2007 - 2022

The Cost of Living

As daytime light grows and the Omicron recedes, forgive me if I don’t share the optimistic mood that’s being cultivated as ‘restrictions’ are lifted. Freedom Day 2.0 anyone?

The pandemic has both revealed and acted as cover for wider endemic social problems and the populism of rhetoric about ‘defeating’ it will act as a spur for us to jettison any lessons learned about collective public action and solidarity and rush back to hyper-individualism. It’s already there in the narrative about mask-wearing, ‘hospitality’, travel and the urgent need to get back to ‘normal’.

A report issued three days ago reinforces what many of us experience, that the perfect storm of the CoronaBrexit, supply-chain collapse, and the grinding consequences of long-term Tory social and economic policy have left millions in ‘deep poverty’. For many getting ‘back to normal’ means what the media have called plaintively ‘the cost of living’ and facing the brutal choice “heat or eat”.

The report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that 1.8 million children are growing up in ‘deep poverty’, with 500,000 more children living in significant poverty in 2019/20 compared to 2011/12. That’s a damning indictment of a decade of Tory failure.

But it’s about to get significantly worse. Soaring energy bills, tax increases and inflation are pushing families up and down the country into destitution. The amount energy companies can charge customers on certain tariffs under the government’s Energy Price Cap is predicted to go up in April by around 51%.  This spring energy prices could rise to £2,000 per year pushing an estimated 6 million households into fuel poverty.

The Joseph Rowntree’s report lays this out in stark detail. Katie Schmuecker from the foundation said: “The reality for many families is that too many children know the constant struggle of poverty. The fact that more children are in poverty and sinking deeper into poverty should shame us all.”

“The case for targeted support to help people on the lowest incomes could not be clearer. But this must go hand in hand with urgent action to strengthen our social security system, which was woefully inadequate even before living costs began to rise.”

“Our basic rate of benefits is at its lowest real rate for 30 years and this is causing avoidable hardship. The Government must do the right thing and strengthen this vital public service.”

While Schmuecker says this oil and gas companies are set to make record profits from the crisis, BP’s CEO Bernard Looney described the business as a “cash machine”.

While charities and opposition parties call for a ‘windfall tax’ on the obscene profits of North Sea oil and gas companies like BP and Shell, (re) directing the funds to people struggling to pay their bills, this doesn’t seem enough. It may be the only politically possible act but it also seems inadequate. The problem of heating and energy costs are systemic. A one-off windfall doesn’t change any of the relationships at play here it would merely erase the most politically embarrassing visual signs of deep poverty for a news cycle.

The problem is gross social inequality, massively inadequate and exploitative housing and energy seen as a source of profit rather than a basic need. We are so far down the hole of Capitalist Realism and privatisation that the basic simple solutions are excluded from the public debate. Energy and heating as a human right and a public utility should be enshrined as a social norm.

The same can be said of food.

The food writer and activist Jack Monroe has used her considerable social media platform to point out that the debate about the ‘cost of living’ increasing by 5% is a gross under-estimation of the reality. She points out:

  • This time last year, the cheapest pasta in my local supermarket (one of the Big Four), was 29p for 500g. Today it’s 70p. That’s a 141% price increase as it hits the poorest and most vulnerable households.
  • This time last year, the cheapest rice at the same supermarket was 45p for a kilogram bag. Today it’s £1 for 500g. That’s a 344% price increase as it hits the poorest and most vulnerable households.
  • Baked beans: were 22p, now 32p. A 45% price increase year on year.
  • Canned spaghetti. Was 13p, now 35p. A price increase of 169%.
  • Bread. Was 45p, now 58p. A price increase of 29%.

These are just indicative examples  – but you can see it in the real world. Monroe points out that as well as the phenomenon of price rises there’s also the practice of making products smaller while keeping them the same price, which is known in the retail industry as ‘shrinkflation’.

Monroe argues: “The system by which we measure the impact of inflation is fundamentally flawed – it completely ignores the reality and the REAL price rises for people on minimum wages, zero-hour contracts, food bank clients, and millions more.”

It’s this wider context of precarity – in which everything has become ‘precarious’ – that the debate about energy and food has to happen. The proletariat has been replaced by the precariat and that class has widened and deepened. If the proletariat were brought together by workplace, class consciousness, and politically articulated ideology, the precariat are divided by social isolation, the gig economy, and a soporific moron culture.

Some work has already been done to move beyond the ameliorative and the short-term fixes that characterise progressive political debate. Nourish Scotland has been advocating for some time for a ‘Right to Food’ in Scotland. The charity argues for “A Scotland where everyone can afford the food that keeps them healthy and well.”

They argue that: “Everyone should be able to afford the food that keeps them healthy and well, but this does not mean that food should be cheap. It means wages and benefits should be high enough that people can afford the food that helps everyone in the family live a healthy life, without having to sacrifice on other basic needs like heating.”

There’s no doubt that the new Scottish Child Payment is a great start, meaning that eligible families can access £40 every four weeks to help with the costs of raising a child under six, and prepaid Best Start Foods cards help eligible families buy healthy foods for children under three. But these are only the outline – barely a glimpse – of what a decent society would look like. We have so normalised greed and inequality as to be blinded to the real solutions that face us. Basic housing energy and food as publicly controlled and owned assets are the bigger vision we need to reclaim. If we want to steer away from the mounting ‘deep poverty’ and away from energy as a ‘cash machine’ for BP then we need to radically alter the nature of the debate and the one dimensional and short-term discussion about social policy we are mired in. Instead we have to have a debate about what sort of society we want to share when we really do come out of this. That really would be something to be optimistic about. That really would be a Freedom Day worth celebrating.

 

Download the Joseph Rowntree report here.

https://www.jrf.org.uk/file/57306/download?token=iru3hRZ0&filetype=full-report

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Comments (16)

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  1. Michael says:

    Excellent: “debate about what sort of society we want to share when we really do come out of this.” But this has to be more than feelings and emotional pleas. It has to be about implementable detail and strategy.

    For example, we know that due to years of corrupted housing policy and expansion of buy-to-let lending, that the rental homes market has been turned into a huge, almost risk free, gravy train for a new class of rent seeking free loaders – Buccleuchs 2.0.

    We don’t need to debate this self evident social heist. We need to find ways to impliment changes to the structures that have created this abomination.

    How do we, for example, set about taking control of Edinburgh City Council? How could control of Local Councils be uses to start to change financial structures/central government? How do we create information networks free from corporate/government influence that actually inform and activate tenants/people in low pay jobs etc?

    We need to really commit to disengage from the life-sucking pantomime press (stop allowing to set the agenda) and start making and implementing meaningful action plans for meaningful lives.

    1. @ Bella Caledonia Editor says:

      ‘We need [to do this, that, and the next thing].’

      There’s that disconnect between aspiration and ability again that characterises our ‘political spectacle’.

      ‘This’, ‘that’, and ‘the next thing’ aren’t just going to happen. Communities need to develop in order to take back control of local councils from the political parties; local councils need to develop in order to achieve independence of national government.

      The question is: how are YOU going to contribute to the development of the capacity of YOUR local community to house, feed, and inform itself, and wrest control of its governance from more abstract politicised administrations? What, practically, are YOU going to DO TODAY to help your local community develop this capacity? Have another national ‘debate’ or ‘conversation’, ‘blah, blah, blah…’?

    2. @ Michael says:

      ‘We need [to do this, that, and the next thing].’

      There’s that disconnect between aspiration and ability again that characterises our ‘political spectacle’.

      ‘This’, ‘that’, and ‘the next thing’ aren’t just going to happen. Communities need to develop in order to take back control of local councils from the political parties; local councils need to develop in order to achieve independence of national government.

      The question is: how are YOU going to contribute to the development of the capacity of YOUR local community to house, feed, and inform itself, and wrest control of its governance from more abstract politicised administrations? What, practically, are YOU going to DO TODAY to help your local community develop this capacity? Have another national ‘debate’ or ‘conversation’, ‘blah, blah, blah…’?

      1. Michael says:

        I don’t know what the point in developing Bella is if you are not going to do anything with the platform. Has Bella made any tangible difference to anything?

        I’m doing what I can in my local community.

        1. @ Michael says:

          The difference that Bella ostensibly aims to make, according to its mission statement, is in the development of a ‘Fifth Estate’ as a way of disrupting the passive relationship of old media and creating something more active and appropriate for the 21st century; in other words, to disrupt the media as ‘spectacle’ and contribute to the development of more participative social media, where folk like you and I can contribute actively to the communication.

          That’s ‘the point’: to help grow the blogosphere into a ‘Fifth Estate’; to move beyond the traditional husbandry that limits the ‘estates of the realm’ to the political spectacle of governmental action and cultivate instead a broader perspective in which ‘every connected citizen’ (or ‘nation’), whatever their position on such matters, can contribute to the res publica. Bella’s point is also to advance this participative democracy (or ‘republicanism’) as a model for the political structures of the state.

          Mair pouer til its elbuck!

          1. David B says:

            Is anyone else finding it confusing when a poster puts their name as @ Person They’re Replying To? I think particularly when they use the handle @ Bella Caledonia Editor. It looks like some people are thinking these comments come from Mike

          2. @ David B says:

            Surely the ‘@’ clearly signals that the post is addressed ‘to’ rather than ‘from’ the designation that follows it.

          3. David B says:

            @ Anonymous – it reads like Michael has replied to one of your comments thinking you were the BC Editor. I find it easier to follow threads if you put a name in the name field

          4. @ David B says:

            What relevance does the identity of the poster have? Surely, it’s the content of the post that matters; who posted it signifies nothing of value.

          5. SleepingDog says:

            @AnonymousAwhole, for someone who loves to guff about the social contract, you seem perversely gleeful about breaking it. You are fouling up the comments thread by using echoes instead of names, so following comments are automatically designated “in response to [in response to] [original poster]”. Put some consistent and distinctive (so as not to confuse with another poster or editor) alphanumeric name in the Name field. If you are addressing someone else in the thread specifically, you can start your Comment field with ‘@[postername]’. Jeez, how do you expect people to take you seriously if you cannot even master a simple comments web form?

            As I mentioned some time ago, if you post a lot to the same site, it might be that your cookie history that gets posted in the background keeps growing in size until it exceeds the allowed limit, and instead of accepting your post, the site returns an informative error. This has happened on Bella before. If this happens to you, the simplest solution is to go into your web browser settings and delete your cookies *only* for the *.bellacaledonia.org.uk site. This will mean that the site forgets your name and email address if you have chosen to save them, but you should be able to post freely again. You don’t have to change your poster name if this happens, but you will have to retype it.

        2. “I don’t know what the point in developing Bella is if you are not going to do anything with the platform. ” I’m not quite sure what you would like to happen but your rage and frustration is duly noted.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    This analysis misses out the international dimension where the ‘standard of living’ in the UK is raised by the exploitation of others elsewhere. When that exploitation is redressed, we will no longer have access to cheap imports. And yes, I am in favour of paying reparations for the crimes of the British Empire, which should however come primarily from those most culpable and able to pay (#RoyalReparations):
    https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/7/19/lets-bring-the-caribbean-struggle-for-reparations-to-britain

    However, perhaps the question should be: in any given country, what proportion of its resources and effort (real not GDP) goes into solely keeping its ruling classes in power? Maybe in some cases it is more than half. Imagine what you could do with that.

  3. David B says:

    The Right to Food Bill consultation is currently open, and anyone in Scotland (individual or organisation) can respond. The bill would establish a legal right to food, and an independent statutory Food Commission to ensure joined up policy making and measure progress.

    The consultation can be found here. Please spread the word.
    https://www.rhodagrant.org.uk/right-to-food-consultation-document/

    1. @ David B says:

      I’m currently remixing my response to Elaine Smith’s consultation, which is based around the institution of a negative income tax regime and returning all land to the commons. This would abolish food insecurity by guaranteeing everyone at least a basic income; that is, an income that’s adequate to their needs (as calculated by, for example, the Joseph Rowantree Foundation).

      But however it’s instituted in practice, I agree it’s important to enshrine a right to food (and shelter and clothing and liberty) in Scots Law, so that it will be easier for individuals to sue whoever the law makes legally responsible for observing that right.

      1. @ David B says:

        ‘…easier for individuals to sue whoever the law makes legally responsible for observing that right.’

        That is, when whoever’s responsible fails to do so.

        1. Wul says:

          Yes. It is interesting that we have created laws that allow a private corporation to sue government for actions leading to a loss of profit (presumably they have a God-given right to profit) but have been unable to guarantee ourselves the right to food, water, clothing and shelter.

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