An NHS campaigner shares their thoughts on why it is vital to exercise our right to vote.
Children can’t vote. So they rely on the rest of us to cast our votes in a way that will protect them. Protect them from hunger, deprivation, exploitation, lack of hope, so that they can grow up healthy, happy and productive. And therefore able, in their turn, to exercise the same protection for the next generation. That is why voting is not just a privilege of adulthood but a responsibility – however onerous and frustrating it may be.
Most of us in Britain have grown up protected, at least in principle, by a system that was created after the Second World War to ensure that no child should ever again be wasted – as poverty, ill-health and inequality had wasted British children by the million in generations gone by.
After 1948, a child born in the NHS would be nurtured and cared for – free – until he or she reached adulthood. Would be educated – free – to reach their full potential as citizens. And, if his or her potential was such, would be supported through a – free – university education. And when these children had children of their own, they too would all have access to decent housing – privately or council-owned – regular employment and world-class healthcare, free at the point of need.
In this way, it was hoped, no child in the post-war world would suffer the full effects of the poverty or disability or death or separation of their parents. No child would be penalised for their parents’ inability to advance the career of their children through their own wealth and contacts.
A terrible war had shown that every person had something to offer; henceforth no child would be wasted. That was the promise the post-war Welfare State made to all the people who had fought, together, for freedom against the forces of darkness and destruction.
It wan’t a promise that was always fulfilled by any means. But for the passage of a generation there was no real challenge to the idea that the protection of all our children, collectively undertaken and collectively paid for, was a noble – a sacred – trust.
But then, even as the nation as a whole became richer, a new force, a new idea, started to gain ground in some elevated circles, which argued, “Why should the rich and powerful pay to put their children on a level playing field with the children of the poor?” This was not an electoral pitch that would gain sufficient votes to secure power from the necessary non-rich of course, so it had to be couched by the grandees in slightly different terms if it was to appeal to the masses.
The appeal to selfishness of, “Why should you pay to support the well-being, and the prospects, of someone else’s child?” – which attracted the immediate, obvious, riposte of mutual benefit and therefore greater security for all – also required that the “someone else” be demonised in order to work to an electoral asset. Demonised as foreigners wherever possible of course but, as Enoch Powell showed, that could be counterproductive. However no one seemed to have any interest in defending the foreigner within – the “undeserving poor” of the Victorian era, now revived and reinvented to play The Other again in right-wing demonology.
The more recent pejorative of “council-house kid” was clearly no longer of any use as an alienation tool once doctors, lawyers, movie stars and Cabinet ministers nurtured by the Welfare State could boast proudly of having been a council-house kid themselves (thus showing that it was nurture, not nature that had kept the poor down for so long). But, in this new vision, anyone who was lucky enough to secure one of the deliberately dwindling supply of council houses was to be envied by many, and so could be dubbed with the working-class insult “scrounger” – and if they could be shown to be foreign too, so much the better.
And, even if not literally foreign, they could be made to seem so. With the eager assistance of a crass and compliant media, the affectionate chavi, meaning child in the Romani language, quickly became a viral hit of hatred that dubbed the disadvantaged child as a separate nationality, confirming just how alien it was to respectable society: The Chav. Even if they had money, and few did, they spent it on the wrong things, the wrong clothes, the wrong food, the wrong home gadgets. So there was no point in taxing away your hard-earned money just to waste it on a Chav child.
Even before the coining of the term ‘Chav’, the groundwork for this was well-laid. In 1974, Sir Keith Joseph warned that “our human stock is threatened” by the breeding of young mothers in social classes 4 and 5. Where once our proud British commitment was to every child that was born,now we were told that: “A high proportion of these births are a tragedy for the mother, the child and for us.”
And by the time these “tragedies” had reached the age of 11, their educational future was in the hands of this same Sir Keith Joseph. It had been placed there by Margaret Thatcher who, in her own “milk-snatcher” days at Education had, according to Cabinet minutes: “Said that she had been able to offer the Chief Secretary, Treasury, rather larger savings than he had sought on school meals, school milk, further education and library charges.”
And it was Thatcher who, as Prime Minister, destroyed our manufacturing base in which so many of these “tragedies” one day hoped to work, sold off our houses in which they one day hoped to live and raise a family, and gave away our national and municipal assets that served to keep those families’ needs within the reach of a single living wage.
A consensus on the utter worthlessness of The Others was built up through a co-operative media under the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, but did not die with the massive public rejection of Toryism in 1997. Tragically, it remained largely unchallenged through the ruthlessly vote-chasing years of New Labour, which abandoned Old Labour’s principles of solidarity for its “hard-working families” mantra. For reasons of its own, the party machine shunned association with the millions cast to the bottom of the pile by unemployment – even in areas strip-mined of employment by Tory policies.
By the time New Labour collapsed in a morass of unregulated bankers, super-casinos and ID cards, even Dave “hug a hoodie” Cameron and Nick “scrap tuition fees“ Clegg offered a more hopeful and humane vision to a wavering, betrayed and bewildered electorate.
Once in power, of course, it was business as usual with the likes of Lansley and Duncan-Smith unleashing a venomous assault on The Others that Thatcher and Joseph could have only dreamed of.
Money is drained from the budgets of the poorest families with a VAT hike that subsidises a cut in the higher tax income rate for the rich. Money is drained from the education of all our children to subsidise the education of those in new, privately run “academies”. Money is drained from the benefits safety-net we all pay into, in order to subsidise corporation tax cuts for below-living-wage employers. Money is drained from our National Health System to subsidise tax-dodging corporations who spy a profit to be made by taking small bites out of it, and who walk away leaving a service bleeding if it turns out there isn’t.
In 2015, the ranks of The Others are now bursting at the seams and, it seems, could soon encompass us all. If you are a child whose parents are unemployed, you’re in. If they are working, you still have a pretty good chance of being in. If they – or you – are disabled or have mental health needs then you are definitely in.
And even if you are not included in the ranks of The Others today, your prospects of staying out for long are dwindling fast. By 2020, on this government’s own figures, 21% of British children will be living in absolute – not relative – poverty, up from 17% in 2010-11.
So take five children: one will live in a financially secure home 2020 (so long as it is spared family bereavement or bankruptcy); one will be in absolute poverty (and possibly homeless); the other three teeter somewhere between, hopeful to rise and fearful to fall.
Currently, at least all five would be guaranteed the very best medical care available, free at the point of need, through our NHS – although hunger and poor housing would put some in more need of it than others. In 2020 that may no longer be so. In a Britain incalculably richer than the one that set up the Welfare State, it seems we will no longer be able to afford, as they did, to give them even an equal chance to be born healthy.
Already we can see how, as in Morecambe, the drive to marketise the NHS has helped to cause the actual deaths of actual babies. Get used to it. As the drive to privatise our National Health System drains more and more money from what it offers, free and equal to all, and pushes more and more services into ability-to-pay disparity, this will only get worse.
And, horribly, all that this Labour Party seems to be offering is that it will all get worse a fraction more slowly.
But look back to the beginning of this article and to the commitment that the post-war Labour government made to all the children of Britain – born and yet-to-be – in 1948. If it still seems to be as sane, humane and worthwhile a commitment to you as it seems to us, then all you have to do is vote for it to bring it back into our national life. Not just in the coming general election, but there and within your union and within any other bodies you belong to and with your feet and with your voice and on the streets and wherever you can make yourself heard.
How can it make sense to vote for anything else?