Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Message from the Government - We Don't Understand, Nor Care

As the Chancellor detailed his Budget last week, the message, loud and clear, to those struggling in the longest and deepest recession in recent memory was: we don't know what to do to help you and we don't care either.

 

What was interesting was how brazen it was. I'll note at this point that in theory, I have no quarrel with lowering the rate for top earners. In normal circumstances, I'd say 50p is too high. 45p almost sounds about right. The ONS actually reckons 48p is the optimum, for whatever reason. But it is what the cut for top earners represents when placed into context that tells the story - at its heart, the story of how big money owns the British political establishment, whose importance long supplanted the needs of ordinary working people in the eyes of the State.

Can anyone seriously doubt this? Corporation tax set to lower and tax breaks for the very top, set against the backdrop of State obsequiousness to the City of London, Treasury raids on benefits and tax credits for the poorest, and a brutal raft of public sector and services cuts which are barely one-tenth implemented so far. What else did Osborne add to this melee of trickle-down corporatist dogma? Well, he took a bite out of State pensions, and hammered public sector workers in poorer areas as well.

Add in the grossly unpopular NHS bill just shoved into law, rejected by the medical profession and the general public alike; add in the preposterous idea of privatising certain police functions; add in the plan to lease British roads to profiteers; add in the developing but hardly novel scandal of rich Tory donors cashing in for "premier league" access to the Government; add in the almost hilarious now hypocrisy of "We're All in This Together" ...

And it all almost beggars belief. Then you simply recall that these are Thatcher's children, inordinately wealthy themselves, oblivious to the real world, blinded by counter-intuitive economic ideology, bred into an insular "born-to-rule" Establishment class.

Were their predecessors all that different? Perhaps the bias towards the wealthy wasn't so dogmatic, obvious or significant. But the Blair years marked the end of Old Labour, as we all know. What replaced it was a party tailored to the wants and needs of middle-class Middle England - ultimately, a centre-right party. Big money was as insidious and corrupting an influence under Labour as it is now - it's the brazen nature of it that has changed. Bernie Ecclestone, PFI, the Iraq War, Cash For Honours, Big Bank Bail-Outs - we are not unused to personal and corporate financial interest running roughshod over the public interest, thanks to the old Labour government, in whose cabinet Ed Miliband sat quite contentedly and now, righteously indignant, calls quite correctly for an independent inquiry into the controversy surrounding Peter Cruddas.

But all of this may, just may have been excusable, if anyone in power could demonstrate that they understand what ordinary people are suffering right now, and what they're going to do to help. The coalition don't understand, don't know, and worse, don't care. Labour make some of the right noises, and yet, our memories are pretty fresh. Billions of pounds and hundreds of British lives later (never mind the other side), we left Iraq in - let's face it - ignominous defeat. We're still paying off the interest on hundreds of PFI contracts. We're still paying for the mistakes of the greedy short-termist collusion of big banks and bribed governments that led to financial disaster. We are going to be paying off the deficit reckless Labour ratcheted up for at least the next decade, and that's being optimistic.

That's not to say the Coalition's ignorant and blinkered Austerity programme is going to do anything other than worsen the situation - but they don't understand what else to do now. Even if they did, they wouldn't change course, because they're so stubbornly and zealously committed to it.

Committed to entrenching and retrenching and exacerbating the wealth divide that makes the UK the fourth most unequal country on the globe.

Committed to stagnation, and investment conspicuous for its absence. Where was the capital spend? Where was the investment, the growth strategy? Where are the measures instructing the part-State-owned banks to start lending to SMEs?

Committed to cutting jobs across the public sector for the thousands of disabled workers who are employed in Remploy factories across the country - 1000 to lose their jobs so far, while many other factories - including  Cowdenbeath, Stirling, Clydebank and Dundee in Scotland - have been labelled "potentially viable" by the UK government. Viable for closure, that is.

Committed to doing next to nothing to help the millions of people struggling with the twin devils of static or falling wages and crushing price inflation. Official inflation is around 4% of course. But in this measure, everyday costs such as food and fuel, which have had high and rising rates of inflation for a long time now, are not prioritised accurately.

Committed to cutting the benefits, services, council budgets and wages of ordinary working people. National Minimum Wage has now not risen above the rate of inflation for seven years. Regional Development Agencies have been massacred in the last few years, as has council funding across the nation. Now, on top of that, Osborne's chucked in for good measure that public sector pay in the poorer regions is going to be reduced - that's right, the public servants serving the neediest parts of the country are going to have their pay reduced -in order to better align it with private sector pay. And one of the only, on the surface, redeeming features of this budget - the increase in the personal tax allowance - has been put into context by Citizen's Advice, who assert that the threshold changes, when benefits and tax credit cuts are accounted for, realise only an extra £33 a year for the average poorest working families.

Well, take what you can get I suppose. That extra 63p a week is your lot, now go back to work Britain, work hard, these are tough times, go back to work Britain and please don't whinge and moan about it.

This is the context against which the cutting of the top rate of tax for the highest earners becomes garishly obscene. This recession has seen the rich by all measures doing fine and indeed getting richer, while the poor are getting poorer and suffering. Yet the Chancellor tags on a few changes to Stamp Duty that might conjure up a bit of revenue if any rich person fancies selling his current mansion for a new mansion and Lib Dems leap to call his budget fair and redistributive? And with no serious capital investment made to help jobs or stimulate growth, Mr Osborne has the audacity to claim that his budget "rewards work"?

It's scarcely believable. And yet, barely surprising at all. This decay, this insulation of the Establishment classes, started some time ago. The sleaze is endemic; multi-generational. The influence of big money continues to grow from its rotten roots outwards. Does anyone seriously doubt that the spiel Peter Cruddas gave to the folk he believed represented a wealth fund in Liechenstein is one that he had not spun before, probably many times? This latest cash-for-access scandal is just the latest in a string of symptoms showing British politics' endemic corruption, from dirty arms deals, to cash-for-peerages, to wars for oil, to, more recently, the stench of big money in the Tory Party trailing in the wake of its flagship NHS bill - flagship only in the sense that Lansley had been planning it for years, not in the sense that anyone had any idea it was going to be sprung on us prior to the election.

It's brazen. They just don't care anymore, enough to even pretend.

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