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Obituary: British Austerity (2010-2016)

UK Chancellor George Osborne announced last week that the Government is now forced to abandon its target to run a budget surplus by 2020. The project’s principal output, six years’ of austerity for the country’s people, has come to an end.[1]

Many, even on the Conservative backbenches, now question its utility. Growth in the UK stalled throughout the period, falling markedly below competitors in the global markets. The UK was positioned as the foremost adherent of this bastardised Keynesian policy which saw its own Government cannibalise its own functions in a maudlin effort to lose weight. Over the past six years spending fell 10% – similar crashes have been seen previously only in times of war or famine.

“It is frankly astonishing,” said one Tory backbencher, “that the bulldog spirit of this country could not be roused by such simple means. One wonders how we can compete in future on the global stage with such timidity.” But the Chair of his own Constituency Party countered, pointing out that the Government had failed abjectly in its provision of support to the area’s people. “Many of the people in this constituency own agribusinesses, not financial firms – this Government has quietly ignored their plight. When our workers’ homes were inundated some years back, did they care? Of course not – their only focus is London.”

For the past 6 years, with harm and humiliation dealt out to all but the rentier classes, the Labour party could not have asked for a more potent straw man to fight. “Obviously austerity is unpleasant,” says former leader Ed Miliband in his North London townhouse. “But the country faces hard choices. When our MPs voted with the Tories to increase cuts to welfare they made a determined statement to the electorate – that we stand ready to make those difficult choices, just as the Tories have been. The challenge then is convincing people to vote for our vision.”

One of the MPs who failed to vote against the Government’s final assault on welfare and recipients is John Mann[2]. A former trade union executive and leader of Labour Students, Mann’s proud liberal leanings have been evident for over a decade. A believer that treatment needs to be offered to drug users, with prison time an incentive to participate, he has been at the forefront of criticising Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. “The electorate need us to show that we are able to make the difficult decision – like I did when I abstained from voting on the Government’s spare room subsidy plans. Hardworking families can’t be asked to sacrifice anything at all for other people – they are already under too much pressure.”

The spare room subsidy is more commonly known as the “bedroom tax.[3]” It requires people in council housing which has a “spare” room, for example one used to store medical equipment, or one where a carer sleeps, to pay money back to the Government. “Look obviously it’s not ideal – but the reality is that we have to balance the budget, and there are people in houses which are too big. A Labour government would make putting people in appropriate housing a priority.” Another parcel of state subsidy which Mann’s abstention supported the dismantling of was child tax credits. After a vote in the upper house sent the bill back for revision Mann said “I am grateful that the unelected House of Lords was there to make a difficult decision.”

Even as Mann wages his gentle crusade in the name of human dignity, there are some in the Labour party not entirely focused on the 2020 election. Jeremy Corbyn, elected in a landslide last year by a much-enlarged membership, insists that by talking about broader social issues, and the interconnectedness of austerity and other forms of state control, the electorate could be brought back to Labour. He even goes so far as to suggest that the party might be able to avoid being drawn into these discussions about austerity, citing only his own blowout success in the Labour leadership election as proof.

Unfortunately Corbyn was not able to speak for this piece. His office is besieged by angry Labour MPs who claim that his total irrelevance caused Brexit . Had he been a different person, capable of speaking to the interests of Labour MPs and not just the hundreds of thousands of new party members who joined in support of him, he might have had a future, they say.

There is rage in the constituency of Angela Eagle, whose fortitude and steely-eyed leadership abilities were displayed most recently in her tearful interview where she announced she was abandoning her shadow cabinet post at a time of national crisis until she and her colleagues got a leader they liked. Her constituency party is furious at her purported challenge to Jeremy Corbyn, who enjoys the support of the vast majority of constituency parties. She has ignored them, further demonstrating her leadership with repeated requests in the national media for Corbyn to resign before she has to put her head above the parapet and challenge him formally.

Outside a ramshackle building near her constituency office in Liverpool, a city renowned for its far left movements which Labour carefully expunged in the ‘80s to win elections in the ‘90s, a man sits by a low wall with a cup, asking for money. He says he used to come here when it was a community centre, but the money was cut about five years ago and it closed shortly after. It’s no great surprise, apparently – Liverpool has suffered under a succession of Governments whose inability to think about post-industrial problems has been masked by their unwillingness to talk about them at all.

It is also the largest city in England which voted to remain in the EU. Historically against the grain, it finds itself ignored not just by the Tories, who considered abandoning it entirely in the 1980s,[4] but by a Labour party which is too lazy and complicit to consider the issues of the people who live here. Austerity is dead now, although its chief architect – George Osborne – looks set to keep his post as chancellor, thanks largely to Labour’s machinations against their leader serving as a distraction for the media. Perhaps austerity will just continue endlessly over the graves of Corbyn and McDonnell, with the tacit support of John Mann and Angela Eagle. Rentier apparatchiks for hard choices: Vote Labour.

Notes.

[1]http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-36684452

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/these-are-the-184-labour-mps-who-didn-t-vote-against-the-tories-welfare-bill-10404831.html John Mann didn’t vote against the Government in June 2015

[3] http://m.england.shelter.org.uk/get_advice/housing_benefit_and_local_housing_allowance/changes_to_housing_benefit/bedroom_tax Bedroom Tax explainer at Shelter, a housing charity

[4] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/margaret-thatcher/8983758/1981-files-Margaret-Thatcher-secretly-advised-to-abandon-Liverpool-by-advisers.html Thatcher advised to abandon Liverpool, Telegraph 2011

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