The BBC recently ran a report that highlighted the difficulties residents of Hartlepool have been experiencing as a result of Universal Credit.
Hartlepool is a classic example of a town scarred by deindustrialisation and then just left to rot - a story not unfamiliar in the north east of England. The 1970s saw the closure of Hartlepool steelworks, and during the 80s this was followed by widespread unemployment as a result of deindustrialisation in the area.
At its peak, 30% of the town’s working age population was unemployed - the highest in the UK at the time. The consequences since then have been growing poverty, disrepair, crime and alcohol/drug abuse, all the grim features of a town in decline.
A token few minutes coverage from the BBC doesn’t do justice to the true scale of attacks on living standards the people of Hartlepool have been experiencing for many years now. Importantly, it is clear that the implementation of Universal Credit has served to deepen these already poor living conditions in a town scarred by years of neglect and decline.
Some of the people interviewed for the report reveal shocking accounts of the deprivation people live through on a daily basis as a result of these Tory ‘reforms’.
One individual bleakly stated that, “I was in hospital in January because I’d had no food for three days”. Another person interviewed commented: “I’m living on nothing at the moment; I don’t live day to day, I live hour-to-hour”.
The same individual later explained she was sanctioned for missing an appointment as a result of visiting family in nearby Teesside. The result was bare cupboards, no hot water, and having just a knife, fork and spoon to eat with. She even had to sell all her white goods out of desperation.
Such conditions are the logical consequence of austerity. Increasing numbers of people are incapable of making ends meet and so are being forced into deeper levels of poverty and destitution.
Since Universal Credit’s details were first revealed, it has been continuously criticised - and for good reason. Working families will be losing up to £2,600 per year, with lengthy delays that leave people without money for weeks on end – also clearly evident from the report.
With its introduction, Universal Credit’s brutal consequences have only been confirmed. It has become patently clear that these so called ‘benefit reforms’ are nothing but an organised attack on the working class and the poor by the rich and their Tory representatives.
The situation facing many people in Hartlepool is part of a wider social crisis gripping millions of working-class people all around the country as a result of capitalist austerity.
Further cuts to come
The report’s introduction - “welfare reform was not meant to make a poor town poorer” - conveniently distracts the viewer. The report speaks as though these reactionary ‘reforms’ have just been happening in isolation.
The reality is that Universal Credit is part of an ongoing austerity programme and process of long-term decline. It marks a step forward in these attacks, with deeper austerity set to follow as the crisis of capitalism continues.
The BBC report highlighted the fact that in 2010 there were no food banks in Hartlepool. Now there are nine spread across the town.
The attacks on welfare are only part of the wider austerity onslaught, taking place alongside vicious budget cuts for local government. Hartlepool Council has been one of the worst affected in the country. A report from Cambridge University revealed that the borough saw spending levels slashed by 33% between 2010-2017, the 24th highest in the country.
Hartlepool Council has warned that the cuts are only expected to worsen. It has been calculated that the funding shortfall for 2019-2020 will be in the region of £1 million, with many other councils around the country facing a similar situation.
Clearly the council is facing an incredibly precarious situation. This will only bring increased misery for the workers, elderly and poor of Hartlepool.
Fight to change society
Labour councils need to be showing the way by opposing austerity and defending public services, rather than carrying out cuts on the Tories’ behalf, as has typically been the case across the country.
These cuts to public services are happening alongside stagnant wage growth and inflation, affecting families up and down the country.
Austerity isn’t something that just has to be accepted though. It is an essential feature of capitalism in crisis. But while further cuts are coming for Hartlepool and elsewhere, money is flowing into the bank accounts of the rich like never before.
Labour needs to be taking the fight to the Tories and challenging austerity across the board. It isn’t clear what Labour’s plans are for Universal Credit. However, it is clear that Universal Credit is broken - a reflection of a broken system.
Labour must fight for a society where there is no need for a miserly benefits system in the first place: a socialist society where everyone has access to an affordable home, fully-funded public services, and a decent job on a real living wage.
What we need is a socialist Labour government committed to transforming society.