Heidi Allen and Frank Field make an odd partnership at first glance. Allen, 44, the Conservative MP for one of Britain’s richest constituencies, and Field, 76, a Labour MP for 39 years until he resigned over antisemitism in the party, have bonded across the Commons over a shared outrage at poverty. Now they have embarked on a nationwide tour in search of the “other England” shaped by the austerity policies pioneered by Allen’s party. It is proving emotional.
Visits to the poorest corners of Newcastle, Glasgow, Morecambe and Cornwall beckon, but they have started in London and Leicester, where on Thursday they heard stories of an illiterate man sanctioned so often under universal credit that he lives on £5 a week; a man so poor he sold all but the clothes he was wearing; and someone being told to walk 44 miles to attend a job interview, despite having had a stroke, to save the state the cost of a £15 bus ticket.
Time and again Allen, the MP for South Cambridgeshire, with its biotech start ups and affluent villages, was on the brink of tears as they visited two of the 15 #food banks now helping sustain people in the east Midlands city and listened to people from charities, playgroups and community organisations. Away from Westminster’s attempt to solve the “mad riddle” of Brexit, Allen admitted that her patience with her party’s acquiescence over the welfare cuts, which started under George Osborne and the universal credit system, now being rolled out by Theresa May, had reached breaking point.
“I have absolutely had enough,” Allen said, eyes reddening, in front of a group who spelled out how the reforms were turning the screw on some of the country’s poorest people. “So I asked Frank if he would join me on a tour of the UK to show the government this exists. Unless we blow the lid off it, my lot are not going to listen.”
Robert Kennedy did something similar in the US in 1968 and gave a famous speech describing “another America” where he found #children in Mississippi “crippled from hunger”, people in the “black ghetto” warding off rats, and native Americans living with 80% unemployment. In a similar vein, Allen and Field want to know “how the soft underbelly of our society – – ‘the other England’ – can be strengthened so that none of our fellow citizens are pushed into destitution”, Field said.
“This denotes a new offensive and shows that parliament is aware there is something not wholesome out there in the nation and the nation sees it,” said Field. It follows the tour by the United Nation’s rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, who last autumn concluded that the government had inflicted “great misery” on its people with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies.