Homeless people sleeping rough. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Homeless people sleeping rough. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Theresa May recently said that austerity was coming to an end. Tony Dowling from the People’s Assembly North East explains why this isn’t true

Take a walk around Newcastle city centre and the huge increase in rough sleepers and homelessness is palpable. And Newcastle West End foodbank, which opened in March 2013, has grown to be the largest foodbank in the UK, feeding more than 40,000 people last year in one of the most economically and socially deprived areas in the North East.

Given the news agenda, though, you could be forgiven for thinking that every ill in British society is the consequence of the result of the EU referendum. For the last two years the daily lead story in mainstream media has been Brexit – Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, ad nauseam.
The truth, however, is that it is the Tories and their austerity agenda that is devastating the social fabric of this country.

Despite Theresa May’s pronouncement, austerity is not over. This is simply another of a long list of Tory lies.

Here in the North East, like much of the rest of the country, our social infrastructure is at breaking point. From an underfunded and overworked NHS, schools without resources and shedding staff to cut costs, to councils with budgets slashed to the bone and unable to provide even basic services, we are fast approaching a tipping point from which it will be almost impossible to recover.

Even before the financial crisis ten years ago the North East had experienced considerable economic restructuring following the collapse of the shipbuilding and coal industries. Thatcher’s devastation of manufacturing industry led to changes in the national and global economy which resulting in the rise of service industries in the region. The resulting long term unemployment severely impacted the North East, with many suffering income and health inequalities which persist to this day. 

These problems have simply been exacerbated by 8 years of austerity with massive and disproportionate cuts to North East council budgets. Despite the development and renaissance of niche manufacturing activities the decades of low investment has been compounded by the huge cuts to public service budgets resulting in a predominance of low wage, lower value industries and jobs. The median weekly wage in the region is £472.30, compared with the England level of £520.70.

Real pay has fallen by 6 percent since 2007 so that on average we’re still earning about £20 a week less than we did 10 years ago when the global financial crisis struck – the longest decline in real wages since Victorian times of the 1870s. And millions survive in precarious jobs and zero-hours contracts on poverty wages requiring “benefits” top-ups to provide for their families.

And despite the Tories’ much-touted fall in unemployment it is having little effect in the North East. Gateshead MP Ian Mearns reports that the number of unemployed people in his constituency in Sept 2018 was 970 higher than a year earlier at 3,200. This represents a rate of 6.8%, whilst the equivalent UK rate was 2.9%. At the same time, the number of 16-17 year olds ‘Not in Education, Employment or Training’ (NEET) in Gateshead is also up to 10.7%.

We launched the Peoples Assembly North East in September 2013 to campaign against Tory austerity together with local campaign groups, trade unions, Northern TUC and the Northern Public Services Alliance. 

Austerity continues to blight the lives of millions as we witness the longest decline in real wages since the Victorian era, A&E waiting times continuing to worsen, unmet demand for homes now reaching almost 4 million, 116,000 households officially designated homeless across the country in 2016/17 and the biggest overall shortage of teachers ever recorded. All this while the richest 10% in society get ever richer.

Against this background People’s Assembly Against Austerity is rolling out a new national ‘Britain is Broken’ campaign which will include a speaking tour throughout the country. This will launch on 28th November in London.

The North East will be part of the Nationwide Tour with it calling at Newcastle on Saturday 24th November, where we will be discussing Our Alternatives to Austerity.

Thanks to Northern TUC for some of the data in the article.
You can donate towards this campaign here. All donations will go towards venue hire, national speaking tour, publicity and a national mass mobilisation in Spring 2019.

Tony Dowling

Tony Dowling is a teacher, socialist, trade unionist, antifascist, anti-war & anti-cuts activist. He is currently chair of North East People's Assembly and a member of Counterfire.