A day at The Gathering in Glasgow is humbling after meeting third sector and community workers with tales from the frontline on the war against the poor. New figures show the highest number of sanctions against claimants since jobseeker’s allowance was introduced in 1996. One woman describes how someone was kicked off benefit for not applying for a job. “But I did, I got an interview, look!” they tell her holding up their letter. Failure to prove that they had applied trumped the success of actually gaining an interview. It’s IDS meets Kafka. Welcome to Tory Britain, where laws you didn’t vote for come from values you don’t support from a government you didn’t elect.
Welcome to the Austerity Union: where work fare, food banks, zero contact hours, tax cuts for the rich and a fresh round of massive bonuses for consistently failing bankers are on the rise. Where welfare cuts are described as a ‘moral mission’ and where an environment minister who doesn’t believe in climate change stays in post as the evidence laps up around his wellies.
In the Winter of Discontent in 1978 Labour was lambasted for rubbish lying uncollected in the streets due to strikes by bin-men. The vision haunted Labour for decades. Today they can’t bury the dead in Somerset. Some of the Tories mismanagement and propaganda’s slowly coming to light. Good to see the disgraceful black ops propaganda and disinformation of the high Tory command being found out, as in Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) – for years a front for climate denial lies.
As with climate denial so to with distortion of the truth about poverty and need. Like Lawson, Grant Shapps was also rebuked for making false claims, this time by the UK Statistics Authority (‘another Conservative is caught making it up’). The truth is you can’t disentangle social justice and environmental justice. You can’t suppress the climate crisis by pretending it doesn’t exist, just as you can’t end poverty by waging war on the poor.
Each day the grim reality becomes clearer. Extraordinary accounts of what’s being described as a “public health emergency” are emerging as Britain’s coalition government austerity measures begin to hit home. The real picture of this is only beginning to be leaked out. Charlie Cooper for the Independent writes (‘Public health emergency’ declared as one in six GPs was asked to refer a patient to food banks in the last year’):
A Scottish government report has identified “welfare reform, benefit delays, benefit sanctions and falling incomes” as the main drivers of demand. However, ministers in the UK government do not accept that changes to people’s benefits has increased the need for emergency food. The UK government’s own report on food banks has still not been published several months after it was completed, amid accusations that ministers have “suppressed” the findings.
British politics and social policy is dysfunctional on many levels, whether it’s the Hate Van Minister Mark who had to resign for employing an ‘illegal immigrant’ as a cleaner (people are find here as long as they are invisible) or the rising tide of UKIP farce – seeping into the mainstream dialogue. The mainstreaming of the far-right has been fantastically ridiculed (see below) but it’s got a far more sinister side as cheerleaders north of the border rub their hands in glee at the prospect of this narrative entering Scottish politics.
This pool of hatred, epitomised by Benefits Street and any daily tabloid you care to pick up, has its corollary in the vapid fame-porn of the tragically re-booted Big Brother format or the execrable Apprentice or the weird phenomenon of The Secret Millionaire (how did people that stupid get to be so rich?). These programmes roll-around like some kind of newly-created media-based-seasonality.
Behind this gameshow Britain where endemic poverty stems from low pay not the feckless work-shy there’s a weird narrative about ‘enterprise’. In truth as the Resolution Foundation point out, although one million more people have become self-employed since 2000, their median earnings have dropped by a whopping 20 per cent in the years after 2006. This is the onset of precarity, where short-termism infects everything and a state of general unease undermines both social solidarity and resistance. It’s the political culture that nurtures Project Fear.
Back in non-tv reality, the new consensus of the New Coalition is clear. From Alistair Darling promise that if Labour is re-elected public spending cuts will be “tougher and deeper” than those implemented by Margaret Thatcher to Ed Miliband’s Hugo Young lecture citing Disraeli and the now deceased Lady, the consensus is clear. The Liberal Democrats, political sandbags to the Tories tsunami against the most vulnerable, are a political irrelevance, but they aren’t the only ones for whom a reckoning beckons.
As Alex Bell writes in the Scottish Review (‘The UK is Dead. Hope Crushed, it died last week’) :
…this is the deep immorality of the union. It thinks poverty and low ambition in Scotland, the north of England and the south-west are prices worth paying for the status of the powerful. It doesn’t see incompetence or thuggery as a handicap. It rejects democratic debate and rides roughshod over principle. But the floods have come, and now we need a new beginning.
Today is World Day of Social Justice. Let’s take the chance to make the case for a new country forged out of higher ambition, values of care and solidarity, creativity and hope.