‘It’s disorienting’: former Glasgow MP left claiming universal credit

The Guardian, by Libby Brooks
16th May 2020

Recent Labour MP Paul Sweeney awaits response to claim made as result of lockdown and losing seat in December.

There was a moment, as Paul Sweeney filled out his online application for universal credit, when the reality of the box-ticking hit home. “You’re thinking, Christ, when I was an MP I used to spend my days advocating for people who were caught up in all these benefits problems, and now here I am. It was bizarre.”

At the start of the year, it is fair to say that the former Scottish Labour member for Glasgow North East had no expectation of becoming one of the 2 million people who have applied for universal credit benefits since lockdown measures were implemented.

Early January was consumed with the joyless slog of winding up his office and constituency commitments, having lost his seat to the SNP in December’s general election. After serving as an MP for only two years, 31-year-old Sweeney received two months’ salary as a redundancy payment.

Throughout the spring, he was working on Angela Rayner’s campaign for UK Labour deputy, with the assumption that after that contract ended “things would come up”. Instead, the special conference to announce the leadership results was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Sweeney found himself at home, rediscovering Call of Duty and Rollercoaster Tycoon, the computer games he’d played as a teenager, but with a growing sense of panic as the job market froze.

He did so on Monday, and went on to tweet about the “disorienting experience” of finding himself unemployed “for the first time since the age of 14” and in the midst of a pandemic lockdown. “I have completed my online application for universal credit, which was actually reasonably straightforward. Now to wait for the DWP to call me back.”

His revelation prompted a largely warm and supportive response, but with – he suggests – “an element of voyeurism, too”. Sweeney was certainly considered a rising star at Westminster, reclaiming a cherished Glasgow seat from the nationalists and joining Jeremy Corbyn’s cabinet as the shadow minister for Scotland a month after his election. He was known for his effective and energetic campaigns on behalf of constituents, alongside his boundless enthusiasm for the city’s Victorian architecture.

Paul Sweeney at Possilpoint community centre, where he volunteers at a food bank.
Paul Sweeney at Possilpoint community centre, where he volunteers at a food bank. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

“I just thought I’d put it out there,” he reflects. “I’m one of these people that’s been long advocating for a basic income, so why is there any shame in accessing public funds that are used to support people?

“A few people have said, ‘Oh I’d never apply because I’m too proud’, that slightly Calvinist idea about welfare, that it’s somehow morally questionable. I just felt I’m going to make a point here because you’re never too far from being in that situation.”

There was an assumption, Sweeney contends, that because he arrived in the Commons well-spoken and better-presented, his background must be one of privilege. “I always found it irritating, having represented the constituency I was born and brought up in, that there was this inference I wasn’t a legitimate representative of it.”

Sweeney grew up in the heart of a constituency where there are nearly double the Scottish average of children living in poverty. His father worked in the Clyde shipyards, but was made redundant in the 90s and now drives a taxi. His mother has worked as a bank teller all her life. His first job was an Evening Times paper round while he was still at school and – the only person in his family to go to university – he worked part-time throughout his studies, before he joined BAE Systems’ graduate development programme, becoming a production engineer at its Govan shipyard.

“The reality is, the majority of Scots are working class – if they stopped earning a salary, within two months they’d be in financial difficulties. However prestigious or seemingly privileged you are in terms of your work or identity, you’re never far away from that. If more of us realised how close we are to that peril, maybe the social security system wouldn’t be so punitive.”

While he waits for his claim to be assessed, he is clear that “£340 a month a ridiculously small amount of money”, but adds: “It’s a comforting feeling to have something coming in as you find a way through this. It’s not something you can sit back and relax on, but it takes the edge off.”

For now, Sweeney has been helping out with deliveries for a local food bank: “It’s good psychologically to stay moving rather than dwelling on things.” But he also admits that “in a strange way I’ve been enjoying time to relax”.

He says: “Being elected in 2017 unexpectedly, with a 200 majority and a parliament that could have collapsed at any moment, it was like having a ticking bomb in your hand. It was a pressure cooker from the start.”

The double blow of losing his seat – an experience he describes as brutal – and finding himself unemployed in lockdown is plain, and his impatience to get back to politics fizzes through his conversation. “It is frustrating to be sitting here knowing that my future is elsewhere.”

Sweeney is not a maudlin sort, but he will allow that his mum, who has only recently recovered from coronavirus herself, is “a bit upset by it all”.

“It’s probably hit her harder emotionally than me. It is what it is; it’s shit, but I’m not dead, you know?” He laughs, evidently still confounded at his present circumstances, personal and global. “You’ve just got to get on with it.”