The war on woke has become a war on facts

“There is no absolute poverty in this country… people who do not have food and shelter.”  “Relative poverty is merely that you can’t afford the Sky television, you can’t afford the foreign holiday and you can’t afford the car.” 

“There are an awful lot of dole scroungers.”  “I find it hard to believe” that parents are skipping hot meals so they can feed their children.  “Dole scroungers is a succinct way of describing” them. 

Not Mr Bumble from Oliver Twist or Ebenezer Scrooge from a Christmas Carol, but video interviews from the 2022 Conservative Party Conference.  I can’t help thinking that some people needed to be hugged more as children.  To be fair, one Tory council leader described real-terms benefits cuts as “immoral” and made an eloquent case against it.   

Conservative Party Chair, the Rt Hon Jake Berry MP, said, though, “People know that when their bills arrive they can either cut their consumption or they can get a higher salary or higher wages, go out there and get that new job.” 

The war on woke has become a war on facts.  1.2 million people already have a second job.  12 years of austerity has cut education to the extent where Britain is short of data scientists, software engineers and doctors – but students leave university with over £50,000 of debt.  Care workers and classroom assistants and staff in railways stations should not have to leave their jobs to pay their bills.  The best way to “get a higher salary or higher wages” is to join a trade union – nice to see Jake Berry backing strikes. 

Everyone deserves a warm home, enjoyable holidays, and financial security.  Everyone deserves a pay rise to match inflation.  That applies to everyone who works or worked for a living, or is unable to work through caring responsibilities, ill health or disability. 

But we’re far beyond that.  Millions of working people and their families are in absolute poverty. 

“My son’s PE kit has just cost me £200,” Katy told me (not her real name).  Food, energy, housing and transport are breaking people’s budgets.  At the North of Tyne, we’re working with 90 schools to change uniform policy.  Like where PE kit requires the school logo, which stops parents buying it from affordable places like Asda George. 

Last week I convened a meeting with our region’s food poverty campaigners.  John McCorry told me the West End Foodbank is sending out 2,000 food parcels a month – that feed 5000 people.  That’s just one foodbank.  Their food stores have one third of what they need to get through this winter. 

Others spoke of the burnout amongst volunteers.  How voluntary and charity organisations unable do their core mission – like running youth groups – because they are running holiday hunger projects instead.  How we need sustainable models that maintain people’s dignity and mental wellbeing.  Like  food pantry models, where people pay what they can, but still get enough food. 

We’re working with these charities and volunteers to provide help & support – but we shouldn’t have to.  My job is economic regeneration – but how can we build a future of high-skilled, high-paid work when we have kids too hungry to learn?

Our national safety net has huge holes that need fixing.  I’d like to see the next Labour government take serious steps towards Universal Basic Income, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Again, dignity must be at the heart of our safety net.  When my kids were little, we did a foodbank shop every Xmas.  It was also part maths lesson.  While Caroline and I did a big foodbank shop, we’d give the boys a tenner each, a pad and pen, and set them away.   

Leon got tins of value veg, tuna, pasta, jam, tinned peaches, and cornflakes and UHT milk.  And got his sums right to the penny.  “I thought about getting people as much food for the money as I could and enough to stay healthy.”   

His little brother Nelson turned up with some tins of mango and big selection box of chocolate biscuits.  “I thought if people had no money left they should get something that would make them happy.” 

They were both right.