What do we want? What are our key issues? What do we think of the election campaign messages? And if we were standing, what would our message be?
Prompts like those sparked impassioned discussion in London, as people with first-hand experience of poverty gathered ahead of the General Election.
The Voices From The Margins project has been capturing and sharing the views of people who might otherwise be overlooked in the run-up to June 8. Our friends at ATD Fourth World in London were keen to do the same, so they invited us along to their “Giving Poverty A Voice” event last Wednesday, attended by around a dozen people from across London.
“I came here to learn because knowledge is power.”
Andrew Hayes from ATD Fourth World led a few exercises to spark conversation. He started by asking people: Why are we here?
Ian: “To know what voting really means.”
Nikki: “To hear other people’s opinions on voting.”
Richard: “It’s a complete waste of time because politicians make promises they can’t keep.”
Ivan: “I want to know what will happen and what people think about the election.”
Lareine: “I came here to learn because knowledge is power.”
A few of the participants were then asked to read out texts from the mainstream parties’ political broadcasts, but without revealing the party. The group then discussed which they found most appealing. They then discussed the meaning of some of the key campaign slogans: For the many, not the few… Strong and stable leadership… Open, tolerant and united… Stronger for Scotland.
Then the group were asked to think about what mattered to them, to identify the key issues they felt needed to be addressed. The list included:
Economy / standard of living / inequality / food poverty
Health / NHS / waiting lists
Andrew identified other key issues that recur in campaigns: education, defence, environment, crime.
Finally, the participants were asked to imagine they were a candidate seeking votes, and to present a soapbox pitch that answered three questions:
- What, for you, is the key issue?
- What do you want to change?
There have been some fascinating discussions throughout the Voices From The Margins project along these lines, as people have said what they would do if elected, or what they would expect a friend or relative to stand up for if they stood.
Here are some of the responses that came from the discussion in London.
I want the government to invest in training and work experience schemes to help people back into work. We need to give people who are down the chance to get back up.
Lareine: “The key issue is opportunities and youth clubs for young people. Looking around us, we see lots of youth clubs closing because of a lack of funding. Kids have been left wandering the streets as a result, ending up in a life of crime such as looting, stealing, yob life, joining gangs. Young people are left without a sense of belonging and without money and the vast majority of people affected are from deprived areas. I want the government to provide more funding to charities that offer programmes to young people. I want young people and kids to have something to do and to be kept occupied. I want the government to provide individual mentors for the most difficult ones. Investment in youth clubs will keep kids away from gangs, cut crime and lead to less need for police on the street. We should be investing in the youth of today – they are the leaders of tomorrow.”
Amanda: “The key issue for me is the standard of living because everyone deserves the right to have enough money to live on. People should be able to provide a better future for their family without having to go cap in hand to food banks and feeling ashamed or guilty just because they can’t manage on what little money that they get. I blame benefits and low wages. I want the government to step up, take notice and recognise that people can’t carry on living like this. Families are being driven to despair and this has to stop.”
Paul: “I want to abolish pseudo psychiatry. Police, housing managers and doctors are all now having to act on behalf of professionals like psychiatrists and social workers. The government say this is to take the burden off the professionals. People are being labelled as having mental health issues by people who are not trained or qualified to make such a diagnosis. It is just cost cutting.”
Michael: “Housing is the key issue. There should be better housing that is more affordable and priced at a fair rent for all, whether they be families or individuals. Wages also have to be looked at as a contributing factor as to why people cannot afford to keep a roof over their head. Five years from now everyone should have a place to live and the government should put an end to homelessness.”
Seamus: “The key issue is equality for women in the workplace. A lot of working women do not get the same wage as a working man for doing the same job. If you do a job then you should get paid a fair wage on equal terms. In five years I would like to see women working with men on an equal wage.”
Georgina: “I would like to see the MPs and members of the government dress according to the job they do. They are the top ones. Everybody should know who they are.”
Richard: “Homelessness is the key issue but it is pushed to one side as if nobody wants to deal with the issue. We shouldn’t see people living and sleeping in the streets in this day and age. There are teenagers of sixteen or seventeen years of age up to people in their fifties. I volunteer at a homeless shelter in Dagenham where we feed people, bed them down for a night and try to help with any problems they’ve got – benefits, immigration problems, hospital appointments, food bank referrals or rehousing.
“We try our best but we can’t always rehouse someone in London and it might take six or seven weeks but we do our best. If they have any problems they can still come to the shelter and we will do after care. People call us a lifeline and say they’d be lost without us. I need the government to show more interest in the issue. I would like disused factories to be converted into housing for people as a stepping stone to finding a permanent place to live. I want the government to invest in training and work experience schemes to help people back into work. We need to give people who are down the chance to get back up. I want the government to put an end to homelessness instead of allowing the situation to get worse and worse.”
Stella: “The key issue is nutrition and a balanced diet. In Hebrew there is a saying, “If there is no bread on the table then you can’t study”. People need a balanced diet but the very poorest can’t afford to eat well. I want to introduce food vouchers to provide a good diet to the whole family. This will stop people falling into bad health and improve many things for many people.”
Janet: “The key issue is homelessness. I was homeless myself so this issue talks to me. A lot of people are unaware of the problem or turn a blind eye to it and say it doesn’t exist, but there are loads of homeless people out there. I know this because I witness it and have experienced it. People living on the street have no access to their benefits, their rights are denied and lack strength. The government need to give them a place where they can live and help by referring them to places where they can get advice, refer them to the person able to deal with their issue.
“The government needs to build a community where they would be accommodated temporarily while waiting for a more permanent house. This community would provide them with an address so that they could receive their benefits and find a job. Also, they would be surrounded by people, gain some strength and advice from each other.”
Nikki: “We need to offer more help to our young people and families. We need to reopen Sure Start centres, make adventure playgrounds free, train advocates to empower parents and children and offer more training to social workers. We need youth clubs and youth workers to talk about gangs and knife crime and this needs to start early. It is a known fact that families positively impacted at the start have better outcomes and reduce the number of children in care, reduce crime and give children the opportunity to love themselves and love others. Children and young people are our future and our next leaders.”