We have many meetings as politicians. To be honest, a lot pass without creating much of an impression. But, occasionally, one comes along which leaves you winded. Thursday night was one of those.
My good friend Steve Rotheram and I hosted a Zoom meeting with the campaign group Excluded UK. We wanted to hear directly from some of the three million people who have been left without support during the pandemic.
It was powerful and, at times, uncomfortable.
One by one, they appeared on the screen - a true cross-section of the great British public. Positive, practical people. Doers not complainers. People who at some point in their lives had left the easy path to go freelance or set up a business. People who, if they had been told at the start of the year that they would attend a campaign event with politicians, would never have believed it.
We heard from Mark who runs a wedding business that is 98% down on turnover and reeling from a year spent making people redundant and cancelling people’s weddings.
We winced as we listened to Helen, a 40 year-old chartered surveyor and mum of two, who was denied furlough and made redundant in the same week as receiving a shielding letter for her six-year old son with a lung condition.
We felt for Becky, a freelancer in theatre, who was relying on charities for food and struggling with the injustice of being taxed at source in normal times but not given a penny back when her industry was closed by the Government.
In all, we heard from ten very different people. What was striking was how much they had in common.
In each voice, you could hear that very particular kind of fear that comes with being in free-fall without a parachute. And it was always the same emotion which made their voices crack: the sense of rejection.
How could they have contributed so much to the country in paying taxes and creating employment only to be left with nothing?
Marie, a freelance engineer, summed up the mood: “It’s, just, the feeling of not being part of the community because the Government deem we’re not worthy of any financial support. It’s crushing.”
To many, the second national lockdown, and the second denial of support, confirmed their exclusion was not an accident but an active choice by the Chancellor. Earlier in the year, it could be argued that, when such large support schemes were stood up at speed, it was inevitable that there would be gaps. But now, the failure to close them feels deliberate - and that hurts.
So where do we go from here?
Even at this late stage, basic fairness and humanity says that those excluded must be offered support. More than one person on Thursday spoke of voices not able to be heard because of suicides*. Yes, there will be a big price tag. But it will save jobs, businesses, homes, marriages and lives. Surely that is justification enough for the Chancellor to bring people in from the cold?
But there is another reason if he needs one.
If he refuses to act, Rishi Sunak will leave a dangerous message hanging over the country at the end of this pandemic: “don’t take a risk, don’t start your own business, don’t follow your dream - because, if you go it alone, you will be well and truly on your own.”
Can you imagine how damaging that would be? In Greater Manchester, I want to build a more entrepreneurial culture amongst young people. We are looking to locate start-up units in our schools. But our efforts will be undermined if, going forward, there are three million voices out there telling the next generation not to take the risk.
A week on Wednesday, the Chancellor will stand up in the Commons to deliver his one-year spending review. Three million people, many of them natural supporters, will be hanging on his every word. Will they have a glimmer of hope going into Christmas or will they, in Marie’s words, be crushed again? Will we see a growing mental health crisis on top of a pandemic?
This feels like the last chance to resolve this. From what I know of Rishi, I have every reason to believe he is a good man who listens and cares. But now is the time for him to show it.
This piece was first published in Times Red Box on 17 November 2020
* If you are struggling to cope, call Samaritans on 116 123. Whatever you’re going through, a Samaritan will face it with you, any time 365 days a year.
Or if you prefer to message, text 'Shout' to 85258 for free, confidential, 24/7 mental health support.
If you are feeling suicidal, concerned about someone else, or are bereaved by suicide, get support at www.shiningalightonsuicide.org.uk
Image: stevec77 on Flickr licensed via Creative Commons
Article Published: 16/11/2020 19:03 PM