Sarah Wollaston, Conservative Member of Parliament for Totnes, is not your everyday Tory MP. She was the first MP to be chosen as a candidate through a US-style open primary. She was recently one of 15 joint winners of The Spectator’s Parliamentarians of the Year Award for going “through the ‘no’ lobby to prove that our ancient tradition of press freedom is not abolished without a fight”. She spoke more sense about the proposed intervention in Syria than anyone else on both sides of the debate. She writes regularly for the Guardian. She’s also a great supporter of Transition. I caught up with her recently and heard her 7 thoughts on austerity, why it’s happening and how we might respond to it.
1. We have no choice but austerity
She told me:
“If you look at the figures on debt and it’s 85% of our GNP, what does that mean? Does it mean that you can just keep on pretending that you can carry on increasing government spending above what a government’s earning? Inevitably that leads you to the situation where Greece is. Do I feel that something had to be done about that? I’m afraid I do. I think it was inevitable that that had to happen.
You can therefore either increase taxation, you can shrink what government spends, or you can try and get a balance between the two. I think, unfortunately, we do need to shrink our spend. I’m afraid I do think those decisions had to be made. Undoubtedly it’s impacting people’s lives, it’s very painful”.
2. It’s not helpful to blame or stigmatise those on the receiving end of it
“Just because words rhyme with each other doesn’t mean you should use them! I absolutely do not think we should be using any language of that sort, and most people who are not in work absolutely want to be in work. The issue is how do you make it that you are paid more for being in work than being on benefits? How do you make sure that you give people encouragement into work?”.
3. People need support and help to get back into work, not punishment
For Wollaston, it is not acceptable to scapegoat those looking for work. In another recent Guardian article about helping those with mental health issues back into work she wrote “Sometimes people need a push to get back into work, but that should not feel like a coercive or punitive shove”. She told me:
When you’ve had a period of depression (she herself has been very public about an episode of post natal depression that she suffered from herself) it can impact catastrophically on your self-confidence, and it can lead you to a position where you feel you really can’t go back to work. What you need is the encouragement, because for very many people it’s actually getting back into the workplace that helps restore confidence and make people feel better. It’s about the social contact that comes with work and employment. I don’t think it does anybody any favours to have to have a narrative around this that says that a government is being wicked if they are trying to encourage people back into the workplace. It’s a question of whether or not that encouragement feels like a big stick, or whether it feels like it’s genuinely supportive and helpful”.
4. Outsourcing public services is no bad thing
One of what many people see as the most alarming manifestations of austerity has been the outsourcing by many local authorities of work that was in the public sector and into the private sector. Barnet Council’s programme of “mass outsourcing” has been hugely controversial, but what are her thoughts on that approach?
“To say that it’s wrong for councils to outsource, I don’t agree with that argument. If other people can provide a better service with better value for money, I just see that as being inevitable. If that money could be spent better by bringing in other people I don’t have a reflex that it must automatically be wrong.
Clearly it’s incredibly painful for those individuals losing their jobs, but the evidence is over this period of austerity that although there’s been a great loss of employment in the state sector, there’s been a much greater corresponding increase in the private and independent sector.
But is the principle that you can shift people from being employed by the state, or the Council, to being employed in other organisations that can sometimes provide a better service and do things like increase the rate of recycling really so bad? Actually I think that’s a very reasonable way to approach austerity.
Having said that, she made clear that for her, it is also a question of making sure that this does not lead to abuse of low-paid workers. She raised the example of Healthcare Assistants, employed on zero hours contracts on a minimum wage, who are not paid for time spent travelling from one person to the next which, in effect, drives them below the minimum wage. She has been part of lobbying for the forthcoming Care Bill to outlaw this practice.
5. Austerity means it is more important that we vote, not less.
In the light of both Russell Brand and Jeremy Paxman announcing that they never vote, I wondered whether being in parliament had strengthened or weakened her belief in the vote? She took a sharp intake of breath, clearly looking forward to getting something off her chest:
“Where do I start? I can see why people are cynical about politics and politicians. There are so many problems with the way politics works today. What I would say is if you take an attitude of “I’m just going to boycott the whole thing, I’m not going to bother”, how is it ever going to change? I would say what you need to be doing is not sitting at home taking a negative view. If you’re unhappy with it, you need to apply. That’s what I did. I’m there.
There are lots of things that deeply frustrate me about the way politics works, about the way patronage operates, about the lack of genuine representation. We haven’t got enough women, we haven’t got enough people in parliament from a diverse range of backgrounds, we are under-representing people from ethnic minorities, and I think that’s desperately important. But you don’t solve those issues by not voting. You solve those issues by getting involved politically yourself and campaigning for change. I think it was a deeply worrying thing for Russell Brand to have said, particularly as he’s such an influential individual. I’d like to see Russell Brand applying to become an MP”.
6. Approaches like Transition have a vital role to play in times of austerity
She has been an enthusiastic supporter of the work of Transition Town Totnes. What, I wondered, were her thoughts on Transition, and its role in times of austerity?
I think it’s hugely important, because the thing about austerity is that it’s less about what the state is providing for a community, and as that pot of money shrinks, inevitably communities have to fall back on their own resources and look at what they can contribute. What Transition shows is just how important that can be. I look at what’s here in Totnes and I compare that to what’s available in some other communities, and I just wish that every community had that kind of community resource.
Inevitably people have a downer on what government is doing and to focus on the negative things, but there are some positive opportunities that we should look at and say “what are the opportunities for Transition Town Totnes?” because that’s what you’re very good at, saying “how could we use that within Transition?”.
For Wollaston, the refocusing of austerity creates new spaces for communities to innovate and take back some degree of power. She is very animated about how personal care budgets could be reallocated and used to support a variety of new and existing social enterprises in at the community level. Some of the powers given through the Localism Act have similar potential, such as Community Right to Build Orders. These, and other powers offer the potential of “restoring real power to individuals, that’s going to be a real gamechanger”, as she put it.
7. We have to tread carefully to maintain public support for renewables in times of austerity
Our conversation then turned to energy. Dr Wollaston discussed the number of people who come to her surgeries raising the issue of “green levies” on energy bills and how unfair they consider them to be. “People who are fuel poor feel like they are subsidising people who are not fuel poor” she told me. “That is a voice we have to listen to”. She spoke of how, for her, renewable energy needs to be rolled out with the support of local communities, rather than in the face of opposition:
“Frankly, I am horrified, when you look at the impact on a community like Dipford (a village near Totnes), which suddenly finds itself surrounded by very large scale solar panels, and, if companies get their way, very tightly spaced. It’s a question of how we make this work so people accept it and it’s done in a sensitive manner, and it doesn’t act as an extra levy, a disproportionate levy in fuel poverty. I am not saying that we should scrap environmental levies, I am absolutely not saying that. What I am saying is that the balance at the moment is risking us seeing a collapse in public support for green energy, and I think that’s a danger…”
I pointed out that given that the world currently subsidises the fossil fuel industry to the tune of $500bn a year, six times more than is spent to subsidise the renewable energy sector. Much of the hysteria being whipped up around “green taxes” should be seen in the light of how in Germany, the push for renewables is making the big energy companies’ business model unravel, and has seen their profit halve. I suggested that lobbying instead for the end of subsidies for fossil fuels might be a better place to start, and that it would be a move towards a genuinely ‘level playing field’. We also discussed a different approach to how energy is charged for which will be put forward on this website in January, as part of our theme of ‘Scaling Up’.
Some closing thoughts
Time spent with Dr Wollaston is fascinating, especially in the light of our discussions this month on the theme of austerity. She represents very much the “glass is half full” side of the debates around austerity. David Cameron said in his speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet recently:
“We are sticking to the task. But that doesn’t just mean making difficult decisions on public spending. It also means something more profound. It means building a leaner, more efficient state. We need to do more with less. Not just now, but permanently.”
With the Labour Party stating that if they won the next election they will uphold most of the Coalition’s spending cuts, it appears that austerity is here to stay, indeed that it has only just begun. And its impacts have only just begun too. For example, the recently released State of Children’s Rights in England report accuses the government of using “economic pressures” to:
“justify not only a serious erosion of children’s economic and social rights, such as health, food and the right to play, but also fundamental changes to our justice system.”
As people on the ground doing Transition, trying to build resilience in the face of such rapid and deep change, that’s our context. Whether its cause is peak oil, or austerity, necessary or unnecessary, as Dr Wollaston says, “inevitably communities have to fall back on their own resources and look at what they can contribute”. While there is still much to be gained from trying, where possible, to oppose cuts to public services, Wollaston’s message that there is also an opportunity here, an opportunity being seized by companies like Circo but not so much by community-owned social enterprises, is one that resonates with Transition. This also, of course, opens a whole ethical minefield for initiatives, as to whether they are colluding with further cuts or providing a vital safety net for local communities.
From a Transition perspective though, of course, that needs to be done built on foundations of social justice and fairness, with an underpinning narrative about the urgent need to tackle climate change and build resilience to the end of cheap energy, and in a way that builds community resilience, rather than undermining it. None of those appear to be priorities for the current administration, typified in David Cameron’s alleged recent “get rid of all the green crap” comments. But certainly talking to Dr Wollaston, you get a sense that there’s more support for them than you might previously imagine, in some quarters at least. .