a long process, depending on several different factors.  My mum did go back to work eventually, but in doing so exacerbated a previous medical condition, which she has now had since 1997.  I still believe her going back to work so soon after my father’s passing added to her grief and stress.  Does Lord Freud think that widows enjoy sitting at home, trying to make sense of what has happened in their lives?  Does he not think that they’d rather be doing anything other than grieving the loss of their spouse?

At a time when many other services are being cut, I find it abhorrent that this government should now turn its eye to widows’ benefits to see where else we can make some savings.  Thank goodness that me and my brother have now grown up, and my mum can use her pension – and state pension in years to come – for her own individual purposes.  But what if this wasn’t the case?  What if this was happening to my family NOW?  Or next year?  We would be faced with the fact that my mum may lose a portion of a benefit she doesn’t even want to have to take, but must because fate has dealt her the worst hand.  The truth is, if these proposals are followed through, this will happen.

I find myself aghast at how this government can only think in terms of money, yet again.  They really do know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

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Nostalgia for Thatcher

You need look no further than the online messageboards of the Daily Mail or Telegraph to find a wealth of support and admiration that still exists for Margaret Thatcher.  “How we do need her now” says one poster (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1230319/Margaret-Thatcher-returns-10-Downing-Street-official-unveiling-new-portrait.html#comments).  This sentiment is something I have come across many times on right-leaning websites, but it is not just restricted to these portals.  I have had many conversations with friends and acquaintances, many of whom are not Conservative voters, and experienced this same nostalgia for Maggie.  With a new high-profile Thatcher biopic, ‘The Iron Lady’, coming out in a month, Thatcher is once more back in the limelight.

Regardless of my opinion of her politics, few would argue Maggie was not a strong leader.  I am currently reading part one of her autobiography, ‘The Path To Power’, and her conviction is consistent throughout.  She believed in the free market, she resented the big state, and, as a corollary, she loathed socialism.  As someone who leans to the left, I find myself regularly frustrated as I read her book.  She throws the ‘s’ word out so generously, you’d think every policy ever concocted by the Labour party had had mandatory approval by Karl Marx.

But her ideas and her beliefs were clear.  This lady really wasn’t for turning and at a time when Britain was in economic and industrial turmoil, this Iron Lady was an attractive prospect to many.  We think one day of strikes is inconvenient; try living in the 1970s.  What I find interesting about Thatcher – as the first female Prime Minister – is that she was actually rather masculine.  Not in appearance, no.   Gordon Reece understood that her appeal lay not in just her passion for traditional conservatism, but in this ‘Iron Lady’ image itself.  He helped ‘polish’ this image – the deep voice, the hairstyle, the suits.  This wife and mother of two could also mix with the big boys in the Tory party and she would not flip flop her beliefs to suit the changing political times.  These were her beliefs – freedom, laissez-faire capitalism, British Empire – and you can either like them or lump them.  She smashed the stereotype of woman as homemaker – indeed she juggled family life with political life – and in doing so, appealed to men.  And not just men of the middle and upper classes, but also to working class men too.   Maybe not a large proportion of working class men, no, but a significant number regardless.  Deference still had much influence back then.

And so this country elected Maggie three consecutive times, which surely speaks for something.  Her leadership during the Falklands War of 1982 reinforced this image of strength… a protector of Britain and its empire.  A woman willing to send our boys thousands of miles away to defend what is ours.  Yes, this woman had strength.  And in 2011, many in this country are looking back through rose-tinted glasses at those years.  But why?

It has been a turbulent few years for people in this country.  We have emerged from the deepest recession since World War Two and still find ourselves on precarious economic ground.  In 2010, we couldn’t quite decide if we really did trust David Cameron to sort our problems out, and now we have a coalition government, the first full coalition since the war.  Our elected officials have used and abused our trust and swindled taxpayers out of thousands of pounds’ worth of money to fund their lavish lifestyles.  The austerity measures of the current administration have left many of us hurt and damaged, whilst we bemoan just another example of the “bankers getting away with it”.  Clearly we are a confused nation going through confused times.  We have lost trust in our Members of Parliament.  Whereas some take up arms against the current government and look to the future, many instead look back at a time when one woman would not back down in the face of adversity.  A time when we were ruled by a woman who would likely have banished the word ‘coalition’ from her lexicon.  In times of uncertainty and worry, some look for strength and comfort… and they find Maggie.

I believe such nostalgia is misplaced.  Well of course I do, I’m a bleeding heart liberal.  But whilst we may long for a leader made of iron, we overlook many of her flaws and mistakes.  Those looking back fondly need to take off those rose-tinted specs and realise that Maggie was not infallible – the manner in which her resignation played out in 1990 exemplifies that.  For every Thatcherite, there is a bitter Labourite.  For every yuppie, a demoralised miner.  For every family made wealthy by her tax cuts, a broken family struggling to rub two pennies together.

We may be nostalgic for Thatcher’s conviction, but let us not forget her errors and failures, some of which had devastating effects for many in our country, particularly in the northern regions.  Her unwillingness to compromise on Northern Ireland did little to stop the prolonged periods of terrorism that we experienced in British towns and cities.  Her unwavering support for the free market saw manufacturing shipped abroad on the cheap, leaving thousands of British workers unemployed.  Her intolerance for the Left resulted in many Labour-run councils stripped of funding, despite her calls for more localism and less state intervention.  Clearly this was only okay when she had a political point to make.

In essence, Thatcher embodies everything that is wrong with our political and economic system today.  The greed and me-me-me attitude of the banking industry in the past few years is a direct consequence of Thatcher’s lust for a world where “there is no such thing as society”.  It is, I believe, right to let people get on with their lives and pursue whatever career or life goals they wish.  But this only works if the correct regulation is in place so as to not damage other people’s prospects and opportunities.  Her hatred for regulation allowed big business and corporations to run amok and pile up the cash, whilst many low-income workers were left to suffer the consequences.  Any of this sound familiar?

On Monday, it was the 21st anniversary of Maggie’s resignation.  We may be two decades onwards from that point, and three from her initial election as Prime Minister, but some things have not changed.  I wish Thatcher no ill; I find those on the left who are ready to dance on her grave despicable – have you no basic humanity?  But the stark truth is that her legacy – good and bad – and the effects of Thatcherism will live on far beyond her passing.  We may crave strong leadership during these testing times of economic frailty and smug PR-politics, but let us think a little more thoroughly before we open our mouths and say, “I wish we had Maggie”.   Strength must not be confused for good leadership or a faultless premiership.   At its most extreme example, we can find strong leadership in fascism.  That’s an over exaggeration I think, but the principle is important.  We must be careful what we wish for, because history has taught us that we can easily fall down the slippery slope.

Whipped in more ways than one

Yesterday’s controversial debate on whether we should hold a referendum on EU membership brought to light a whole range of problems within our political system.  Whilst many would like to discuss the Conservative party splits, or the credibility of the coalition government’s “e-petitions” which prompted this debate, I think it necessary to look at the whip system.

Both the Prime Minister and Ed Miliband issued ‘three-line whips’ to their respective parties ahead of this vote.  In basic terms, this required each MP to attend, vote, and toe the party line.  Or in Dave and Ed’s terms, vote no, and if you don’t, there’ll be serious repercussions.  Stewart Jackson, Conservative MP for Peterborough, rebelled against the three-line whip and has now lost his job as Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Owen Paterson MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.  Adam Holloway, Conservative MP for Gravesham, resigned his position as PPS to David Lidington MP, Minister of State for Europe and NATO, in light of his rebellion against the three-line whip.  It remains to be seen how the other 79 Conservative rebels will be punished.

Arguments for adhering to three-line whips usually focus on loyalty to the party.  I watched an hour or so of the Europe debate yesterday, and I think it was Kate Hoey, Labour MP for Vauxhall, and a famous party rebel, who said that she understands the rationale behind whips.  After all, it is your party who select you as a parliamentary candidate, support your campaign and give you the resources and tools to win an election.  But should this rationale elevate loyalty to party above the loyalty to your constituents?  Kate Hoey disagreed, and I disagree too.

The foundation of representative democracy is, well, representation.  Whilst Members of Parliament will ultimately make their own voting decisions based on a number of factors, one of the most important of these factors must be constituent opinion.  Your party may have made your candidacy possible, but it is your constituents who queued at the ballot boxes and put a cross next to your name.  This is not to say that all Members who voted with their party are careerists or disloyal to their constituents; I believe many of them simply did not support the motion.  But it is downright wrong for party leaders to coerce their Members into voting a certain way simply to make a political point, especially on an issue as salient as European Union membership.

Regardless of my own opinions on the EU – for what it’s worth, I am largely pro-EU – when opinion polls are stating that 70 per cent of voters want a referendum on Britain’s EU membership (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/oct/24/eu-referendum-poll-uk-withdrawal?newsfeed=true), it is against the very core of democracy to quash dissent and enable a three-line whip.  How can we ignore these polls?  How can Dave and Ed look at these polls and do the very thing that would make sure this motion would not pass?

But perhaps this is yet another problem of representative democracy.  We have handed over our consent for this system, and created a monster.  We have sat back for too long and remained largely ignorant to some of the more nuanced political engineering that goes on within the halls of Westminster.  If any good can come of this protracted debate, I hope it is this: that we can take another long look at our political system and say ‘no, this is not right’.  We will hand over our votes and our consent to be governed, but there are some issues – such as membership of the EU and its wider impact on British sovereignty – that are simply too big, too important, for us to let our representatives kowtow to the party leadership.

Never was a truer word spoken than when Churchill said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”