The closer we get to election day, the more time I spend out knocking on doors in Islington, talking to my constituents about the issues they care about and how we can find solutions to the problems they face.
By now, many people will have made up their minds about who they want to vote for on 7th May. But to those that haven’t, candidates up and down the country are making the case for why we need a Labour government so badly. There’s so much to say on this that it’s sometimes difficult to know where to start.
But during the course of one morning this weekend, I met a woman whose experiences over the last five years just about perfectly summed up the case for change.
Zero hour contracts
Jane (not her real name) is a carer, and works on a zero hour contract. She previously had a fixed contract of 25 hours each week, which guaranteed her a steady income albeit a low one. The contract she is on now not only takes this security away, it also prevents her from being paid for the time she takes to travel between care visits. This means she can spend five hours travelling to Barnet for work and end up with just two hours’ pay.
It was a particularly graphic illustration of the impact the squeeze on local authority budgets has had in practical terms, not just for those who need home care but for those who provide it too. Local authorities have been forced to raise eligibility criteria for home care to the point where only those whose need is most extreme will qualify. As if that wasn’t enough, care visits even for those who get them have been reduced in length – sometimes to as little as 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, carers have been switched to zero hours contracts, cutting their pay (by barring them from being paid for travel time or gaps between visits) while pulling the rug out from under their feet in terms of job security.
Exploitative use of zero hour contracts has exploded under this government. As Ed Miliband pointed out last week in response to George Osborne’s disastrous new budget, there are now more zero hour contracts than the populations of Glasgow, Leeds and Cardiff combined.
But Jane knew just from experience that the use of contracts like hers are increasingly commonplace these days. Her 20 year old son is in a similar position to hers, and frequently can’t work for more than four or five hours a week despite being able and willing to do much more.
The pernicious rise of zero hour contracts is emblematic of a larger trend we’ve seen under the Tories – attempting to hide the realities of the hardship they’ve created behind a smokescreen of creatively deployed statistics.
Because someone on a zero hour contract is technically employed – even if they can count of one hand the number of hours they work each week – the Tories have presented the fall in unemployment as a great victory.
But statistics, when used so selectively, tell only half the story. As families like Jane’s remind us, getting someone off the unemployment register is a hollow victory if the job they take on is poorly paid, insecure or both.
Having fought this government’s efforts to privatise NHS services every step of the way, I’ve studied the intricacies of health and social care policy closely during my time as an MP.
I’ve seen from my work how changes in the funding formula have favoured rich areas over poorer ones, and how administrative changes have placed GP surgeries under additional burdens that have threatened patient care.
The human life impact of these policies is all too real, and in trying to measure the damage caused there’s often no substitute for the stories I hear about people’s day to day experiences of health care under this government.
When Jane’s son developed appendicitis, she was unable to get an appointment for him. His condition became life threatening, and while dedicated NHS doctors and nurses were able to save him, it should never have got to the point where an ambulance had to be called for him to get the care he needed.
Cost of living
Jane’s troubles didn’t begin and end health care and low paid, insecure working. Like countless others, she worried constantly about the crushing burden of a rising cost of living.
By trebling tuition fees the government has slammed the door to higher education in the face of many of the young people I represent, while doing nothing to improve access to vocational training either.
And changes to benefits and tax credits have further hastened the growing divide between rich and poor, evidence of which is not hard to come by in Islington.
I had plenty to reflect on after talking to Jane, but there wasn’t much respite that morning – just as there hasn’t been much respite for Islington these past five years. Before I left the building I’d heard more about cuts to the police force and the rising cost of food and utilities like water, all underpinned by the persistence of low wages.
I was glad to be able to tell these constituents that Labour is offering solutions to many of these problems –banning exploitative zero hour contracts, reversing the privatisation of the NHS, cutting tuition fees and introducing a jobs guarantee for young people and forcing the big energy companies to cut their prices, to name just a few Labour priorities. We can’t take back the last five years. But we can make the next five a lot brighter for Islington, and the case for change feels stronger now than it’s ever been.