'They should spend a day in our shoes'
Universal Credit fight not over as Unite Community hits the road on Christmas tour of Tory 'Red Wall' seats
When the £20 a week cut to Universal Credit went into effect in October, the Tory MPs who pushed it through thought that was the end of it – that they could, with the stroke of a pen, consign millions to hardship without facing any consequences.
But they have starkly underestimated people’s collective desire to fight back.
This holiday season, Unite Community is keeping the conversation going with a special Christmas tour stopping in towns and cities across the North and the Midlands to highlight the biggest single cut to social security since the Second World War.
Unite Community members staffed street stalls in Tory Red Wall seats, handing out fliers and encouraging people to fill out postcards to send a message to their local Tory MP.
At a Unite Community stall in Warrington, a town where thousands of households have faced devastating cuts to Universal Credit, the anger was palpable.
‘Prices have gone through the roof’
Single mum Jackie, who was moved on to Universal Credit from Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and is unable to work because of ill health, explained how the cut has had a huge impact on her and her family.
“The price of gas and electric has gone through the roof. I put £10 on my prepayment meter and it doesn’t even last five days,” she explained.
Jackie (pictured below, left) enthusiastically filled out several postcards to the local Tory MP Andy Carter on behalf of family members who are also on Universal Credit.
“My daughter lost her job during the first lockdown and was also forced onto Universal Credit. She went back to college to get some qualifications and after all that she’s still just earning minimum wage which isn’t enough to live on. When politicians make these decisions they don’t understand the impact it will have. They should spend a day in our shoes – they wouldn’t be able to cope.”
Rachel, who has four young children aged 11, 7, 5 and 2, said that despite her husband working, they must rely on Universal Credit to make ends meet.
“If we both went to work we’d be worse off because of the cost of childcare,” she explained. “After bills, we’ve hardly got anything left. We don’t spend anything on luxuries or unnecessary items – we don’t drink or smoke. We never go on holiday.”
I haven’t turned the heating on since 2018’
Rachel said that she and her family were already struggling as it was, but the cut to Universal Credit has only made a bad situation worse.
“It’s had a massive impact on us,” she said. “We struggle to buy food now so we’ve had to go to the Bread and Butter Thing [a local charity that redistributes surplus food from supermarkets and food manufacturers].
“I often find myself being forced to choose between food shopping and heating,” Rachel added. “Then there’s loads of extra expenses with the kids like school uniforms. I’ve had to write to the school to tell them I can’t afford it.”
Michelle, a single mum of two children, including one with learning disabilities, also finds herself having to make tough choices since Universal Credit was cut.
“£20 a week is a huge amount of money – that’s a whole food shop or topping up my electric so now I’m forced to choose,” she told UniteLive.
“I found myself in debt with my energy supplier and my Universal Credit was deducted to pay that debt off. When I secured Carers’ Allowance, it was taken out of my Universal Credit payment so I was no better off. You really can’t win.”
Philip is no stranger to choosing between heating and eating – he’s been on legacy benefits since 2017 and so never even qualified for the £20 uplift that Universal Credit claimants received at the beginning of the first lockdown.
“I haven’t turned my heating on since 2018. I haven’t had hot water since 2018 – I just boil water in a pan when I need it,” he explained, as he showed UniteLive his energy usage on his online account.
“You can see I use practically nothing, but I still have to pay £20 a month.”
Meanwhile, Graham, who is homeless, told UniteLive how sleeping rough makes living expenses that much more complicated – and costly.
“People don’t understand how difficult things are when you don’t have a roof over your head,” he explained. “I can’t buy normal food items because I don’t have anywhere to store them or cook them so I’ve got to live on things like pot noodles, which adds up and is actually more expensive.
“I haven’t been able to get my Covid jabs because the nearest vaccination centre is miles away and I can’t walk that far because I’ve got blood clots in my leg,” he added.
‘They live on another planet’
Everyone who spoke to UniteLive voiced anger and deep frustration at how out of touch the Tory MPs who’ve voted for Universal Credit cuts are.
“They really live on another planet,” Philip said. “I have to buy the same loaf of bread as an MP — they get thousands in pay rises and I get nothing.”
“We don’t get expenses covered like they do,” she said. “We have to make a small amount stretch each and every month and we have to watch every penny. They never even have to think about the cost of things when they shop.”
Meanwhile, Kayleigh (pictured above right), who recently went through a months-long fight over incorrect deductions to her Universal Credit payments, said she believes the Tory MPs who vote for cuts are totally lacking in empathy.
“After the Universal Credit cut and when they were trying to claw back my payments, when they basically insisted I was lying, I had a major mental health crisis,” she said. “I was literally punching myself and was at the end of my tether. I wish these politicians understood how their decisions affect people.”
Even those who weren’t personally affected by Universal Credit cuts approached Unite Community’s stall in Warrington and eagerly filled in postcards to send to their local Tory MP. Many expressed disgust and shock over how the government has treated the most vulnerable in their community. Unite Community was even paid a surprise visit by the legendary ‘Speedo Mick’ (pictured below), who is now walking on a 2,000 mile journey across the UK and Ireland in his Speedo to raise money for charity.
‘Don’t give up on your voice being heard’
Unite national political officer Laura Smith, who was among those handing out flyers and talking to people at the Unite Community stall in Warrington, explained why community engagement was so vital.
“It’s really important that we get out into the community and talk to people about their real-life experiences and get people to understand that even if they’re not on Universal Credit, this cut has an impact on the entire community and the local economy,” she told UniteLive.
“People are really angry and they’re starting to see that inequality in this country is massive – that while they’re struggling, and their neighbours and family are struggling, there are a lot of people in this country, definitely the leaders in our government, living the life of Riley. This can feel very frustrating and alienating but people need to know that they shouldn’t give up on their voices being heard.”
Laura, who herself was a Labour MP, said that writing to MPs – whether via email or post – makes a massive difference, especially if they’re in a marginal seat.
“We need to continue to encourage people to have their say,” she added. “Listening to people’s stories, you can tell things are definitely getting worse. Sadly the experiences people are having are becoming more and more frequent, with hardship spreading across families and communities.”
Laura said that Unite Community will continue to pile on the pressure on Tory MPs and local Tory councillors alike.
“We must not let them forget that they were elected to represent their communities, and by cutting Universal Credit and other such decisions, they are actively working against their communities.”
By Hajera Blagg
Photos by Mark Harvey
Pictured in lead photo L-R: Brett Sparkes (Unite community coordinator South West region), Laura Smith (Unite national political officer), Andy Warnock (TUC regional community coordinator) and Pasty Turner (Unite Wales community coordinator)