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Miss Austerity's House of Pain

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The other day an acquaintance of mine told me that she had just begun working for the Citizens Advice Bureau. One of her first calls was from a cancer patient who has become incontinent because of the treatment she was receiving. The reason for the call was because the patient had just been told that she was fit to work and would lose her disability living allowance.

Such stories are not outlandish, in a society where the brutal impact of the Coalition's deficit reduction programme is generally felt by those who are least able to bear it. In January the Bradford Telegraph & Argus reported that the Bradford Food Bank, a local food charity which provides food parcels to the homeless was struggling to meet demand, which had reached more than three times the expected number of service users.

On its website the Bradford Food Bank describes how its clientele has widened to include not just the homeless, but also

'asylum seekers, migrant workers, young people, domestic violence victims, rehab clinics and families that have their benefit cut off for a week or two and are supported by social services, citizens advice, housing associations, childrens centres and doctors surgeries and the like.'

This rising demand is not limited to Bradford. Last September the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity that runs food banks, announced that 100,000 people in the UK would be relying on food parcels, some 30 to 40 percent of whom were caused by 'problems over benefits.'

Within the next few weeks, 140 asylum seekers face eviction from Glasgow's Red Road flats by the Christian charity YPeople, which runs their accomodation, because the contract has been handed over to the services multinational Serco.

These are just a few snapshots of a cuts programme that has yet to reach its full extent. For as the Coalition keeps reminding us, things will get worse before they get better, and Miss Austerity is a harsh and demanding taskmistress.

No matter how much the public abases itself before her, no matter how many tributes are laid at her feet, she always demands more. But fortunately she has politicians who understand her very particular needs and are willing to serve them.

Some - usually those in opposition - favour 'slow austerity', such as the former Chancellor Alastair Darling on the Today programme this morning, who called for a programme of gradual cuts, but cuts nevertheless. But Miss Austerity's more ardent admirers are more eager in their desire to please her and they want to do it now.

Thus the Secretary for the Treasury Danny Alexander told the Institute of Fiscal Studies yesterday that the government was looking to make £16 billion more savings, and that more cuts were needed in order to restore the UK's 'credibility.' Alexander reminded his audience that the Coalition's cuts package was always intended as ' a multi-year programme, it was never a one-off set of reductions that we had to make' and insisted that ' we always set out that plan, the plan hasn't changed, we have to deliver that plan.'

The 'plan' was necessary, Alexander said, in order to bring about ' a growing economy and different country that rewarded hard work, reformed welfare and education and was tackling the deficit'.

These statements reveal the essentially ideologically-driven, neoliberal agenda of a government whose commitment to austerity and 'tough choices' is not simply forced upon it by difficult economic circumstances. Since the Osborne budget, a rather foolish debate has sprung up, which revolves round the pseudo-question of whether Coalition politicians are 'out of touch' with the population as a whole.

The suggestion behind these accusations is that the government has somehow become distracted by its deficit reduction priorities from what would otherwise be its core concern with ordinary people. But this cabinet of millionaires is in fact entirely in touch, with its supporters in the City and the media, with the corporate lobbyists looking to take over services in health, education and law enforcement, with the corporations and high earners who they have just given a tax break.

These priorities are the reason why they are so willing to administer Miss Austerity's fiscal discipline. This house of pain may be a harsh place for those of us who did not choose to enter it, especially those with any connection to the public sector that the government abhors so deeply, and which it wants to punish for a crisis that it did not cause.

But there are also those who visit Miss Austerity's establishment out of choice, and who are clearly relishing the previously undreamed of opportunities that it has provided to re-engineer British society - regardless of the consequences.

So to suggest that this clientele is 'out of touch' is really missing the point. They are perfectly aware of the punishment Miss Austerity is meting out, and it might be wrong but at the same time it feels so right, and the worse it gets, the more they cling onto her shiny heels.

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