Let's extend collective solidarity to all

Ahead of Saturday’s cost of living demos, Unite Community’s Heather Blakey says we must fight for a better benefits system

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As a cost of living crisis engulfs the UK, with food and energy prices soaring and the government failing to take any meaningful action, public anger is building.  

On Saturday (February 12), demonstrations on the cost of living crisis, organised by the People’s Assembly, will take place across the UK, including in Manchester, London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and more than a dozen other cities.

Yesterday, we spoke to Unite organiser Joe Rollin on why attending the demonstrations is a vital action in the wider call for higher wages.

Today (February 8), we hear from Unite Community co-ordinator for the North East, Yorkshire and Humber region Heather Blakey, who explained why Saturday’s demos are a clear opportunity to give a voice to the voiceless, including the millions of people on benefits who are being harmed most by the latest crisis.

“A living level of benefits is just as important as a living level of wages,” Heather told UniteLIVE. “Our benefits are among the lowest levels in all of Europe. The poorest people in this country just got more than £1,000 a year taken away from them in October when Universal Credit was cut.

“People were below the bread line even before the cut to Universal Credit – now they are simply beyond the bread line,” she added. “There’s a lot of talk about heating and eating but there are people who, even if they are given food, they haven’t got the electricity to cook the food with. They literally have nothing.”

Indeed, a shocking new study has found that 1m adults went without eating for more than 24 hours over the last month because they could not afford food.

The analysis by the Food Foundation think tank revealed that an astonishing one in 10 households across the UK have experienced some form of food insecurity over the last month, including either not eating an entire day, skipping meals or going hungry because they cannot afford food.

The Food Foundation also looked at the ‘heating or eating’ dilemma at a time when both food and energy prices have soared. The think tank reported that one in five of all UK households have had to cut back on food expenditure to pay for energy or other essential household bills, while an astonishing 59 per cent of households fear they may have to slash food spending in the near future.  

Heather has seen with her own eyes how the cost of living crisis has impacted so many. She noted that the Unite Community members she works with have been devastated by exponentially rising prices that have hit them just a scant few months after the huge cut to Universal Credit in October.

“When we had our Universal Credit campaign before the cut, some of our members were writing out their weekly budget and there was nothing to cut then,” she said. “Now that they’ve lost the £1,000 a year, they are beyond desperation. It’s not a question of how are they going to manage – they’re simply not going to manage.”

Heather told of one member who is a widow with three children, one of whom has special needs who she cares for full-time.

“She cannot afford uniforms for her children. Because she is carer she’s not even eligible for the warm homes discount even though she’s on Universal Credit. She already uses food banks; she already gets handouts from family members who are themselves in poverty. There’s nowhere for her to go – she’s absolutely terrified.

“This government assumes that everybody has got somebody who can bail them out – and they really don’t. There are so many people who have nowhere to turn.”

Last week, after energy regulator Ofgem lifted the energy price cap by a record-breaking 54 per cent, chancellor Rishi Sunak announced support measures that were widely condemned for not doing enough for people on the lowest incomes.

The measures included giving everyone what is essentially a one-off £200 loan to cut their energy bills from October, and a one-off rebate on council tax for people in bands A to D, valued at an average of just £150.

Heather said these latest interventions showed just how out of touch the government was with those who are struggling the most.

“If you want to be able to make a difference for people who simply cannot make ends meet because of the cost of living crisis you need to increase people’s incomes. It’s as simple as that,” she said.

“All of this mucking about with council tax, and other one-off payments that are not even grants, they’re loans – it’s utterly ridiculous. With the council tax rebate, it’s a lot more complicated than the government makes it out to be. You might have people for example who live in a higher council tax band who are on low incomes – how is this going to help them?

“These measures are all a very crude way of trying to address the crux of the problem – which is putting money into the poorest people’s pockets,” Heather added. “The benefit system is far from perfect but it is designed to do just that. If you want to put money into the poorest people’s pockets, which is really the only solution, you have to increase both Universal Credit and legacy benefits.

“What we they need to do is reinstate the £20 a week as an absolute starting point. The government is just tinkering at the edges in a country where people are literally starving.”

More than anything, Heather says the entrenched Tory ideology that devalues people who cannot work through no fault of their own needs to be challenged.

“It’s absolutely political that benefits are kept low because the government deliberately wants people to be forced into just any job, and it’s counterproductive. If people are under such stress that they can’t feed themselves and their families, then they won’t be in a position to look for work and get themselves back on their feet.

“We also have members with severe mental health problems, or disabled members who cannot find work even if they want to work because they’re discriminated against. We’ve got members who are full-time unpaid carers for children and relatives. These people have been totally thrown on the scrap heap.”

No matter where we are in our lives, Heather urges every Unite member to come out to the demonstrations on Saturday to call for a better benefits system that adequately supports anyone who uses it.

“All of us can be one bad life event from falling through the cracks ourselves,” she said. “Most people on Universal Credit are on Universal Credit for less than a year so it really is a stepping stone between jobs for most — and that can affect all of us.”

“But more than that, as a trade union members, fighting for a better benefits system is a key part of fighting for better work and wages,” Heather added. “Universal Credit is designed to put people into the worst jobs; it’s designed to make it hard for us to fight for decent pay for people in work because the fear of the alternative is what keeps people’s heads down and makes them accept poverty wages.”

“As a trade union, we should all care what’s happening in the benefits system because what’s happening to unemployed workers is part of what’s happening to workers. We need our collective solidarity to extend to people who are out of work as well in work — and Saturday’s demos are a chance for us to join together and do just that.”

You can find out more about the People’s Assembly demonstrations on February 12 and how you can take part at a demo near you here.

By Hajera Blagg

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