Have you been watching the new show on Channel Four – Tower Block of Commons? If you haven’t seen it, four MPs are sent to live on tough council estates in Barking, Birmingham, Hull and Acton and experience life on benefits by living with real families. Well, all apart from Austin Mitchell and his wife who insisted on having their own council flat in Hull instead of sharing. When I heard about the show I was sceptical. Would this be another gimmicky reality show where the really interesting issues get swept under the carpet? But after the first ten minutes of last week’s show, I was hooked.
Watching the MPs cope with life on the estates and interacting with their angry electorate is compulsive viewing and sensitively handled. At last somebody has been able to put these politicians on the spot and ask, why, Mark Oaten, for example, did you claim £70 for an iron? The timing of this show couldn’t be better now that we’ve seen half our MPs told to pay back taxpayers’ money and three charged with expenses fraud. It’s much more effective too that, rather than a journalist or another politician questioning them, it’s – for example in last night’s show – a guy struggling on Jobseeker’s Allowance asking Austin Mitchell in disbelief, “But somebody filled out your expenses form, didn’t they? Somebody put those figures down there. And you’re on £60,000 a year basic pay.” It was just a mistake, insists Mitchell. Of course it was.
It’s not all bad publicity for the MPs, though. True, Mitchell balked at the challenge in last night’s show to live on Jobseeker’s Allowance (see my own JSA challenge last year) and instead threw a dinner party for his friends and people from the estate, while Nadine Dorries angered her hosts by producing £50 from her bra which she claimed was “to spend on the kids”. “When you’re really on benefits, you can’t pull £50 from your bra,” complained her disgusted host. But Tim Loughton and Mark Oaten have mucked in, with Loughton looking after the kids and sensitively engaging with one of the residents about his cannabis use, while last week Oaten started a petition. And while Oaten might need lessons on how to source a cheap iron, he won some frugal points for his shopping trip to Asda.
But it’s clear from the endemic abuse of expenses by politicians and their refusal to accept that they have done anything wrong, that many have a huge problem engaging with ordinary folk. I found myself cheering on the guy outside the shop in last week’s episode who berated Loughton about MP’s expenses. Loughton, while shrugging off the incident, seemed surprisingly taken aback by the man’s fury. Why should it have been such a shock to him that people are so angry?
I agree with one of the hosts last night who suggested that all MPs should have to live on a council estate before standing for election. In fact, I think they should have to go back every year to council estates and other communities to refresh their memories and stay in touch with their voters. The longer people are in politics and bustling about Westminster, the more they seem to forget about what is going on outside, so they need to be reminded.
But maybe the experience shouldn’t be restricted to MPs, either. Perhaps the rest of us need to learn about what life is like for vulnerable people in our communities too. A recent government report showed that the divide between the rich and poor in the UK is bigger now than at any time since World War Two. While that is shocking, what’s just as worrying is how attitudes have hardened. While people in the UK are becoming more liberal towards cohabitation and gay rights, according to a recent survey, we are now less tolerant of people with less money than us. Charity LinksUK has done an interesting series of blog posts on this.
The UK Coalition Against Poverty recently invited a group of student journalists to a workshop as part of a poverty education programme. While the students engaged with the subject, the workshop presenters were shocked at how little they knew about poverty in the UK and the benefits system. Similarly, browsing a thrift forum the other day, I read a message from someone asking for suggestions of low cost ways to occupy himself while searching for a job – a simple enough request. Instead of offering constructive ideas, another forum member left a cruel message telling him that it would be better to let people like him starve than pay them benefits. Where is the tolerance in that? Perish the thought, but perhaps we all have something to learn from Oaten, Loughton, Dorries and even Mitchell’s example – me included.
What do you make of the Tower Block of Commons Show? Should all MPs spend time on a council estate before they are elected? Do you think our attitudes towards people in poverty have become less tolerant? Leave a message and let me know your thoughts.
|StumbleUpon||Technorati||Yahoo! My Web|