Young and Old Standing Together

In this poignant thinkpiece Shelagh Simmons looks at the impact of austerity on older people in our community and celebrates past generations of local activists.  

In the last edition of Star & Crescent, Phoebe Corbett-Stenson had some angry words for those she holds responsible for the financial, employment and housing problems facing young people today. Some of her harshest comments are directed at older people. I understand her anger but, as one of ‘the complacent older generation’ she may be referring to, I’m here to tell another story.

On 28th March Portsmouth lost one of its most committed community activists when June Clarkson died aged 81. Born in Hampshire, she dedicated much of her life to working for social justice. In her late thirties she trained as a teacher, going on to inspire children in some of the most deprived areas of Birmingham. Throughout her life she campaigned on many issues. The homeless, women’s rights, the peace movement and the environment were just some of the causes to which she gave her time as a volunteer. A loyal – but not always uncritical – member of the Labour Party, June was also an active member of the Portsmouth Pensiopopeners Association and an honorary member of the National Pensioners Convention.

June knew that for every wealthy, high-profile Sir Alan Sugar who doesn’t need his winter fuel allowance there are countless low-profile pensioners living in poverty who desperately do. She also knew that we have to look out for all members of our community, regardless of age. From bus passes that provide continued independence to NHS podiatry services that are currently under threat, June did her best to defend Portsmouth’s vulnerable senior citizens against the government’s brutal cuts. Her motive wasn’t self-interest. She witnessed the hardships suffered by older people before the establishment of the welfare state and desperately wanted to avoid a return to that, not just for today’s pensioners but those of the future – including Phoebe’s generation.

My dad cared passionately about social justice too. A trade union activist – and contrary to the right-wing demonization of people like him – he saw no contradiction between doing a good job for an employer while trying to ensure fair treatment for employees. And he knew that working people have rarely been given anything freely. Ending child labour, ensuring safer working conditions and weekends off are just a few of the benefits that weren’t just handed over by benevolent employers – they were hard-won by people standing together in a collective struggle. Pope Francis was quite right when he said, ‘Trade unions have been an essential force for social change without which a semblance of a decent and humane society is impossible under capitalism.’

In October 2008, Dad died after several years of declining health that left him totally dependent on others to look after him. As a family we witnessed at first hand the disgrace of the “care” system, with its low pay culture, lack of proper time to “care” and exploitation of both “carers” and the “cared for”. It wasn’t the fault of the “carers”, it was the fault of a systemic race to the bottom in which low costs and high profits are everything. Several years on, nothing has changed. In fact, it’s got worse.

Dad spent the final weeks of his life in Portsmouth hospitals. Although clearly dying, he was treated as a ‘bed blocker’. We were harassed to get him out of his hospital bed into a nursing home. He was finally moved to an end-of-life care ward at Queen Alexandra Hospital where he died early the next morning. We were grateful to the wonderful staff on that ward for way they looked after him – and us – in his last hours. Yet, despite a spirited campaign to save it, that facility – with its peaceful environment and kind, loving staff – has now been closed down. It is now the “private patients’ wing” at QAH. Shockingly, there is no dedicated end-of-life care provision for older people in our purpose-built local hospital.

My Dad, like June, worked hard all his life. He deserved better than he got at the end of it. He was badly let down by the system he helped fund that can always find money for war but saw him as a costly burden. He would be sad to know there are young people who consider his generation to be selfish parasites.

As a woman of sixty-one, I’m among those disproportionately hit by the raising of the State Pension Age (SPA). I’ve been penalised not once but twice. First, under plans to equalise the SPA between men and women. Second – and despite promises he wouldn’t do it – the Chancellor accelerated that timetable as part of the deficit reduction strategy. In 2011 he decreed women born in 1954 should have an extra eighteen months to two years slapped on their SPA. I was promised my state pension at age sixty. Now, with very little time to prepare, I won’t get it until I am over sixty-five.

Already victims of the gender pay gap, many women have taken work breaks to care for children. Some have given up work or reduced their working hours to look after older relatives. That means they haven’t had time to build up a pension or to save and will miss out on thousands of pounds they were promised by the state. As Ros Altmann, then director-general of the Saga Group, pointed out, ‘They have planned properly but the rug is being pulled from beneath them. They are being unfairly targeted.’ She’s the new Minister for Pensions so I’ll be asking her what she’s going to do about it.

Yes, students were betrayed over tuition fees. But women have been betrayed too; no feather-bedded, gold-plated retirement for many of us. And the Prime Minister’s decision to freeze ministerial pay for the next five years because ‘we are all in this together’ is an insult. Those who feel it know it. I’d like to know exactly what impact such token gestures have on the lifestyles of the already wealthy.

Some well-respected voices have spoken out against the damage austerity inflicts on society. In his new book The Great Divide, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argues that it’s not only hitting the poorest hardest, it’s damaging the UK as a whole too. He says it’s an unnecessary, destructive policy that’s the result of political dogma, poor leadership and misplaced priorities. In the current low-skill, low-pay service economy – with apparently thousands of new jobs created every week – the UK’s productivity has actually fallen. It doesn’t occur to the government and big business that people perform better when they are treated fairly. Or that it would be better for the country if it spent less on subsidising stingy employers and greedy landlords through tax credits and housing benefit. Paying people a fair wage would also help the Treasury, which has seen its receipts fall because those paid a pittance don’t earn enough to pay tax.

As for ‘austerity’, let’s look at the meaning of that term. For me, it evokes post-World War II Britain which, despite the financial constraints, still managed to create the welfare state – including the National Health Service. That was the real meaning of ‘all in this together’. I resent the appropriation of a term which symbolises sacrifice for a noble cause to destroy what that noble cause built. And what is today’s noble cause? It’s protecting the vested interests of global capitalism which has failed most of us so badly. It’s defending a system driven by a consumerism that sees us not as human beings but as money-making units to be ruthlessly exploited. It’s a private sector obsession in the face of evidence it doesn’t deliver. It’s an ideology that ignores the fact there are some essential services far too important to be left at the mercy of market forces. It’s a system that’s encouraged greed and vastly increased the gap between rich and poor. Its defenders accuse its opponents of ‘the politics of envy’. It isn’t. It’s the politics of justice. And my views aren’t radical or revolutionary. One of the last century’s most influential economists, John Maynard Keynes, rightly questioned the ‘extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives’ will somehow work ‘for the benefit of all’.

The fact is not everything can – or should – be run as a private business. We need strong public services too. That means people paying their fair share through tax and national insurance. For people like June and my Dad, that wasn’t something to avoid. It was their duty as a citizen. I don’t have children but I’ve been happy to invest in future generations through my taxes. That’s my duty as a citizen too. Contributing towards a better society is something we should be proud to do. But not everyone sees it that way. We’ve seen tax avoidance on a massive scale by multinational corporations, and schemes to help the wealthy minimise what they pay to run services other people rely on.

A glance at the last general election results shows that political business as usual is not what most of us want. How can the Prime Minister claim to have a mandate for his policies when only 66% of us bothered to vote and only 37% of those who did voted for his party? That 37% delivered the Conservatives 51% of parliamentary seats. It may be legal; but is it legitimate? The Green Party quadrupled its vote to over a million but failed to add to its one seat. Yet the Scottish National Party got approximately 1.5 million votes and 56 seats. This disparity is driving the Electoral Reform Society’s Make Seats Match Votes campaign.

First Past The Post (FPTP) is no longer fit for purpose in a multi-party system which sees overall results turn on a small number of marginal constituencies and majority governments returned on a vote share that’s dropped below 40%. It works very well for the two main parties, which is precisely why they don’t want to change it. And it’s disingenuous to suggest we rejected change in the 2011 referendum. What was cynically offered then wasn’t a proportional system. It was the Alternative Vote. And if FPTP is so fair, why don’t more countries use it? Of the 50 that do, 41 are former British colonies – hardly a ringing endorsement. Not one other European country has chosen it as its electoral system. 71 countries have List Proportional Representation. If our voices really are to be heard, FPTP has to go.

Chair of the University of Portsmouth’s Green Society, Kunal Shah, plays to the youth gallery when he suggests ‘old people are voting for themselves’. But are they? It’s hard to sustain that argument when large numbers of people clearly don’t support austerity – an austerity that’s only set to get worse. I don’t believe older people are vindictively voting to inflict what for Phoebe is ‘the tough love’ that ‘they (never) had’. Vote share analysis shows there is an appetite for a more equitable, compassionate society. It’s just not reflected in the grossly distorted outcome.

The government plays the politics of division, hyped up by its chums in the media. Workers vs shirkers. Private vs public. Foreigners vs Brits. Old vs young. It suits them to do that because together we’re a threat. Together we are powerful and vested interests don’t like that. Better to have us turn on each other than to turn on them. To echo the title of Amir Amirani’s fine film about the 2003 global protest against the Iraq War, We Are Many. One of the most striking features of that film is the way millions of people of all ages – and diverse social and ethnic backgrounds – united in a common cause. We didn’t stop that war but we shook the political establishment. David Cameron wanted military action in Syria. Thanks to public pressure, Parliament stopped him. ‘I get that’, yelled the furious PM. Well, that’s real democracy, Dave, and we want more of it.

Since Thatcher came to power in 1979 both Conservative and Labour have played their part in trashing the post-war consensus. The move away from them shows our distaste for the political status quo. We’re so much more than the UK PLC. We’re so much more than a business. We’re a community. And now we’re a hugely divided community. But there is far more to unite than divide us so let’s not play the Government’s nasty game.

June and my Dad voted in every single election they could – local, general and European. I always vote too. It’s not easy when you see your vote consistently wasted and your voice electorally ignored. That’s driven the rise in single issue activism through social media groups like 38 Degrees. But politics impacts every single part of our lives. Voting for parties that offer a more ethical alternative is the best way to demonstrate that we have a failing, unrepresentative electoral system that doesn’t work for us. It’s failing our young people far more than they are failed by any older people pulling up their comfortable drawbridge. And it’s not just failing the young – it’s failing us all.

As Phoebe points out, young people voted en masse in the Scottish independence referendum. They will turn out if they have something worth voting for; and if they can see their votes count. We older people aren’t complacent, Phoebe. We’re losing out too. You don’t need to ‘start taking the reins back from the middle aged’. They haven’t been wrenched from you. Your generation has dropped them and the challenge is to make sure they pick them up again. Isn’t it better to do that together.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.