More news from the “independent, highly-respected” Institute for Fiscal Studies this week, those people Unionists love to quote when it comes to laughing at Scotland’s inability to run it’s own economy without subsidies from English taxpayers.
Only this time the wonks at the IFS are doing the nationalists’ job for them by pointing out how it’s the whole of Britain that is broke and heading for sustained austerity as public budgets are increasingly slashed down to 1948 levels, the year of Trueman’s New Deal, of the Palestinian exodus and legislation to bring in the National Health Service. Britain is heading backwards into a twilight world of pay-as-you-go, privatised services with the only the flimsiest safety net left for those lacking the IQ of Boris Johnson. Without the resistance of a serious political opposition alternative the UK, the mighty alliance of the “greatest Union in history”, is creating a winner-takes-all society with the beneficiaries predominantly in London and the South East and where living standards are lower than three years ago and where those who can no longer keep up with rising costs are normalising the use of food banks.
Is this all the result of the need for austerity and the balancing of the books? Or is it more properly called an ideological typhoon under the guise of austerity allowing Britain’s most right-wing government ever to knock away the props of the welfare society and with it the consensus that has underpinned British society for 60 years? They began by talking of a lack of fairness in welfare and the need to simplify, always a word to watch when it comes from the mouth of a politician – the poll tax was also a simplification of local taxation. The state of the national accounts was used to justify reforms and won public support as Duncan Smith compared the benefits available to claimants with net pay of the employed. His PR team – paid “independent” civil servants all – sent selected cases to the Telegraph and the Daily Mail of ridiculous scroungers claiming for disability while water skiing etc and the public-funded campaign against the disabled, their rights and income, was under way. Never mind that fraud and error account for 0.7% of total benefit spending, £1.2bn of the £166.8bn budget in 2012/13. But money doesn’t just get overpaid. The amount underpaid through error was higher than that lost through fraud at £1.4bn.
You have to hand it to the Tories – they know the British people well and understand their deeper instincts, appealing to a base, white, acquisitive and atavistic impulse on immigration, militarism, welfare and imperialist triumphalism. Just what the Liberals are doing by endorsing this, and in the case of Clegg boasting about it, will be one of the mysteries to unravel after the next General Election in 2015. And yet an opinion poll Guardian/ICM poll after Osborne’s autumn statement puts the Tories up two points and Labour down (the Lib Dems too). The British public are buying the idea that the books have to be balanced even though 70per cent say they have not benefitted (82 per cent of Scots), suggesting they agree with the spin that this is a full-throated economic uplift, not just a consumer spend and housing bubble, but it just hasn’t washed up on their shore yet. They therefore think that the posh boys Cameron and Osborne are more trustworthy on the economy than the two Eds, probably the key motivator for voting preference while outside Scotland the economy consumes all political discourse. The state of the parties has Labour ahead by a mere five points, a distressing state of affairs at a rough midway point in the parliament when the government is wrestling with debt and deficit problems and the public report feeling personally the pinch of relative poverty. If British people don’t turn decisively to Labour at a time like this, why not? Could it be that the reason the British aren’t piling in behind Miliband is that he simply hasn’t anything to say which sounds like a credible alternative. While he offers a plan to cut energy bills – a reasonable if legally flawed stab at populism, too easily dismissed as gimmickry – Balls is long on analysis and bluster but short on solutions. Together they are not cutting it. Miliband lacks the bearing of a leader and consistently performs poorly in surveys of opinion. He seems to me to be inoffensive and probably fine as International Development Secretary but will not bring over the swing voters among Lib Dems and Tories to make enough of a difference. Balls was a mistake from the outset because he was damaged by a long association with Gordon Brown whose time at the Treasury is now viewed as a tragic waste of time and national resources. It is also true, I think, that voters respond better to a bore (Darling) as Chancellor than an overheated braggart. You wouldn’t want him as your bank manager, would you?
Time is running out for Labour. Will Ed offer a serious alternative to Cameron’s people-crushing crusade or will he wilt and hope to appeal to the huge swathe of voters in the Thames Valley corridor and the Home Counties generally by offering himself as the nice Tory, the mild version with the feel-good factor? Here’s what Polly Toynbee says in what is now her routine tone of desperation at Labour’s failure to catch on.
As economic news improves without people feeling better, voters will be in no mood for a belt tightening that Labour must explain is excessive. Spell out what Osborne’s cuts mean, in nurses, police and care homes, with creeping public squalor in streets and parks: sports centres, libraries and Sure Starts shut; schools bereft; everything saleable privatised, only to be snatched up by other countries’ state-owned concerns. Food bank poverty will worsen as the “hardworking” are increasingly the benefit-dependent “scroungers”, as the working poor need more credits and housing benefit to bridge the gap between rising rents and cost of living.
I hope Ed’s listening, Polly. Why not recommend he reads the nationalist agenda for Scotland where there is institutionalized opposition to austerity (outside Unionism), they are investing in early years and in police, without privatisations or scrounger rhetoric and with infrastructure investment and anti poverty cohesion programmes.
A Labour government would, no doubt, be generally a better thing for Britain than the callous, ideological Tories but you have to admit, it is a prospect devoid of excitement. I detect no soaring hopes and high expectations for a changed Britain under Labour in which public investment sets a benchmark for the whole of society and generates the sense of collective purpose and pride any rich and sane country should have. The Unionists’ favourites, the IFS, have stuck it to them this week with a bald and coruscating look at the reality of Britain’s finances and the certainty of ever-rising budget cuts and poverty. You may doubt Scotland’s ability to cope with the epic downturn in economic circumstances but doesn’t it make the daunting leap much easier when you hear the wolf pack at your back.