Today, hundreds of thousands of public sector workers are taking industrial action against the coalition government's attack on their pensions. The majority of those people striking are on modest incomes and the changes proposed will increase their pension contributions whilst diminishing their eventual pension pay-out. It's timely then, that I wanted to take a moment to give my thoughts on Polly Toynbee's 'Hard Work', her well-regarded 2003 account of the working lives of those living on low pay.
Focussing on her journey from rich columnist in leafy Clapham to a minimum-wage earning council-flat dweller a scant ten minutes walk away, she offers a stark portrait of the realities of life struggling on minimum wage. In a Kafka-esque sequence, she illustrates how state support remains painfully inadequate in either allowing someone to transition out of poverty or to take part in mainstream modern Britain. She porters in Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, works as a dinner lady, in call centres and cleaning in the early hours. In light of the criticisms that argue the Coalition Government's austerity agenda is felt more keenly by women, it is particularly striking that the lowest paid (invariably part-time and casualised) jobs are disproportionately held by women (and in larger cities, ethnic minority workers).
As someone who lived almost exactly around the corner from the estate from the book, I felt there was something alien and unsettling in reading of these parallel lives running alongside our own. The Britain painted in this books feels every bit the product of the New Labour era, but the messages it contains remain more frighteningly relevant than ever before. The modest safeguards Toynbee lambasts for their bureaucrat insufficiency are the very ones being swept away even faster than ever before in 2011. Labour succeeded only in halting the advance of inequality with the introduction of a modest minimum wage, but the coalition cuts - wage-freezes, deteriorating pensions and benefit cuts are targeted at the poorest first and foremost.
Escaping the poverty trap described here takes political will and a significant re-balancing in favour of those some would call the "deserving poor": those working hard in the margins without employment protection and on virtually slave wages. With all three of the other main parties remaining advocates of "flexibility" (another word for privatisation and marketisation of public services), it is left for the Green Party to turn up the volume and articulate more passionately and coherently for social justice. We need a movement challenging rising inequality and the dangers it poses for the whole of society.
Available now for less than a fiver, I would sincerely recommend this book to anybody genuinely concerned or curious about the hidden realities of modern Britain, tucked away and not represented on television. I'm used to peppering my politics with positivity, but this frightening book has filled me with a righteous anger.