May and Hammond Are Still Scapegoating the Most Vulnerable
The substance of Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement was less about the economic agenda of Theresa May and more about the legacy of David Cameron and George Osborne. After the six wasted years under austerity since 2010, the government has failed to meet its own targets on deficit reduction.
Growth has fallen, borrowing is up and the national debt is set to reach £2 trillion by 2020, with an additional £220 billion black hole in the economy being attributed to the impact of Brexit. All thanks - bear in mind - to a referendum Cameron only called to appease UKIP and his backbenchers, but lost due to the false promises of Vote Leave. (Mysteriously, Hammond didn’t announce £350 million a year for the NHS).
All May has to say about the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, such as vital access to the single market and science research funding being jeopardised, is still “Brexit means Brexit.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not sensing the economic security the Tories have been promising.
When May became prime minister in July, the running theme of her speech on Downing Street was a commitment to social justice. But judging by Hammond’s statement, there is as much credibility to May’s pledge as her Brexit sloganeering. This is exemplified by her government’s approach to social security.
The inequality and insecurity of Austerity Britain
If May was actually serious about a more compassionate Toryism, she would have listened to the pleas of disability charities, and even some of her own backbenchers, to not follow through with a £30 per week cut to Employment and Support Allowance - the benefit for disabled people struggling or too unwell to find work.
Disappointingly for those who hoped (or kidded themselves) that Hammond would cancel the ESA cuts, the announcement never came. Hammond may have softened Osborne’s planned cuts to tax credits and Universal Credit (U-turns the Labour leadership deserves credit for forcing). But according to the Resolution Foundation, the cumulative impact of diminishing living standards and a punitive regime of benefit cuts means the poorest third of households are the hardest hit.
Hammond did announce an increase in the National Living Wage from £7.20 to £7.50. The problem here, though, is that this “living wage” is nowhere near the actual, direly needed living wage advocated by the Living Wage Foundation (£8.45 nationwide and £9.75 in London). In a country of zero-hour contracts, rising inflation and a Brexit-driven devaluation of the pound, this increase is a piecemeal offering.
It might be positive that Hammond has banned letting agent fees and provided £3.5 billion of funding to build more affordable housing. But this is window dressing. The inequality and insecurity of Austerity Britain is defined in two figures: 1 in 3 homeless young people being denied help by their cash-stripped local authorities, while the top one percent own 24% of national wealth.
Hammond’s statement marks the conclusion of six years of austerity’s failure
Little will change under a strategy defined by inaction, and on other key issues, Hammond’s silence was deafening. There was nothing on funding for the NHS in perpetual crisis, or the collapsing social care system, problems only mentioned by shadow chancellor John McDonnell in his reply. There was nothing about combating tax dodging by the wealthy and big business, which is still denying HRMC multi-billions per year. There was nothing on education, despite the worst turmoil in generations in the state sector blighting the life chances of young people, but there was an announcement of £240 million for the ideologically-fixated plan to build new grammar schools.
Since 2010, the government’s excuse for inflicting vindictive and socially destructive austerity has been the inheritance of a crashed economy from Labour. But Hammond’s statement marks the conclusion of six years of austerity’s failure. And with top Tories like Boris Johnson having led the charge on Brexit they are now farcically mismanaging - serving to hugely accentuate this failure - they only have themselves to blame.
This Autumn Statement indicates that the Tories, entrenching inequality with economic stagnation and socially-divisive policies, remain resolved about scapegoating the poor and most vulnerable to compensate for their own failure.
About the author
Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.
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