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Working a Minimum Wage Job Should Be the New National Service

A year in the shoes of a low-paid worker might give Britain's political leaders a little more perspective.

by Jack Urwin, Illustrations: Dan Evans
12 November 2014, 2:30pm

​I was at work a little over a week ago when a greasy-haired man walked in and transferred a substantial amount of his stomach contents onto and across the bar I was standing behind.

As I watched this river of vomit pour down into the ice tray and over the stacks of glasses I'd just finished shining, I thought a lot about everything that's wrong with Ed Miliband. Despite all the schooling and qualifications that led him to the top of the Labour party, he's never had to deal with this shit. He's never had to carry a platter of frothy sick out into the street and surreptitiously pour it down a drain while a group of his peers look on in disgust.

Like most of the country's political elite, Miliband hasn't ever really worked – and that's a huge problem. It's also probably why – as ​revealed today – he's the least popular leader of any political party among their own supporters in the entire 20 years that market research company Ipsos MORI has been recording that kind of data.

In February, I was made redundant from my bare-brick-walls agency job and thrown into the reality of post-recession Britain I'd somehow managed to avoid for so long. I spent a while searching for similar work, but – as anyone with a media degree and little-to-no real working experience could have told me – that goal was doomed from the start. And so, with rent due, anything that paid anything at all was good enough.

Since then, among freelance gigs as an incompetent PR, I've kept myself fed and sheltered with minimum wage bar work, retail jobs, cycle couriering and literally anything that could help me keep my belligerent buy-to-let landlord at arm's length. Someone also offered me £20 to eat 20 sachets of assorted condiments in the Highbury Wetherspoon's, and I wish I could tell you I had the self-respect to turn him down.

It doesn't take long in this kind of situation to come to terms with the bleak Catch 22 of capitalism – that it's much easier to live frugally when you have money to spare. You can buy food in bulk and store it in your working freezer. You can spend twice as much on clothes that last four times as long. If you're lucky, you can even save a little each month and eventually be in a position to put down a deposit on a house. When you're one pay cheque away from losing your home – as a shocking one in three ar​e right now – you become locked into an oppressive cycle of financial despair that's near-impossible to break.

At the end of that night at the bar, our spirits worn by stomach bile, we sat around talking. One colleague, Rory, suggested a twist on national service: rather than sending school leavers off to kill, every able person must spend a year working in some kind of retail or service industry, earning minimum wage for those 12 months.

We agreed on the reasoning; you gain a sense of empathy doing this work, you learn the correct way to treat people, you don't yell at people for fucking up your order, you don't become one of those constantly exasperated dickheads who complains about the price of a burger to the kid who clearly had no say in the matter. You become more polite, forgiving, grateful, understanding. 

Yes, it's a little totalitarian in principle – and would presumably come up against a certain level of opposition – but as a concept it's fairly flawless. Imagine it – all those who'd otherwise skate by on their parents' money until falling into financial security having to discover what the world is really like, and perhaps even learning some common decency when it comes to dealing with the dreaded underclasses.

It's one thing to empathise with the people you see in the society pages of whatever paper you read, but it goes without saying that you can never truly understand an existence – be it the life of a someone earning less than the UK living wage, or the CFO of an international media conglomerate – until you've lived it yourself. That right there is Westminster's problem; never in post-war Britain have politicians been more clueless about those they represent. You only need to look at Boris Johnson's definition of "affordable" housing – where the rent on a one-bed flat is more than a full-time minimum wage job pays – to see how blind to reality our leaders are.

"IF MILIBAND DOES WIN AT NEXT YEAR'S GENERAL ELECTION, IT'LL BE LABOUR'S HOLLOWEST VICTORY IN GENERATIONS"

What endeared me most to my current MP David Lammy was reading about his first job at ​KFC and how it prepared him for the world of politics. It reminded me that Labour does have a history of folk from working backgrounds (funny that, what with their name and everything), and in the likes of Lammy and Alan Johnson – the former Tesco shelf stacker and postman – I see a party fit to call itself an alternative to the Tories.

While they might be a party for the culturally regressive and financially fortunate, at least the Conservatives have never really attempted to disguise their position as such. Labour, on the other hand, have traditionally claimed to represent the working man, so their social ignorance is that little bit more insulting.

After five years of brutal austerity and betrayal at the hands of the Tory / Lib Dem coalition – in which the NHS has been totally gutted, university fees have been raised to an unsustainable level and thousands of working families have been forced to resort to food banks to survive – Labour, in theory, should be a shoo-in. But underlying Miliband's lack of coherent policy is a total absence of any recognisable human traits. If he does win in next year's general election, it'll be as the lesser of four evils; the party's hollowest victory in generations.

Ed Miliband is that most creepy of beings: a career politician. It sounds like an unfair thing to protest, but – as Wikipedia helpfully informs me – politics means "of, for, or relating to citizens". Miliband – like David Cameron – went straight from university into this world, his entire life as detached from that of a regular citizen as it's possible to get. He doesn't know what being a normal human feels like, and it's this that makes him such an unappealing prospect.

I firmly believe that doing low paid service work for part of your life makes you a better person. I got my first weekend job when I was 14, selling fruit and veg on a market stall in my hometown. It's a cliché, but it really did teach me more about the world than anything else I've done to date. While the vast majority of my regular customers were brilliant, it doesn't take long in any retail job to realise that no matter your personality or individual merits, there are people who will always treat you like shit because of their perceived superiority – because they've never had to do this work themselves. I'm not saying Ed Miliband would treat fast food workers like pieces of human detritus, but he has the same level of ignorance to that kind of life as those who do – and that's not a man you want leading the workers.

Here's the thing about jobs: jobs are shit. Not all of them and not all of the time, but most jobs are inherently, and objectively, completely fucking terrible. If the people running this country were forced to understand this – the fact that most people's lives are arduous enough without disastrous policies making everything even worse – perhaps they'd have a population happy to vote them into power.

​@JackMerlin / ​@Dan_Draws

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