‘The Lady’s Not for Turning’: Political U-turns and why they matter

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Margaret Thatcher, 1987

On 10 October 1980, Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech that would change the way we think about political decision-making for the foreseeable future. Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, she uttered the words: ‘You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning’ – a phrase that would transform her refusal to reverse a terrible and hugely unpopular decision into an example of political power and virility. Thanks to Thatcher U-turns were now considered representative of inexcusable political weakness. And my how we’ve grown to love the stupidity and incompetence that they represent. As Nesrine Malik wrote in a recent piece for The Guardian, ‘There is nothing opposition politicians and journalists like more than a good old flip-flop.’

Whilst Thatcher is long gone from Downing Street, the impact of her political stubbornness has been immense. One has only to type ‘Political U-turn’ into Google to gain insight into just how much power her words held at the time, and how much the media continues to ridicule those who are guilty (as if it were a crime) of backtracking out of their political decisions.

Of course, in some cases political U-turns are wholly unfair and deserve all the ridicule they get. May’s recent backtracking out of her energy price cap proposal, for example, has left millions of over-worked and underpaid Brits with increasingly unaffordable energy bills to pay. But even in cases where U-turns are made in favour of reasonable objections and for the greater good of the people, we are still prone to condemning them as nothing more than lack of conviction. Unfair and misguided as some government U-turns certainly are, it seems there may be more than meets the eye to the disdain that many of us feel towards them. And I think this can be explained via meritocracy.

Politicians sometimes make mistakes. And, like everyone, they sometimes change their minds.

In a society which overvalues success and fears failure like the plague, it’s no wonder we’re so hard on those who demonstrate any kind of uncertainty about their actions or ideas. After all, the notion that we must never fail at anything, including any decisions that we make, is something that most of us internalise from an early age. It’s something that we’re first made aware of at school, where we’re expected to work hard for good grades if we are to achieve anything of value in life. And then at college and university, where we’re encouraged to compete with our peers for academic merit. It is then drilled in again when we reach the workplace, where we’re expected to keep moving up through the ranks and making more and more money as we go.

What we often neglect to realise in the pursuit of success is that, more often than not, failure is a necessary part of the journey. Other than the incredibly wealthy and privileged of our society, there are very few who find success without making some mistakes along the way. So, if we consider that political decision makers are some of the most successful people in the country, and that like everybody else they are expected to succeed without any failure, the idea that their U-turns are always rooted in incompetence seems pretty harsh. Politicians sometimes make mistakes. And, like everyone, they sometimes change their minds.

And this isn’t to say that I’m not well aware of the fact that some government U-turns are merely tactical rather than based on genuine mistakes. But I must say, I’d rather live in a society where political decisions are sometimes reversed than one in which policies are always stubbornly implemented and held in place regardless of the objections that they are subject to. In a democratic society, the ability of our politicians to admit their failings, change their minds, and decide to go down a different path is something that I would personally like to see more rather than less of.

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Why Universal Credit is a Universal Joke

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Photo credit: lydia_shiningbrightly via Foter.com / CC BY

When I relocated from London to Bristol earlier this year I wasn’t expecting to end up claiming benefits. With a bit of money in the bank, some festival work lined up, and several job applications underway, I genuinely believed that I would be able to support myself. Had my reasons for leaving London been different (I’ll save the details for another time) then I would have done the sensible thing and made sure that I had a permanent  job lined up before moving. But with my circumstances being  what they were, the most important thing to me at the time was returning quickly to where my family and friends are.

Had I realised just how little support would be available to me when I failed to find a job as quickly as I’d hoped, I may have done things a little differently.

The first problem I encountered after applying for Universal Credit was the unexpectedly long processing time. Having to wait over a month for my claim to be approved meant that I completely ran out of cash before my first payment arrived. Aware of how unhelpful this is for people with no money, Universal Credit offers advance payments to cover living costs during this time. Desperate for cash a few weeks after applying, I borrowed £300 under the agreement that this would be repaid out of my forthcoming allowance over a period of six months. So, before knowing how much money I was entitled to, or if my application had even been approved, I’d already accumulated a substantial new debt with the very system that I’d turned to for financial support. Great.

I’m extremely lucky to have an understanding landlord, and family and friends who are able and willing to help.

Six weeks later I received notification that £559 would be paid to me every month until my circumstances change. With my rent alone coming in at £650 per month, this news came as a bit of a shock. When I called the contact centre (charged at 45p per minute) to question the decision, I was told that nothing could be done to help. Why? Because people under the age of 35 are expected to live in shared accommodation, and are therefore not eligible for full housing support if they choose to live alone, as I have.

Lacking enough funds at this stage to cover my rent, let alone any bills or food, I found myself in bit of a pickle. Little did I know things were only going to get worse.

Part of the deal with Universal Credit is that a percentage of any earnings you make from employment is deducted from your monthly allowance. Whilst I was aware of this and think it’s fair, at no point did I consider that the processing of deductions might be delayed. Instead of accounting for the the bit of work that I did a few months ago straight away, Universal Credit has only just processed the deduction, several weeks after the wages were paid into my account. With no other income coming in until the end of this month due to unexpected illness and subsequent hospitalisation, this delay has had an enormous impact on my finances, leaving me with just over £100 to cover all of my outgoings.

So, how have I managed with so little money over the last few months? Well, I’m extremely lucky to have an understanding landlord, and family and friends who are able and willing to help. But it’s scary to imagine how many people must be struggling to make ends meet right now. Without the hot dinners and financial help that I’ve received from my nearest and dearest I would currently be very hungry and in hundreds of pounds worth of debt with my landlord, if not homeless. For those who aren’t so lucky and don’t have anyone to turn to, the outlook is pretty bleak.