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  • Published in Book Reviews

Mary O’Hara’s Austerity Bites brings us first-hand accounts of the damage done by austerity measures to people across Britain. It is an invaluable resource for activists, argues Ellen Graubart

Austerity Bites

Mary O’Hara, Austerity Bites: A journey to the Sharp End of Cuts in the UK, foreword by Mark Thomas, (Policy Press 2014), xiv, 320pp.

Mary O’Hara spent a year between 2012 and 2013 travelling around austerity UK, interviewing people at the sharp end of the ConDem’s austerity agenda, examining the lived experiences of those most affected, and documenting countless cases of poverty and deprivation caused by the government’s unprecedented programme of savage cuts to public expenditure. That journey inspired her to write about the policies and the people that created the austerity agenda and how the devastating consequences of this regressive strategy has changed the country, profoundly changing and destabilising the welfare state.

She shines a stark light on the effects of the Conservative led coalition’s austerity measures ‘needlessly and shamelessly unleashed on the country’, on the most vulnerable in society, scarring individuals, families and communities - probably for generations to come (p.1). She gives a voice to the voiceless, the invisible people living beneath the veneer of a relatively prosperous society. She has written a desperately needed book, going into great detail to explain the reality of the devastatingly destructive effects on society of the policies the government has forced on the UK public, and the hidden agenda behind them.

 In the words of Mark Thomas:

‘This book contains things the Conservative-led Coalition hates. It has facts. The author actually made the unforgivable faux pas of listening to the unheard voices, the poor, the huddled masses, those who in a better world seek shelter beneath the wing of a caring state. This book gives voice to those at the bottom of the heap, those who struggle just to exist. This book is ammunition. Use it’ (p.xiii).

O’Hara examines the reasoning behind the Con-Dem government’s austerity policies and the strategies it has employed to implement them; she reveals the fallacy of their claims that drastic cuts to public spending and sweeping reform to the welfare state were necessary and ‘fair’. By blaming the previous Labour government for profligacy (which the cowardly Labour party has accepted with hardly a whimper), and using ‘deficit panic’ as an excuse to dismantle social programs, the coalition government embarked on a campaign to convince the British public that wholesale dismantling of the welfare state was essential if the UK was to tackle the huge budget deficit; that the cuts were inevitable and necessary, and that victims of austerity were actually ‘scroungers’ and responsible for their fate and the country’s problems. This story, paraded in the language of ‘fairness’, has been repeated time and again by the government and press over several years, and many among the propagandised British public have accepted all of it. So began the process of undermining six decades of the welfare state, with its core social-security protections such as Child Benefit and support for people with disabilities.

The Effects of the Austerity Cuts

The austerity campaign has crippled the vulnerable while leaving the relatively well-off unscathed. It has given rise to a proliferation of emergency food centres - food banks - and driven people to depend on high-interest borrowing from loan sharks just to survive from week to week. Cuts to public services have thrown thousands out of work, causing enormous strain on those services and making it impossible for them to serve an ever increasing demand from the public.

For the first time in the UK there are more people in working families living in poverty, suffering decreased wages and plummeting living standards, than there are in workless or retired families. Thousands of people, whether the unemployed, the poorly paid employed, and the disabled particularly, find themselves trapped in a downward spiral of poverty and depression, mental illness and often suicide, being blamed for a financial catastrophe they did not cause. Delays in the payment of benefits, the largest single reason for the descent into destitution of increasing numbers of people, has resulted in the entrapment of thousands in a government manufactured catch-22 situation, through their complex overhaul of benefits and job-seeking systems.

The rise of food banks has been one of the most visible signs of the effects of the austerity drive, as hundreds of thousands of people all over UK began to resort to them for survival, in one of the richest nations in the world. O'Hara quotes shocking figures from bodies such as the Trussell Trust, Research for Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam on the rapid and huge rise of demand for emergency food, calling the trend a ‘national disgrace’.

David Cameron lauded food-bank volunteers as a sign of his ‘Big Society’ initiative, while critics have called it a return of the ‘Dickensian’ model of welfare. Out of touch Tory ministers, rubbing salt in the wounds of the poor, claimed that people were using food banks not out of need but greed. Work and Pensions Minister Lord Freud claimed there was no link between floods of people turning to food banks and the government's welfare changes, saying that ‘if free food was available, then of course people would seek it out’ (pp.29-30). The Trussell Trust has refuted this, accusing the minister of ignoring evidence and being out of touch with the lives of ordinary people.

Because the poorest in society were cutting down on fresh foods and facing the choice of ‘heat or eat’ - parents were going without food in order to feed their children - a group of leading health experts wrote a letter to the British Medical Journal warning of an impending public health crisis. They argued that the situation was so bad that it had ‘all the signs of a public health emergency that could go unrecognised until it is too late to take preventative action’ (p.27). London’s Institute of Child Health and Medical Research Council called for urgent monitoring of the effects of austerity policies on the health and nutritional status of vulnerable groups, resulting in malnutrition in children which would have life-long effects.

From the first Comprehensive Spending [Review] in October 2010 and from announcements in the Local Government Settlement in December of same year it was apparent that the extent of ‘savings’ local authorities would be expected to make were, according to the Local Government Association, ‘the worst in living memory’. The Unite Joint General Secretary called it a massacre. From 2010 to 2014 central funding to local government has been reduced by £6 billion: 19.6%, almost a fifth (p.219). Frontline services have been drastically cut. One of most prominent frontline services affecting mothers and carers was the decimation of Sure Start (introduced by Labour government in 1998), despite what David Cameron said on the day before the election in 2010: ‘Yes, we back Sure Start. It’s a disgrace that Gordon Brown has been trying to frighten people about this. He’s the Prime Minister of this country but he’s been scaring people about something that really matters’ (p.225).

Women have been the most badly hit by the austerity measures. More women than men are employed in public-sector jobs, the numbers of which have been drastically cut. The wages, pensions and services they rely on have been ruthlessly cut, and the benefits they rely on have been attacked. As state services such as rape crisis centres and refuges, groups advising women from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and those caring for immigrants or trafficked women have been withdrawn, women have had to fill in the gaps. 

As the demand for services rose the availability shrank, and the process continues. High rises in rent, policies such as the Bedroom Tax, changes to Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit have forced families to live in sub-standard housing and have thrown thousands out of their homes to live in the streets. Voluntary and charity groups simply cannot cope with the increasing demands from growing number of desperate people living in the UK of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. 

The Fightback

The clergy has severely criticised the government's austerity policies and has spoken out strongly against the immorality of poverty inducing policies. Residents have organised many demonstrations against hospital closures, even lawyers have come out onto the streets to demonstrate against government cuts to legal aid. There have been demonstrations by students protesting in their thousands against cuts to education and grants. All these have played a vital role in inspiring activists and the unions to begin organising against the cuts. As the austerity drive began to bite, anti-austerity groups began to take shape. Here are some examples:

  • The disability campaign DPAC
  • We are Spartacus
  • The WOW Petition
  • Numerous bloggers, such as Jack Monroe
  • The Occupy movement
  • False Economy a public-facing grass roots facility for people to publish, post events and ideas
  • The Peoples' Assembly Against Austerity, which emerged in June 2013 to bring together various fragmented groups, including unionists, progressive MPs and activists to ‘weld together a national movement or coalition’.

 As Owen Jones (a founding member of The Peoples’ Assembly) has told us:

‘There isn’t a public consensus for the things [the government] is doing. People don’t want the NHS to be privatised; they don’t want taxes for the rich to be cut. The question is: how do you mobilise it? It’s people organising from below – that’s the only way things can change. It’s a hope issue. The anger is there but anger is not enough.’

The people suffering from the cuts may not always be the people on the demonstrations -  because they are simply too busy trying to cope with their daily lives - but the warning from many is if things don’t change soon there will be serious consequences, serious episodes of social unrest like the English riots of 2011 could happen again. One person in Birmingham told Mary O’Hara, ‘All it will take is one hot summer’ (p.256).

The one overriding message that O’Hara received from her journeys around Austerity UK was that ‘people were only prepared to take so much’. There is anger and resentment across the board. As Debbie from Croxteth put it:

“It may take people to hit rock bottom but we’ll fight [David Cameron] … We can’t constantly let him do that to us. We are good people … None of us is lazy. If he thinks he is getting away with it he’s not. End of” (p.257).

Ellen Graubart

Ellen Graubart

Ellen Graubart was born in India of American parents and came to London from Virginia as a teenager to study art. She lives and works as an artist in Hackney. She is a member of Counterfire, Stop the War and Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

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