What we have learned

People are resilient, determined and proud. Despite the daunting day-to-day challenges many of our interviewees face, they all have stories to tell that demonstrate tenacity, endurance and defiance. From struggling to stretch meagre pay packets to cover the escalating costs of food and fuel to battling to persuade ‘fitness-for-work’ assessors that they are disabled enough to qualify for Personal Independence Payments, all our interviewees are united by their common refusal to give in. Whether motivated by concerns to ensure their children are spared the pressures affecting them, or a desire to enter, re-enter or remain in employment even at times when illness and/or lack of opportunities make this nigh-on impossible, they are all also determined ‘contributors’. We spoke to people with debilitating long-term conditions who, despite facing their own daily battles with Britain’s under-siege, chronically underfunded care and benefit systems, nonetheless gave their time willingly to volunteer in food-banks and look after others – invariably for no financial reward. Others spoke emotionally of their long-term caring responsibilities, the limitations these had imposed on their own freedoms and life choices, and about their involuntary dependence on partners, friends and Cinderella services. Many described how they would often go without meals so that their children could eat or they could heat their homes and pay their rent. Almost everyone had vivid memories of such times, even if they were now behind them. But not all their tales were of woe and hardship: many stories spoke to a spirit of resourcefulness and determination, and strong bonds of comradeship with fellow carers, parents, benefit recipients and unpaid volunteers in similar positions. At a time when politicians of Left and Right are once more framing debates around crude distinctions between those judged more and less ‘hard working’ – in so doing, reviving historical oppositions between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor – these ‘COVID-era’ snapshots offer insights into the complexity and precariousness of life for the growing numbers of people struggling to survive on what would once have been considered society’s margins, but are fast becoming all too normal. As politicians and the media continue to pay lip service to the concerns and grievances of particular groups seen to have been excluded for long periods from Britain’s national conversation – primarily the white working-class communities of post-industrial England and Wales – our findings mount a persuasive case for widening the definition of Britain’s fabled ‘left behind’ to encompass not only Scotland but also a much more multifaceted range of groups that might justifiably identify with this label. These range from low-paid, precarious workers to those experiencing long-term unemployment to people facing all manner of additional, intersecting, disadvantages relating to race, ethnicity, disability and gender.