This is our truth, tell us yours
You’re probably sick of it, the way in which every politician has to refer to ‘hard working families’ in an approving way.
I have a macabre fascination for the use of the phrase, not least because being a hard working family is not always a good thing. If you’re ever in the North East take a trip to Longbenton, to St Bartholomew’s church. In the cemetery there you might find the graves of two men called David Addy, and of John Addy. The epitome of a hard working family, a father and his two unmarried sons, they died on the same day at Burradon pit. They’re not the only hard working family interred at Longbenton. In the same cemetery are Alfred Allen, Thomas Beadling and John Beadling, all cousins, part of a hard working extended family, and all killed at Burradon on the same day.
John Beadling was eleven years old.
Going down the list of casualties is a reminder that work is not always a morally beneficial act, even if you cannot fail to be moved by the heroism of Thomas Fryer, who died trying but failing to rescue his son John. Morally speaking, Thomas was a hero, but his family still ended up destitute, deprived of a hard working father and son.
I cit this history not because I’m in a lachrymose mood, but because I need to make the point that actually, because of this history, because of how we once lived, the ambition of the labour movement for years was to allow families to be less hardworking.Labor used to promise to increase leisure time and to provide opportunities for families to be less hard working, and more playful, more healthy, and to allow eleven year olds to live in peace, not rest in it. Instead work remains a dangerous place with new hazards as well as the old ones, and insufficient concern for the hard working people who never go home, or who are so damaged by work that they can never go back.
Labour isn’t talking about this. It’s considered eccentric to be concerned about health and safety in a world where, it seems, we have to praise hardworking families while not noticing how much wider the gap between the rich and the poor is becoming.
Of course there’s an element, in the rhetoric about hard working families of the resurrection of the contributory principle behind the welfare state, but, again, Labour has forgotten where it came from. Under post war Labour we had a two tier welfare state, where there was a safety net for everybody, and a top up related to how much you had contributed, that made the transition from work to benefits and back again easier. We’ve moved now to a position where there is only a safety net, and only if you qualify, through a grotesque series of tests and requirements, as hard working.
Go back to the 1930s, and of course a generation of Labour leaders now forgotten, like Bevan, spent their time in the constant battle against local rules about eligibility for means tested benefits that were capricious, mean spirited and designed not to support but to allow less tax to be collected to the benefit of the wealthy.
The aspiration not to prove that we are hard working was formed in those days, and has been forgotten. Labour could do a lot worse than resurrect it, or at least talk about it.
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