Q & A with Bob Holman: Leading by example in the fight against inequality
Bob Holman gave up an affluent lifestyle to live and work alongside the disadvantaged of British society. Since the 1980s he has lived in Easterhouse in Glasgow, where he co-founded a neighbourhood charity, Fare. Now 78, he rails against the austerity measures that are leading to ever rising inequality and believes that Scottish independence is the only hope for a more socially democratic UK
You’ve said that these are dark days for the UK. Why do you think so?
I’ve lived in deprived areas for nearly 40 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen poverty or inequality as bad as it is now. And it’s made even worse by this whipping up of feeling against the poor. Most poor people are now in work. I have a friend who’s 59 and has always worked. He’s been on the minimum wage since it was introduced, but it’s so little. He has only one week’s holiday a year and he’s in debt. He’s had to take out loans. There are now three loan sharks and a pawnbrokers in our row of shops in Easterhouse. This is a real indication of what life is like. My church started a weekly cafe in response to the crisis. It offers free drinks and fruit and cheap snacks. We are meeting people in severe financial need. Citizens Advice send in workers once a fortnight to help those sanctioned. I’ve had a friend sanctioned for six months. He had absolutely no money for six months. Ten years ago this would have been unbelievable. But even Labour didn’t protest. One of the services we run from Fare is an annual holiday. We take youngsters to Lincolnshire, it’s all in tents. The holiday costs £140 a week for everything – transport, food, trips. We’ve run it for years but two years ago people couldn’t afford to pay so we cut it to £70 and raised the rest of the money. Last year people couldn’t pay £70. Never before have parents found it so difficult to pay for their kids’ holidays. This is the inequality. One thing we can do is to make sure these kids go on holiday. It’s the Elastoplast level we are down to now. It’s not changing society but it’s justice. There are people who are really struggling. These people are my friends. They’re not my clients.
How does the organisation you co-founded – Fare – help?
Family Action in Rogerfield and Easterhouse (Fare) is about face-to-face work. It was started in 1989 by local people and it’s still run by local people. One thing it has achieved is to help bring down gang violence. When I first came here the kids wouldn’t walk to the swimming pool in town as they had to go through a rival area. Now they do. The police have said we played a part in lowering the level of gang-related crime. We worked with all the gangs and brought them together. There was one young lad whose dad was murdered and then his mum died from drinking and he ended up in care and got into trouble. Now he’s one of our workers.
Fare has also made a big difference in the services it provides. There’s an old peoples’ club and we go to 28 schools. Fifty kids have got their Duke of Edinburgh award this year, mostly non-academic kids. We take in trainees – around 10 a year – who spend a year with us and at the end we help them get jobs. We have a success rate of 80%; no private work programme would come near that.
Beyond that though there is something important. Fare gives local people a voice. It shows they can do something. There are lots of good voluntary services but those that are locally run work really well.
This is big society, though our grant from Glasgow council has been cut and we are doing more work than ever on less funding. That’s the hypocrisy of the coalition government: it promotes the big society and knocks millions off welfare. I still get angry – I’m 78.
Where does the blame lie for the current levels of inequality?
Britain is run by money, by the love of money. That is the number one problem in society, and it commands the life of many MPs. I’ve been in the Labour party for 53 years and I refuse to resign because I was there before Tony Blair. When I joined it was more committed to greater equality and public services but my labour party is supporting the cuts on the welfare budget and there’s more to come. We’re talking billions not millions so the position of poor will get even worse. This is the party of my hero Kier Hardie, a Christian socialist. He founded the party with others precisely because the working class had no representation. Labour is now controlled by very similar people to those in coalition, people from Oxbridge and public schools. These people are drawn from this tiny fraction of this country. They don’t understand, have experience of, or live among the poorest, so there’s so little chance of change. The number of working class MPs in parliament as a whole has declined dramatically. Can you name an MP who lives in a deprived area?
What we can do if we are committed to equality is to as least be close to those in greatest need. If you are close to them you know the rubbish is being said about them by Osborne in particular. He talks about people living in luxury with their curtains closed while hardworkers go out to work. Who are these people?
Labour made some progress on poverty but not inequality. For me the big thing is inequality. For a happier society you have to remove the love of money.
Does Scottish independence offer a way out?
As long as a British parliament has control over Scotland it will come under a form of government which doesn’t touch inequality and will maintain poverty. The Labour Party hasn’t got a great plan to work for poverty; it supports, but more moderately, what the coalition is doing. If Labour comes in maybe a few more hundred children might be taken out of poverty but the five richest families in Britain will still own more than bottom 20%. I believe the only possibility of greater equality and a real attack on poverty will come if Scotland is independent. The Scottish Labour party will become more radical because it will have to compete with the SNP. I believe Scotland will be much more open to immigrants – the legislation that applies to asylum seekers now comes from Westminster. I’ve had a lot to do with asylum seekers. I’ve seen a family dragged out and taken to the airport. It’s heartbreaking. Alex Salmond said we will welcome migration and I believe Scotland will be more humane. These are the reasons I’m independent. I don’t want to wear a kilt. I’m not a nationalist or anything like that. I hope if Scotland becomes a truly egalitarian society Westminster Labour will see that it must go down that route. I think many middle class people would vote for more progressive society, as they did in 1945.