Shake up the kaleidoscope this week and the picture of Britain is jagged and fractured. Under the damp remains of jubilee bunting, the image is not “all in this together” but clashing disharmony from one alarming report after another.
This week the premier league owners and their players hit the jackpot, with not a penny to bring ticket prices in reach of ordinary families. Nokia Vertu jewel-studded mobile phones, costing £200,000 each, sell so well the Hampshire manufacturer may be sold to private equity. WPP shareholders refused to give the arrogant Sir Martin Sorrell a 60% pay increase to £6.8m. But for all the over-excited talk of a “shareholder spring”, in only six of 2,000 companies have shareholders rebelled this year, a mere 18 since 2003 when they first had the power. Bob Diamond kept his £20m.
Meanwhile, today social services directors reported that £1.89bn has been cut in “service redesign” for the care for the old and disabled. Today’s poverty figures show one in five children live in families on under £251 a week – many on a lot less. Oxfam reported food prices trebling in five years as incomes fell, with the minimum wage back to its 2004 value. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report on housing for the young showed the depth of a crisis where large numbers live with parents into their mid-30s. Ahead, the trajectory is for ever greater inequality: these are just early tremors.
How many sets of statistics keep telling us the same thing: this is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. That was a spur to action under Labour: never enough, never touching the rich, but it did touch a raw nerve so efforts were redoubled. Labour took more than a million children out of poverty, against the global trend. But these reports touch no nerve in this government: its response is flat denial and laying the blame on the victims, while cutting top tax.
Faced with the incontrovertible facts showing his policy will make half a million more children poor, Iain Duncan Smith decides to burn the goal posts. Luckily he can’t because the ONS figures will still doggedly measure how many people fall below the norm, the median earnings line. That’s the international measure and even if it varies as the median wobbles in recessions, over time it says what you need to know about how every country lives and shares its wealth. Why does that matter? The more equal a country, the better its citizens’ health, education and wellbeing, the less crime and mental illness and the stronger its economy – Sweden at one end, America the other.
Evidence-free dogma and naked deception drive Duncan Smith to repeat what he knows are lies, over and over. I used to think he simply didn’t understand the data, but his officials tell him the facts and he ignores them. When his own report shows his mandatory work activity programme doesn’t get people into work but creates more on long-term benefits, he chooses the same day to announce its expensive expansion. As predicted, he claims lack of money is not what makes people poor. As predicted, he paints all the poor as addicts or wastrels: purge their sins, and poverty cures itself. He refuses to answer two questions: what about all those who are poor because they can’t find jobs? What about the 62% of the poor in work, good parents, committing no sin, but who still can’t earn enough to stay out of poverty? His claims grew ever more preposterous today : tax credits had crashed the economy. “We wonder why we got in such a problem over debt and deficit and it’s because actually in chasing the [poverty] targets … more and more had to be spent.” Not the bankers but the poor caused this crisis.
However, in the to and fro among experts on the technical details of poverty measurement, there are hard questions too for Labour’s future policy. Tax credits had almost reached as far as they could go in easing poverty. There is a limit to subsiding low wages before reaching a stage where earning extra brings no rewards, as credits are tapered away. The only long-term answer is for low wages to rise, with fairer pay structures. Households urgently need more hours of work too. The Resolution Foundation finds fewer women can afford to work in Britain, with Europe’s most expensive childcare. A million more mothers would be in work if we had as a good childcare as other countries, and that would raise many families out of poverty.
“Inequality” in the abstract may resonate little with voters, yet this week’s Manifest report showing FTSE 100 CEOs paid an average £4.8m sticks in most gullets. “Poverty” resonates little either, as the government paints most on benefits as addicts or otherwise undeserving. But the wind is changing. Deborah Mattinson’s “BritainThinks” polling finds cuts and unemployment are no longer about “others” but about “people like us” too. Among those who describe themselves as working class, two-thirds say they struggle to make their money last to the end of the month and couldn’t replace a big household item if one broke. They feel how the rise in fuel, childcare and food prices has hit their falling incomes. Over 70% now fear their children may never find jobs.
The Rowntree report warned that a million more of the young will never own homes, destined to pay high rents for bad housing. Parents quite high up the scale fear it too. This is when the divide between the “them” in poverty and the “us” ordinary families starts to break down. More people feel “all in it together” in ways that threaten the government’s divide-and-rule tactic, as freezes and cuts in child benefit and child credits affect all on middling as well as low incomes.
Labour has pulled ahead as “best on the economy” in the polls, which may prove a pivotal turning point. YouGov’s polls giving Labour a 12% lead show a spectacular switch among women voters: Labour is 18% ahead among women, but only 8% ahead among men. Mattinson’s interviews show that women are first to see what’s happening to their family purse. Women see what’s happening to the public services they use. Because so many work in public services, they see and fear the cascades of public job losses. Only two years into austerity and views have turned sharply: cutting the deficit is no longer king. Mattinson says these women have decided the government is “not on our side”. With only 12% of the cuts yet in place, things are set to get very much worse than they yet realise.
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