Last week, we took three people deeply affected by Austerity to Labour Party Conference, but it was Hetty Bower, aged 107 and undimmed in strength or clarity, who caught Ed Miliband’s eye. We introduced Hetty to Ed just after our packed fringe meeting, and he never stopped mentioning her afterwards in almost every speech. I, and plenty of others, have had the same experience with Hetty. She has lived an extraordinary life on the front and back seats of history (a living, breathing prototype of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart). She fought at the Battle of Cable Street, and she was part of the General Strike, she campaigned against both world wars, and lived through the creation of the NHS and the welfare state. But what is so arresting about Hetty is that her life is not just lived in the past. In 2013, when I first encountered her, she was in a photograph – a 107-year-old woman in a waterproof yellow cape marching in the rain against cuts to the Whittington Hospital. She was like a tonic in the fight for social justice – the word ‘inspiration’ is too weak.
The thing is, I watched her have the same effect on Ed Miliband. At the end of our meeting he asked her if she had any advice for him as Labour leader (Hetty first joined the Labour Party 70 years ago though she has been in and out since). “Stick to the principles of the Labour Party,” she told him. “Social justice.” I knew then the Labour Party would be safe in Ed’s hands.
Here’s a little film of Hetty and our other speakers Mary Laver and Jack Monroe – and their meeting with Miliband (or rather, his meeting with them).
This week, I took three people to Labour Party Conference on behalf of the Daily Mirror and Unite the Union, to speak about their experiences of Government austerity. They are all extraordinary people in their own way, but also share experiences with hundreds of thousands of people in the UK. Mary Laver is a severely disabled woman who was living a happy and fulfilled life until Coalition cuts threatened. Jack Monroe is a 25-year-old mum who the creaking benefit system failed and was forced to use Foodbanks. Hetty Bower, 107, is a veteran campaigner who fought in the Battle of Cable Street and is now fighting to save her local hospital.
Party Conferences can be full of talk, but the wonderful thing about those three brave women was how they told it as it really is. At times our Real Britain fringe had swathes of the audience in actual tears. Not of pity, but of empathy and rage (and, in my case, a kind of bursting pride in them as I knew what it had cost each one to be there). When people say to you that politics doesn’t matter, what they mean is, it doesn’t matter to them. To explain why it matters to Mary, Hetty and Jack, the full article is here.
Next week will be the 20th Real Britain column I’ve written for the Daily Mirror, and I wish I could say I was running out of ideas. Instead they come every week in different paper envelopes, by email, twitter, from despairing families, charities, campaigners and people who have run out of other places to turn. Welfare cuts are hurting vulnerable families more with every week, and the hurt – as the effects of the reforms slowly tighten their grip, and yet more austerity is demanded – is only getting deeper.
So far in the column I have tried to tell the human stories behind austerity. The families of disabled children battling the cruel Bedroom Tax, the people facing eviction, the single mums with nothing to feed their kids. I’ve also tried to highlight some of the inspiring, and frankly astonishing campaigners who are fighting back against the reforms, and to investigate some of the government’s agenda on backdoor privatisation of the NHS.
We will keep telling these stories, so keep sending them to email@example.com and @realbritainros. Meanwhile, we are also bringing a panel of people who have appeared in the columns to TUC and Labour Party Conference in September. The only way to challenge the rhetoric around scroungers and welfare is for real people to keep telling their stories against the fictional narrative being spun by the government. More than that, they are all strong, brave stories, and ones I am proud to tell.
Over the last three weeks, my new column in the Daily Mirror, Real Britain has been inundated with letters, emails, tweets and phonecalls via the Mirror switchboard – with readers wanting either to help the people in the stories, or to tell their own.
As a horrorshow of cuts rain down on Britain’s most vulnerable people, I have been out interviewing as many as possible, hearing about the cruelties of the Bedroom Tax, the disabled people denied help, the mums skipping meals so their children can eat. Some of those stories are in last week’s column – where I also revealed how four families an hour are currently being evicted in the UK even before the Bedroom Tax began on Easter Monday.
For this week’s column, however, I wanted to tell an inspirational story about campaigning – and to find a reason we should never give up. I found it in Hetty Bower, an astonishing 107-year-old campaigner who regularly marches in the wind and rain for peace and justice and against war and poverty. “Why not?” she asks. “I”ve got good legs”. This is her extraordinary story – a shot in the arm for anyone who feels like giving up the fight against austerity.
Something Iain Duncan-Smith forgot – we are all Hetty Bower.
This week I started a new campaigning column at the Daily Mirror called Real Britain – which aims to show the impact on ordinary people of cuts and austerity, and how communities are fighting back. I’ve written a lot on this subject before, but having a dedicated campaigning space in the Daily Mirror is a real privilege. Over the next weeks and months, I will be trying to tell the stories behind austerity – of those people the Government’s economic policies are pushing under the breadline, and also the inspiring people who are taking a stand against it. The Mirror feels the right place to be doing it not just because of the paper’s campaigning history, but because its readers are among the worst hit by Cameron and Clegg’s cuts as public sector workers, mothers, hard-working people, pensioners and everyone in between who isn’t – like a majority of the cabinet – a millionaire.
Every Wednesday in the Daily Mirror, the first column is here.
I’d read a lot about the DREAMers – the undocumented Latino students who helped Obama win his second term – so I was fascinated to interview Carlos Saavedra, one of the leaders of United We Dream, for the Guardian. Despite being jet-lagged he was a walking life lesson in effective activism, and is stirring up long-overdue debate around undocumented people here in the UK as a guest of the Hope not Hate campaign. I also wrote a piece about his visit for the New Statesman here.
So I’m all for Save the Children’s idea about putting warnings on formula milk destined for developing countries. It’s not about women who can’t breastfeed, but about all the hundreds of thousands of women who can, it’s just they’ve been brainwashed into thinking formula (or sometimes traditional ideas like ricemilk) are better. I wrote a piece about it for the Guardian.
Ground-breaking new campaign, brought to you by the people behind Make Poverty History. Like MPH it reduces the massive inequalities in the world down to a simple question – why, when there is enough food in the world do people go hungry – and then looks at achievable solutions. Closing tax loopholes, improving governance, keeping our aid contribution where it is, and campaigning to help farmers in developing countries farm in fair economic conditions. There will be much more on this coming in the run up to the G8, which the UK hosts (in Northern Ireland) in July.
I’ve covered enough tragedies and disasters at this point to know they don’t always bring out the best in everyone. People are affected in hugely different ways. Sajda Mughal, the only Muslim survivor of the 7/7 bombings, however, totally turned her life around. She went from a job in the city to working with kids at risk from becoming extremists – and working to combat Islamophobia. The bit that struck me most in our interview was her describing how after she had survived the bomb people kept moving away from her and her mum on the tube because her mum wears a headscarf. So it wasn’t just that she was a victim of 7/7, she was seen as perpetrator too, suffering twice over. I interviewed her for the Mirror here.
I’ve known Johnie McGlade, the founder of No Strings, since he worked for War Child in the late nineties and we worked in South Sudan together during the war. So it was a pleasure to write this profile of his new NGO (that uses the talents of the people behind the muppets save lives) for Friday Magazine in Dubai.