The traffic warden walked wearily towards me and let out a long sigh. It was Friday morning. I was just on my way into the council building where I work. He no doubt would soon be on his way out. I would not have wanted to be in his shoes.
Those of us fortunate to still have a job working in local government do not have a straightforward task. I sat in a meeting recently where a colleague spoke about the new strategy he was developing not just on behalf of the council but other partnership organisations. The elephant in the room was where the manpower was to turn the strategy into reality.
It’s hard to remain ambitious for those we work on behalf of when keeping existing work going is such a challenge. We have to guard against weariness and cynicism setting in, departments and organisations have to resist the temptation to just watch their own back. We have to look around at and keep asking ‘Is the best we can do?’ I think that despite austerity there’s a lot of good stuff happening but I think we can do more and that has to be my goal and the vision I equip my teams to pursue.
I found it hard to watch the Chancellor, Philip Hammond’s interview last week (1). In it he dismissed the recent report of the UN poverty rapporteur (2), which spoke damningly of the scale of poverty in this country. Hammond’s response was to state ‘I reject the idea that there are vast numbers in dire poverty in this country’. He went on to say, ‘look around you, that’s not what we see in this country’. It depends, the interviewer pointed out, where you’re looking. It’s not hard to find poverty in this country. I guess Philip Hammond doesn’t walk into a building each morning that people have been sleeping rough outside.
I remember the first time I saw footage of a Foodbank. I was open mouthed. A civilised country with so little interest in the poor that charities had to organise to feed them. That Foodbank was in America. I didn’t think it could happen here. Now Foodbanks are commonplace – my church in a nice part of town has one.
Again, I ask the question – is this the best we can do? In this context, I find the idea of Boris Johnson offering tax cuts to higher earners offensive.
Poverty is of course complex. It is foolish to pretend either that people have no personal responsibility for their circumstances, any more than to believe that the wider society they grow up and live in has no effect.
The lie of individualistic politics is that you are solely responsible for how your life turns out. We grow up in family and society and it is absurd to say they do not help shape us. Yes we have responsibility for our own lives but we do not enter life as units from a factory, we are the products of an environment, an environment that can vary wildly. I will never be satisfied with a version of politics that doesn’t see that we have some shared responsibility for one another, recognising that some people don’t have a great start in life and that people that screw up deserve some compassion and an opportunity to go again.
I’ve been watching the current series on Margaret Thatcher’s Premiership (3) with interest. You can probably guess that I’m not a fan but I did have a moment where there was a spark of connection. In old footage, Thatcher was talking about the fact that we are supposed to be stretched in life. She certainly was, coming from a relatively humble background to go to Oxford and end up as Prime Minister. No-one could question her work ethic.
I easily get restless and need a new challenge. At the moment I’m mulling on a new writing idea, which I know will massively challenge me but I’m realising that it’s through that challenge that my ability to express ideas will grow.
So I get that need to stretch yourself but I don’t agree with Mrs T’s idea of how to go about this. She famously said that there was no such thing as society just individual men and women and families. That’s not a world I want to be a part of. I want to be part of a community, one where I can receive the support I need and help others to flourish.
That’s why we’re still trying to support and build community in the council. That’s why I want any future potential leader of any persuasion to be bothered about the country as a whole not just their own base.
I think we can do better than this. We need a leader who can see a better future and unlike, Thatcher and Philip Hammond understand and have compassion for those, whose life has not turned out as well as ours.