Time to sow the seeds of change

The following was written by Michelle (Chelley) Ryan • @chelleryn99

My home growing up, was a two bedroom local authority terrace which I shared with my mum, dad and older sister. My mum worked part time as a cleaner, and my dad was a metre reader for the electricity board. We only had one annual holiday a year in the UK, usually in a caravan by the sea, and Father Christmas frequently failed to bring me the most expensive presents on my list. But there is no need for violins. We were comfortable. Being a council house, the rent was manageable. If something went wrong; damp, broken windows, loose roof tile, mum and I would walk down to the local council office and within a day or two the problem was fixed, with no big worrying bill for my parents to contend with. 

When I got married and had my first child, things continued in very much the same vein. My husband earned a semi decent wage as a support worker looking after adults with severe learning difficulties, and we were fortunate enough to be given a council flat in the area I grew up. A few years after moving into that flat we were offered a grant from the council to help us buy our own property. Barnet had a growing problem with homelessness at that time and the grants were a way of freeing up flats for those in even greater need. Needless to say we took the council up on their offer. This was in 1992, during a recession, so that £13,000 grant helped us to buy a cosy two bedroom flat in a nice area of High Barnet. That flat cost us £50,000. 

With my husbands earnings, and the bits of money I brought in from cleaning houses, and working part time as an auxiliary nurse, and then a welfare assistant in a state nursery, we managed to keep our heads above water. There were very few luxuries and we never did get round to putting central heating into our flat, but on the whole life was good. When we realised how much our flat had risen in value over the seven years we’d lived there, we sold it and bought our first house in a cheaper area of Barnet.

By now we had three children. Money was tight so we decided to take in a lodger. Fortunately my brother in law was looking for a room at that time so we let one of the two small reception rooms to him. Then something miraculous happened. The labour government introduced tax credits. I will never forget the day the award notice arrived telling us we qualified for £50 a week. This made a tremendous difference to our lives. 

Fast-forward to 2003. After several applications to different fire brigades my husband secured his dream job as a fire fighter in West Sussex. Despite the inevitable sense of loss at leaving the town I’d lived in all my life, and all my family and friends, I felt excited about the future. We sold our house in Barnet and brought an Edwardian three bedroom semi in Worthing.

One winter morning, a year after the move, our marriage came to a sudden end. It was like the rug had been pulled out from under me, not just emotionally, but financially too. I’d been with my husband from the age of sixteen. Suddenly at the age of 33 I had become a single parent of three children, the youngest being three. An introvert by nature I hadn’t yet made any good friends in Worthing, just acquaintances, so I felt utterly bereft and lonely. But I couldn’t just sit and wallow. I had my children to think of. So I went to the benefits office and came away with a ream of forms.  

I qualified for income support and several benefits associated with it, such as council tax benefit and free dental care. I also qualified for help with my mortgage payments. 

I sat and did the sums and I realised I could manage, but things were going to be tighter than I’d ever experienced before. Going to the shops became a hugely stressful experience. A few times I got to the till only to discover I didn’t have enough to pay. That’s when I started doing the sums in my head to make sure I had enough. After losing count on several occasions and ending up almost in tears, I bought a cheap calculator to help me. With money so tight I became obsessed with deals, bogofs and the like. I frequently ended up buying more than I could comfortably carry on the walk home because I couldn’t bring myself to walk away from a deal. I can vividly remember crying as I staggered home with heavy shopping, stopping every few minutes to take a desperately needed break. I’m amazed my arms didn’t come out of their sockets. This was just the stress of day-to-day living. On top of that there were the financial bombshells. The Edwardian house that we had chosen together as a couple for its character became a millstone round my neck. The shower flooded twice. The electrics cut out. The roof let in water. The boiler constantly needed repair. It cost a fortune to heat so we often had to go cold. When things did go wrong with the house I was too scared to claim on insurance. After my one and only claim following a major leak, my premiums trebled and I had to borrow money to pay the excess, so that ruled out ever claiming again. Money was so tight, I remember going through a cold winter with just a thin autumn coat. I scoured through charity shops for a warmer one but there wasn’t one for under £5, which was far more than I could afford. My ex husband helped when he could but he was now spending a huge amount of his salary on private, rent so money was tight for him too. I used to have fantasies about burning the house down I grew to hate it so much. My dream home had become a nightmare. Bear in mind I was going through all this on top of the emotional aftermath of a marriage breakdown. I tried to put on a brave face for my children but it was tough. 

I desperately wanted to earn some money but I had no one to look after the children. I knew I would have to wait until my youngest was at school. When that time came, with the support of the DSS, I set up my own holistic therapy business. I had gained several qualifications in Holistic therapies, and the time had come to put them to good use. With the money I earned from my work and the tax credits from the government, I could breathe again. 

Even though those days are far behind me, I will never forget that period of my life. I get so angry when people on benefits are mocked and demonised. It turns my stomach when people say how generous our benefit system is, particularly when those people have been fortunate enough never to need them. The vast majority of people who claim benefits do it because they have to. There is no other choice. I would even argue that anyone who would ‘choose’ to live hand to mouth in that way most likely suffers from issues that hold them back, such as low self esteem, illiteracy, or childhood traumas that have gone unexplored and untreated. In that case they need help not condemnation.

The truth is, it’s easy to point the finger and judge when you have never been in that position yourself. Most conservatives have never had to think about money. It has always been there for them and always will be. They have never had to choose between a winter coat or food for their children. Up in their ivory towers, they tell themselves, and each other, that people on benefits are lazy scroungers who need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. ‘Daddy started his business from scratch,’ they say, ‘so why can’t they?’ When they cut benefits, they tell themselves they are doing something noble, incentivising the lazy to look for work. These are the same people who took part in sadistic initiation ceremonies in their youth that involved burning money in front of homeless people. They are conditioned not to care. I almost feel sorry for them. 

But what really makes me heartsick is hearing ordinary people echo the views espoused by Tory politicians and their outriders in the media. These people have been brainwashed. The newspapers they read and the programmes they watch (Saints and sinners, benefit street etc.), act like a pair of hands that reach out of their newspaper or TV and clasp their heads tight and force their eyes downwards. If they didn’t do that there is a danger they might look up. If they did look up they might see who the real cheats are: giant corporations and the extremely wealthy who cheat our exchequer of billions of pounds a year of tax, money that could go on schools and hospitals instead of yachts and second homes on the French Riviera.


So what can we do about this mass brainwashing? Firstly we call it out. The previous Labour administration rarely passed comment on the right wing media. 

To call it out is to commit an ‘unforgiveable’ sin – patronising the voter. I remember watching Daily Politics once when Diane Abbott was the guest. When she implied the right wing media influenced voters, Andrew Neil was all over her. ‘Are you saying all voters are stupid?’ He demanded as she squirmed in her chair. He had caught her in a trap. By naming and shaming the right wing media, she was shaming the people who read it. That is the dilemma we face. Except the time has come, I feel, to stop walking on eggshells. We have just voted for a labour leader we always knew the press would crucify because he challenges the status quo. No amount of chiding from the right of the party swayed us from our choice. But the truth is, most of us don’t buy right wing newspapers. We get our news from more liberal papers, or from the Internet or TV. That is not true for the wider public. Whilst newspaper readership is on the decline, it is still a major influence, especially given the fact the TV news often parrots the stories the right wing press push. So the time for worrying about upsetting people is over. There is too much at stake not to at least try to raise awareness about media influence. We don’t have to be rude to anyone. We just point out how most newspapers are owned by individuals who have an agenda, and that agenda is to stop people voting Labour (unless of course Labour have become a slightly more anaemic version of the Tories, then that’s ok). 

No doubt some people will bat away the idea they are being influenced by their paper of choice – they might argue they don’t take the paper they read seriously, profess to only read it for the sport, or the great TV supplement, but whatever their objections, we stick to the point. The owner of the paper they are reading is a right wing tory with a tax avoiding, anti Labour Party, agenda. If they ask us if we think they are stupid, we say, ‘No more stupid than someone who is susceptible to advertising and propaganda, which is all of us.’ Even if it puts a few peoples backs up, it sows a seed in their mind that’s very hard to up-root. 

Perhaps the best ways of achieving this is with humour. #CorbynMediaSmears is a case in point. Corbyn supporters came up with ever more incredulous and hilarious smears about Jeremy Corbyn using the aforementioned hashtag. Mark Steel and News Thump also use this tactic. When we mock the media we weaken its power to influence. Once the seed of doubt about press partiality is sown in someone’s mind they may read an article demonising immigrants, benefit claimants, or Jeremy Corbyn for that matter, with a greater degree of cynicism than they did before. That’s worth annoying a few people over. 

Who knows, it might even lead to a more enlightened, fairer Britain. 

By Michelle (Chelley) Ryan


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