Austerity (still) won’t balance the books

Austerity not only drives the growing inequality in our society, it drives the divisiveness that demonises the migrant, the welfare claimant or the public sector worker.

Austerity not only drives the growing inequality in our society, it drives the divisiveness that demonises the migrant, the welfare claimant or the public sector worker

Austerity has hit the poorest hardest, increasing inequality and poverty. Homelessness is up under this government and nearly a million families needed to use food banks last year.

These horrific trends are set to intensify in the next parliament whatever form the government takes, with Labour signed up to Coalition spending plans in year one and promising further austerity to balance the books by 2020. It is in this grim political context that Class will be meeting on Saturday to discuss ‘What Britain Needs’.

Austerity won’t balance the books, as George Osborne is currently finding, because the books can’t be balanced on the backs of the poor – austerity will only inflict more pain.

Any serious economic analysis is not a necessary part of the austerity agenda. It is simply the cover for implementing a ruthless free market agenda that would not otherwise be possible. Part of achieving that agenda has necessitated shifting the debate from one about inequality, unaccountable and deregulated financial institutions to the alleged flaws in the public sector and the people who rely upon it.

The logic is inescapable. If you concede the ground on austerity, as Labour has, then as sure as night follows day you must capitulate too on scapegoating the poorest and least electorally potent. Any political party seeking to impose austerity on the scale envisaged will seek to justify its attacks – and that inevitably leads to the demonisation of those on austerity’s receiving end.

With no structural analysis of the UK’s economic failure and continued fragility, politicians offer no structural solutions. Instead they pander to the simple politics of hate. Tory minister Michael Fallon mis-speaks about our towns being “swamped” and “under siege”, while Labour’s frontbenchers have, even in this Parliament, described people on welfare as “shirkers” – a language echoed and magnified by the Conservatives.

But it is UKIP which articulates this agenda in its crudest form – blaming the EU, migrants, and welfare recipients with visceral divisive and dishonest attacks. Their propagandist rhetoric goes further than the other parties and so they are seen by those who have been duped by the narrative as being the more genuine. While the Conservatives and even Labour say it, UKIP really means it. They appear authentic, the others like they are simply trying to buy votes.

When David Cameron described UKIP as “a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” in 2006, he did not foresee that he would be talking up migration and welfare as the problem, to distract people from his dismal economic performance and the privatisation and cuts in the public sector. Cameron has unleashed a political force that more authentically articulates the concerns he espouses. His achievement in shifting the political debate post-crisis is now his Achilles heel.

New Labour tried the same tactics and it ended similarly badly. Rather than confront prejudice and ignorance it often sought to harness it for electoral gain. David Blunkett as Home Secretary talked about the UK being “swamped”, he never claimed to have mis-spoken and this week backed Fallon’s use of the term. Similarly, James Purnell ratcheted up the rhetoric on welfare claimants. All they did was shift the debate onto the Tories’ agenda.

Austerity not only drives the growing inequality in our society, it drives the divisiveness that demonises the migrant, the welfare claimant or the public sector worker. This cynical, cowardly and dishonest politics is the reason why so few have any faith in our political class.

The Class conference on Saturday will be about building a positive vision of a better society for all, shifting the political debate from one of hate and fear to one of solidarity and hope.

Mark Serwotka is general secretary of the PCS union

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