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Is Austerity Really Over? Not Likely

16/06/2017 17:04
Chris J Ratcliffe via Getty Images

Since the Brexit referendum, the Tory government has made a number of noises concerning the soft-pedalling of austerity.

In the immediate aftermath, the government suspended George Osborne's ever-slippery deficit reduction target. Earlier this year, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced that the target date for a balanced budget would be deferred until 2025. Newly restored to the Cabinet, Michael Gove yesterday suggested that as a minority government, the Conservatives will have to at least soften austerity.

Since David Cameron announced the "age of austerity" in 2009, public spending cuts have devastated public services, squeezed wages, placed benefit claimants under a drastically authoritarian "workfare" regime and caused widespread destitution among working class families of all ethnicities.

Work, for millions, is precarious and offers no escape at all form poverty. At the bottom-end of the labour market, beneath the statistical radar, Britain has a thriving sweatshop economy. These are the social legacies of neoliberalism, but particularly of the great crash of 2008/9 and the political coup enacted by politicians, like Cameron, who masterfully shifted the blame from financiers to public service government spending.

In local government, the Conservatives have been fundamentally restructuring municipal finance. With the redistributive Revenue Support Grant on its way to abolition by 2020, towns and cities will in future have only council tax and business rates to fall back on - with corporations exercising a veto over business rate rises.

Apart from crisis-bound adult and children's social services, there will be little left of the traditional multi-service municipality. At the same time, austerity has wiped outs swathes of the voluntary sector and trapped surviving elements in a debilitating regime of contracts and performance management. And, after the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower in London, angry residents now point the finger at government for ignoring safety concerns, blaming years of under-investment in housing stock. They are enraged at the way their concerns were ignored, arguing that "it wouldn't have happened in a mansion".

On such a day as the Grenfell Tower disaster, is it plausible to think all that is really over? This seems vanishingly unlikely for as long as a Conservative government remains in power, whether propped up by the DUP or indeed by Blairite MPs following Peter Mandelson's injunction to "stand by" Theresa May in the national interest.

The Tory government has been very good at concealing cuts, or blaming other agencies - notably local government - for them. Today, moreover, we are told that inflation has increased from 2.7 to 2.9%. This represents yet another wage cut for millions of people living under the Conservative freeze for seven years. Wages are rapidly stagnating and austerity will not be over until earnings at least start to recover from a squeeze of historic duration and proportions. Last year, following the Brexit referendum, the Institute for Fiscal Studies forecast that wages would still be below their pre-crisis peak in 2021. The Director Paul Johnson remarked at the time, "I cannot stress how extraordinary and dreadful this is".

At this moment, all the attention is on Britain's political crisis. At the same time, the economy is starting to weaken due to a combination of factors that include, but are not limited to Brexit uncertainty. For the government to ease or terminate austerity at a time of economic stagnation would involve radically increasing government spending and raising taxes on the wealthy, and for corporations. In fact, it would require them to adopt something like the Keynesian economic policy put forward by the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn!

These are strange times, and the Conservative Party has before shown itself capable of pilfering ideas from other parties. But actually terminating austerity in a stagnating economy would entail a reverse of momentous proportions.

There is clearly something of a public appetite for bringing austerity to an end. But despite signals from a chastened government that it is getting the message, it is far more likely that without serious resistance austerity will continue with a few highly publicized spending boosts to shore-up support alongside still more "socialism for the rich".

Truly bringing the age of austerity to a close will require Britain to develop mass movements of the kind seen in Greece and Spain and to elect a government with a fundamentally different agenda.

Only time will tell whether the seismic events of the past week, and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn can bring this about. The Centre for Urban Research on Austerity will certainly be keeping its finger on the pulse!

Jonathan S. Davies is Director of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity at De Montfort University, Leicester.

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