Last Monday, two middle-aged English women arrived at Abingdon market in Oxfordshire. One woman was there by chance. The other had carefully thought through the decision to go there, weighing the costs, benefits, and risks. This woman was one of the most powerful in the country. The other was one of the most vulnerable.
Kathy Mohan’s vulnerability didn’t stop her confronting the Prime Minister though: “Theresa, are you going to help people with learning disabilities and mental health?” Before Theresa could answer, Kathy pressed on: “Because I stick up for the mental health and for learning disabilities, and I’ve been crippled by them because they chucked me out of the Mind, ‘cause I’ve got a borderline. I’m being serious, I want you to do something for us.”
Here was the risk that May must have weighed carefully in her mind. The risk of being met by a real member of the public with a genuine grievance. After weeks of carefully choreographed meetings with deferential party members and a steadfast refusal to debate policy in public, the Prime Minister was told that people on the doorstep were wondering where she was? Was she hiding?
She couldn’t hide now. In the House of Commons, May could always fall back on the old parliamentary trick of answering a different question to the one that had been asked, safe in the knowledge that an interruption was impossible. This was her first instinct now, narrowing the topic to her preferred area: “We’ve got a lot of plans for people with mental health”, but Kathy cut in “and learning disabilities.” Realising that in an English market square she couldn’t control the agenda, May concurred, “and learning disabilities.”
Kathy moved on to the heart of the issue: “I’ve got mild learning disabilities and I haven’t got a carer at the moment and I’m angry. I’ve got no one to help me write a letter to Nicola [Blackwood, MP] and I would like somebody to help me. ‘Cause I can’t do everything I want to do.”
This plea seemed to be born out of frustration at the inability to do everyday tasks, in order to live and enjoy life. Some, like the social liberal T H Green, might have said it was frustration at a lack of freedom, of “a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something.” Something as simple as writing a letter.
The would-be recipient of the complaint letter, Conservative MP Nicola Blackwood, was standing right next to the Prime Minister, and decided to chip in at this point to defuse the situation: “Kathy, we’ve done a lot to help, haven’t we?”
It had the opposite effect. Kathy wasn’t protesting on her own behalf only: “No, I’m talking about everybody, not just me! I’m talking about everybody who’s got mental health and anybody who’s got learning disabilities. I want them not to have their money taken away from them, and being crippled. The fat cats keep the money and us lot get nothing.”
Kathy understood perfectly well that she hadn’t been singled out. She went to “a club for disabled people” and witnessed other people suffering the same fate. Meanwhile the city bankers were still swanning around like the financial crash and government bailout never happened. No wonder she was angry.
By now the Prime Minister must have been getting a little nervous, though her face, as ever, remained inscrutable. Perhaps now wasn’t the time to trot out her original slogan: “a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.” Nor her pledges to the “hard working families” who are “just about managing.” It must have been apparent to Theresa that Kathy was in a group below this: the “struggling to cope.” A group the PM hadn’t even pretended to care about.
It was time to shift the focus off money: “Kathy, we’re going to do a number of things, let me just tell you one thing that’s not about money”, said May. But money seemed to be exactly what it was about for Kathy, as she interrupted the PM again: “Do you know what I want? I want my Disability Living Allowance to come back. Not have PIPs [Personal Independence Payments] and get nothing. I can’t live on £100 a month, they took it all away from me.”
“They” was a combination of David Cameron who designed the benefit cuts and Theresa May who is implementing them: £12billion in total, including £3.7billion cuts to disability allowances. The Conservatives say these measures are necessary to reduce the deficit. Since her PIP assessment in February, Kathy has been doing her bit for deficit reduction, like it or not, by living on £23 a week, or £3.30 a day. The annual total of £1200 wouldn’t be enough for the PM to buy a pair of leather trousers and designer shoes.
The deficit and the debt have hardly been mentioned as an issue by any party in over a month of election campaigning. The real reason behind Kathy’s loss of carer and newfound poverty is simple: low taxes are prioritised above most other things by the Conservatives. The previous government’s tax-lock is a case in point, making it illegal for future governments to raise taxes.
This Conservative focus on tax reductions has been justified in the name of freedom. Not the freedom for Kathy to act – to have enough money to buy food and a carer to help with the things she can’t do – but the tax payer’s freedom from “coercive taxation” that redistributes resources from the rich to the poor. As economist Friedrich Hayek put it, a man is not free if he is “forced to act not according to a coherent plan of his own but to serve the ends of another”, like Kathy. This philosophy inevitably results in higher levels of inequality, as Hayek accepted, and Kathy could see for herself: “The fat cats keep the money and us lot get nothing.”
Maybe it was the desire to achieve this Conservative vision – of a low-tax country with minimal welfare – that prompted May’s final attempt to placate Kathy, combined perhaps with Kathy’s own description of herself as “borderline” and having “mild” learning disabilities: “What we want to ensure, when we look at the help that we’re giving to people with any disability, it’s that, particularly, we focus on those who are most in need, so that we’re helping those that are most in need.” There was no escaping the message: those “most in need.”
Sensing the implication that Theresa thought she didn’t fall into the category of “most in need”, Kathy shot back at the PM: “I think I am, because I’m vulnerable to everything, so I’ve been told. I don’t get nothing. So you better help me, please. Thank you.”
Angry and assertive, but respectful and polite to the end, Kathy turned and walked away into the crowd. The vulnerable citizen had faced the powerful Prime Minister, called her out on her policy, and then pleaded for her to help.
Theresa May had taken a risk and seen at first hand the impact of her austerity policies. Kathy didn’t look or sound like the stereotypical “welfare scrounger” in the right-wing tabloid press. Still, the PM was careful to offer nothing but platitudes. Mercifully, we were spared the barrage of “strong and stable” slogans. At last, we’d had some democratic debate.
The next day, Kathy gave an interview to a national newspaper. We discovered that she lived alone in a housing association flat, that on her lowered income she’d recently had to use the local foodbank, and that her ex-carer continued to offer her support voluntarily, free-of-charge.
It looks like David Cameron’s Big Society idea is becoming a reality under Theresa May. State funding of benefits and professional carers are cut, and the charitable giving of foodbanks and volunteer carers move in to take up the slack. It’s a vision of society that depends on the unpaid work of kind-hearted citizens and the unrealistic hope that neighbours, volunteers, and charities will spring up in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills and resources. And that includes housing: once the Conservative policy of selling off housing association homes (and Council Houses) gets underway, Kathy, and her friends at the club for disabled people, will be even less of a burden on the tax payer.
Or perhaps Kathy’s story will change May’s mind? Kathy wasn’t sure though: “I don’t think she’s going to listen,” she said. “I was begging her in the end.” She may be right. Hidden between the “just about managing” and the “most in need”, the “struggling to cope” demographic may be in a Conservative blind-spot. For a couple of minutes at Abingdon market though, they weren’t out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Kathy Mohan had stood up and shown that the lives of the “struggling to cope” mattered too.