Christmas is cranking up – TV smothered in festive cheer and adverts for really expensive toys. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are behind us – I spent nothing on either day proving that as a capitalist consumer I am a total failure YEAY! My other half and I buy each other a nice big book and then we sit and read it for the rest of the festive season thereby avoiding even eye contact and the risk of resultant jollity. Secret squirrel is the invention of a malevolent entity and should be ejected from this galaxy through the nearest wormhole; the damn squirrel as well as its inventor. As practiced by the sadists in our office it requires you to guess publicly who has bought you the cheap bit of crap that you hate.
So we have a frenzy of spending conspicuous consumption by those who have and misery and guilt for those who do not. Children stoked up to want incredibly expensive toys, adults to want designer clothes, perfume and booze and adverts showing happy families and friends round tables groaning with sumptuous feasts. Dickens Pickwick Papers, Christmas at Dingley Dell what a wonderful world to be sure.
This is the background to Woeful Wednesday otherwise known as the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. I almost didn’t blog about it because really you can’t have every other word being an expletive, it may relieve your feelings but it doesn’t present a coherent argument nor is it good prose. The government has continued its relentless pursuit of austerity as a cure for our economic and other woes in the face of all the evidence that cutting does not produce growth or prosperity but in fact perpetuates a downward spiral in which the poorest and most vulnerable citizens suffer disproportionate hardship. So one has to ask what philosophy underlines the idea that further drastic spending cuts will stimulate economic growth and prosperity.
Are we really to be driven by a set of values where poverty not just relative but absolute poverty for a significant number of citizens is the norm? Where there is an ever widening gap between the lowest and highest in terms of wealth? Again all the indicators show that these are counter-productive in terms of national prosperity. We hear nothing now of the ‘Big Society’ or any other pious platitudes about all being in this together. For many this will be a truly Dickensian Christmas of the worst sort. Food banks, zero hours contracts where you are employed but with no guarantee of any pay in any one week are increasingly the shocking reality of 21st Century Britain. The institute for Fiscal Studies which is neither left wing nor alarmist has warned the Chancellor’s deficit reduction plans mean cuts on a “colossal scale” The public sector spending cuts over the next five years set out in the autumn statement might force a “fundamental re-imagining of the state”, the IFS said. We are looking at up to 40% reductions in some areas including defence, the police, social security and most spending that protects the vulnerable. It is the environment, foreign relations, housing and day to day flood defences. It is business regulation and health and safety (including things like food). It is the basic infrastructure on which our society is built. And it is going to disappear, very fast. We are going to see local authorities who cannot meet their statutory obligations to the vulnerable, who cannot grit roads or keep open libraries. The planned cuts are likely to lead to a million public sector workers losing their jobs. A report into food banks was published by a consortium of charities, including Child Poverty Action Group, Trussell Trust and Oxfam, which found that the number of people accessing three days’ worth of emergency provisions had risen from 128,000 in 2011-12 to 913,000 in 2013-14. This will continue and will get worse. The most worrying aspect of poverty in Britain today is in-work poverty, people on zero hours contracts, people who have part time work and need tax credits and other benefits to put food on the table and pay for heating. Last month the education and equalities minister, Nicky Morgan, wrote for the Guardian that the coalition government had reduced the gender pay gap to its narrowest ever level. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report illustrated how this had happened: among the lowest-paid quarter of the population, women’s wages have reduced by 40p an hour since 2008; over the same period in the same sector, men’s wages have reduced by 70p an hour. We should be proud of this? Curiouser and curiouser as Alice famously said.
The Chancellor’s main gambit was slashing stamp duty on house purchases in the hopes of fuelling a house price boom which in turn will fuel a consumer credit boom ahead of next May’s general election giving us all a feel good factor and a nice boost to the economy. Dream on Mr Osborne, if you fear for your job if you see services being slashed you become less not more likely to go out and spend. You save what little you’ve got for the rainy day you can see coming all too clearly. You don’t take risks; you don’t trade up your house or buy a new car.
Our problem is falling tax revenue, partly because many of the jobs in the economy are low wage or part time and because as illustrated by a report of the National Institute of Economic & Social Research real weekly wages overall have fallen by about 8% since 2008, equivalent to a fall in annual earnings of about £2,000 for a typical worker in Britain. In addition the government allows multinationals such as Amazon and Starbucks among others to pay no tax on their profits. Tax receipts are already £23 billion below expectation and the OBR now seems to think that this trend is permanent. We drift into ever deeper and more permanent recession.
The most worrying aspect is that in all of this politics is marching to the drum beat of anger over immigration and so called benefit cheats, poverty, inequality, homelessness or hunger are being air brushed out of the political debate. So yes I am angry and disappointed that the country I grew up in is not just disappearing it has already gone. There is no excuse for the dull acceptance that we cannot do anything about poverty or that somehow being poor is your own fault. There is even less excuse for blaming it on immigrants. Mr Farage and UKip are covert fascists and the only party that is standing up and saying this along with calling for a living wage is the Green Party and their reward is to be airbrushed out by the mainstream media.
Christmas? Bah Humbug. I’m not buying into consumer fantasy land I’m donating food to those who are hungry and homeless.