Monday, 22 November 2010

Minutes away but worlds apart

Leave Luton towards the South and within ten minutes by car you get to Harpenden. It’s the next town, but it’s in a different world.

Luton is an old industrial centre that has fallen on hard times. At first they made hats here, and the local football team is still called ‘the Hatters’. When making hats virtually died out as a means to earn a living, the town switched to building cars, but today there’s not much left of that industry either. So we have many of the characteristics that go with poor towns: relatively high unemployment, a high proportion of underprivileged ethnic minorities, a fly-blown and rather ugly town centre, the result of the usual ghastly post-war attempt to ‘improve’ the urban landscape, which ended up replacing the old and picturesque by the brutal and modernist.

Harpenden on the other hand is... well, it’s nice. The centre is all lovely old buildings with beams and gabled roofs, good shops and an attractive village green on which cricket is still played. Behind are leafy and well proportioned streets. It’s a desirable place to live and property prices reflect that fact. Its population is, of course, massively white and British born.

We went to Harpenden on Saturday for a concert in the Methodist Church, and very beautiful it was too. The high point was Mozart (no surprise there): the Solemn Vespers which contains a soprano aria that is apparently famous – and I can confirm it deserves to be – but which I had never heard before, so the evening filled a gap in my education as well as being generally uplifting.

It took a while to get parked when we arrived because someone was struggling to get a 4 by 4 into a space which was big enough for the car but too small for the elderly lady behind the wheel. Eventually she got to within a metre of the kerb, which seemed to be about as good as it was going to get, and she let us past. I have no idea why people drive these cars. They’re ostensibly designed to be used off-road, though the closest most of them ever get to that wild state is when their owners park them on pavements. They’re far too big for our roads – particularly in this country, where every trip in the south takes at least 50% longer than you’d expect, because of the traffic – and they guzzle fuel.

When we were finally allowed to park – which, as my wife was driving our family saloon, was a process completed quickly, easily, efficiently and well – I was a little irritated. But then we walked back up the road and were confronted by a pitiful sight. The little old lady driver was still struggling to park the SUV, and her little old lady companion was on the pavement ineffectually guiding her in towards the kerb. It was a kerb that seemed to have a sort of Holy Grail quality to it: it was there, they could see it, but somehow it remained unattainable.

So our better natures took over. We parked the car for them. They were effusive in their thanks – absolutely charming. I really couldn’t maintain my irritation. Such nice people. They were even going to the same concert as we were.

And we found the same at the concert itself. People were just so pleasant. They smiled at us as they, or we, held doors open. They chatted pleasantly over a cup of tea in the interval (no real drinks of course – this was the Methodists, after all). They were people that I felt at home with, people of a kind I’ve known all my life, people who speak the same language as I do. Nice people.

The programme for the concert listed the patrons of the Harpenden Choral Society which was performing it. Among them was one name I recognised, that of Sir Peter Lilley. He’s been the local Member of Parliament for years. I remember him from when he was Social Security Minister at the fag end of the last Conservative government. At a Party Conference he sang an adapted version of the Gilbert and Sullivan song, ‘I’ve got a little list’. His list was all the people whose lives he was going to make miserable: the benefits scroungers, the lone mothers taking child allowances rather than working, the shirkers who avoid a job.

It’s so easy to target such people. No-one sympathises with them. But we tend to forget that the vast majority of social security payments are absorbed by pensions. Of the minority left, only a tiny percentage is taken by cheats. The total of benefits fraud represents under half what is lost to the country through white collar crime each year, though that’s hardly ever prosecuted. And the action taken by people like Lilley to stop the benefits cheats generally has the effect of limiting entitlement, so the people who suffer the most are often those who weren’t cheating at all but had a genuine and legitimate need. The poor, in fact. Rather a lot of them live in Luton, little over ten minutes drive from Lilley’s constituency of Harpenden.

Charming people, with winsome smiles and easy warmth. I share their taste in music, their appreciation of gentleness, their cultivation of casual ease. I genuinely like them and feel comfortable with them - far more comfortable, for example, than with a group of tattoed youths much the worse for drink, hanging around on a Luton street corner. But I simply can’t comprehend their indifference to suffering just out of their sight. I can't understand why they don't see that threatening and ill-behaved as those youths may be, they have rights too. The same rights as I do, they same rights as those lovely people at the concert do.

So as soon as I got home I did something I’d been planning to do for a long time but hadn’t got round to. I rejoined the Labour Party. I’d let my membership lapse before, partly just because I was living abroad, partly as a tribute to Tony Blair. Now it’s time to join again because, though at its worst the Labour Party can be wretchedly disappointing, at its best it speaks for those people who most need a voice. For the people who need someone to say ‘no’ to the Peter Lilleys of this world.

It’s pretty obvious I can’t do much to stop injustice in our society. Probably the Labour Party can’t do a lot more. But maybe it can make some very little contribution to closing the moral gap between Luton and Harpenden. And that might do some good for the poor in Luton. And who knows? It might, in a perverse sort of way, do some good for the comfortable of Harpenden too.


Bob said...

Hear, hear!

Anonymous said...

The fact that YOU have seen Peter Lilley makes ME want to re-join the Party too!