Austerity has fundamentally reshaped our society and continues to intensify inequality. It must be ended and those responsible must be held to account, insists Counterfire
After eight years of forcing through and smugly defending huge cuts to the public sector and the services it provides, the Conservative government is now declaring that austerity is ‘coming to an end’. It is a cynical and self-serving announcement pronounced by those who have not shared in the misery they have inflicted upon others, and who will be personally unaffected by the continuation of their draconian policies.
That is because austerity has been about taking the most from the poorest people in society whilst providing tax cuts to the rich. The consequences have been devastatingly predictable, as the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen. 44% of the UK’s wealth is owned by only 10% of the population – that’s five times as much as the total wealth of the poorest 50%.
Recent figures show that one fifth of the population are living on incomes below the poverty line after housing costs have been taken into account. Most of these people are in work. Nearly 1 in 3 children are living in poverty. Austerity has only intensified oppression in society, as the Commons’ own figures for 2017 showed that 86% of the cuts were borne by women. This year the government was warned that the greatest fall in living standards would be experienced by Black and Asian households, as well as single mothers. Last year it was revealed that cuts would see families with children with disabilities losing, on average, £3,300 of their income – and an even greater loss would be experienced by families with a disabled adult and child. The result has been horrendous: the British Medical Journal has linked austerity to 120,000 deaths since it was first implemented in 2010.
The recent Budget Day speech, with its toilet humour, showed no contrition. Universal Credit will continue to be rolled out across the country despite the numerous reports of claimants being left destitute waiting for payments that are rightfully theirs, despite the fact this has been linked to a rise in people having to turn to food banks to be able to stay alive, despite the fact that a BBC investigation has shown that council tenants on universal credit have, on average, double the rent arrears of those still receiving housing benefit and are thus at much greater risk of losing their homes. Councils still face budget cuts and many schools, despite being insultingly promised ‘little extras’ by the Chancellor, are appealing for parents’ contributions towards basic equipment and watching children face holidays with anxiety because they won’t have school dinners.
Although their words are hollow, the government’s attempt to distance itself from austerity is nevertheless a reflection of the pressure that they are feeling. Every demonstration against austerity, every attempt to save a library, an A&E or maternity unit, everyone who has courageously spoken out about how the cuts have affected them has helped to expose this government and make austerity a dirty word. It means that what we do together matters and we need to keep up that pressure. We need to end austerity and the vast majority of people in this country, who do understand what austerity means, need a voice in what kind of a country we want to live in. That’s why the ‘Britain is Broken’ tour by the People’s Assembly, backed by the Daily Mirror, is so important. This tour will amplify the voices of those the government has tried to silence and show how meaningless is the government’s claim that austerity is coming to an end.
Inequality is the major division in our society, not where individuals stand on Brexit, as the mainstream media and most politicians seem to think. Instead of re-running the referendum on Brexit, we should be calling for a general election to remove this cruel and destructive government which stumbles on without a popular mandate, propped up by the reactionary DUP.
Really ending austerity means more than stopping a few individual cuts. It must start with a reckoning of what has happened. The Conservative government has been systematically dismantling the welfare state, leaving charities and volunteers to desperately try to plug the worst gaps. Food banks, once thought of as emergency measures, are now seeming like permanent institutions. There are deep structural problems with the British economy, which for so long has relied on providing tax havens for the super-rich and neglected investment in socially useful, productive work.
One grotesque result of distorting a whole economy to the ‘needs’ of the super-rich has been houses and apartments being bought as investments and left empty, driving up prices and leaving people without homes. Construction work caters to the priorities of the elites, while the building of council housing has been woefully inadequate since it was attacked under Thatcher’s government of the 1980s. Homelessness charities have reported that rough sleeping in England has soared 169% since the beginning of austerity in 2010.
For all the government’s sanctimonious declarations on reliance on welfare they have shown no commitment to addressing the underlying problems and the true beneficiaries. Welfare payments are subsidising employers that pay poverty wages and landlords that charge extortionate rents. Employers should be required to pay a living wage and no worker should have to suffer the anxieties of insecure work which leave them vulnerable to abuse. Instead of a ‘bedroom tax’, evictions and sending people miles away from their support networks and communities, we should have rent controls that stop people profiting out of the needs of others for somewhere to live.
We need long-term investment in education, healthcare and infrastructure, such as a huge programme of social housing, to even begin to redress the damage that has been done. For that, we need to get rid of the government that have presided over the redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, but we also need a radical government in its place that can meet the enormous structural challenges we face. We need huge investment in the welfare state which requires far more taxes on the rich and an end to squandering money on warfare.
Jeremy Corbyn represents those priorities, but it is glaringly obvious that the majority of Labour MPs are wedded to Blair’s New Labour with its acceptance of privatisation and commitment to warfare. If we are to stop the kind of compromises they would inflict, tinkering around the edges instead of addressing the fundamental causes of inequality, we need a bold, broad mass movement, independent of Labour but working with and supporting its best and most radical exponents.
The People’s Assembly Britain is Broken tour could not have come at a more important moment.
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