Friday, 12 December 2014

Osborne's world: it hasn't fallen in. Perhaps he should get out more

Our text today is taken from the Book According to Osborne: "The chancellor addressed the multitudes and he spake thus. 'Has the world fallen in? No, it has not.' And the multitudes pondered upon his words and were perplexed."

You may remember the occasion. It was the morning after Mr Osborne had delivered his autumn statement in the House of Commons. My esteemed former colleague John Humphrys was giving him a light grilling on the Today programme. Mr Osborne, joined later by David Cameron, took grave exception to what they complained was the BBC's "hyperbolic" coverage of the likely consequences of their plans for further cuts in government spending.

You've been going on about this for four years, was the gist of their complaint -- and look, the world hasn't fallen in, has it?

I choked on my cornflakes. Of course, their world hasn't fallen in. They don't depend on a few extra pounds in benefits to get them through the week, nor do they rely on social services to keep their families functioning. I somehow doubt that they use public libraries, or Sure Start centres, or community youth centres, or drugs rehabilitation units. Nor does anyone they know -- family, friends, neighbours.

In their world, nothing has changed. Executive pay continues to rise at obscene rates, and bonuses continue to be paid as if there's a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow. So looking at the world through their eyes, yes, it's true. Everything's fine and dandy.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the world where the vast majority of voters live, things look a bit different. According to the 2014 British Social Attitudes survey: "The cost of energy bills rose by more than 60 per cent between the start of the economic crisis in 2008 and 2013, and food, water and transport costs all rose by more than 20 per cent … Yet rises in costs have not been matched by rising earnings … the average (median) household is six per cent worse off in real terms in 2013/14 than its pre-crisis peak."

According to a recent report by the UN children's agency UNICEF: "The UK was one of only four countries which experienced an 'unprecedented increase' in severe material deprivation – a measure of whether families can pay the rent, heat their homes and afford reasonable diets for their children. The other three countries affected were Greece, Italy and Spain ... "

And according to a new parliamentary report, average rents in the UK have increased by nearly a third over the past decade, much more than in either France or Germany. Let's not even think about the cost of actually buying somewhere to live.

It seems Mr Osborne has either noticed none of this or thinks it doesn't matter. After all, his world hasn't fallen in. That's why he's so confident that he can carry on hacking away at the already grossly inadequate assistance that's on offer to those in the most desperate need.

Could someone persuade him to read the piece by The Guardian's food writer Jack Monroe, who knows only too well what being in need really means? She gave evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into poverty:

"My head in my hands, choking out words, tears rushing down hot, humiliated cheeks, I raised my head to look at the array of varying expressions looking back from the other side of the room; a Labour MP, two Conservative peers, and a Conservative MP looked back, a mixture of horror and sympathy as I publicly crashed and burned. Fear and humiliation and self-loathing leaping on me like a set of hyenas, as I sobbed: 'I can’t even answer my telephone any more if it’s an unknown number, if it rings early in the morning, or I don’t know who it is. I can’t even open my own front door. It’s not the same front door as the one I sat with my back to, morning and afternoon, cowering as bailiffs battered on the other side of it. It’s not the same phone number. It’s not the same front door. I’m not in debt. There are no more final demands, no more red capital letters, no more threats. But … I can’t even open my own front door.'"

So what does the Labour party say about all this? In a heavily-trailed speech on Thursday, Ed Miliband outlined what he called a "tough and balanced" approach to reducing the government deficit: "We start from believing that this country needs a long-term plan to make the country work for working people again, not just for a privileged few at the top."

Which is all well and good, even if it doesn't make for a snappy chant on an anti-poverty protest march. And I could have done without that mean-minded emphasis on "working people", as if career-break parents, or people with chronic illness or disability, somehow matter less.

There is a problem, though, for left-of-centre politicians who care about building a fairer society: most voters aren't keen on being nice to people on benefits. The British Social Attitudes survey reported that more than half the British public believe that most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one, and that current benefits levels are too high. Three-quarters believe that "large numbers of people" falsely claim benefits.

So if Ed Miliband started promising to do more for people living in poverty (the word appeared just once in Thursday's speech), it probably wouldn't do him any good at the ballot box. And if he doesn't win next May, he won't be able to do anything at all.

If Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne win, on the other hand, they will be able to continue to construct a world that works perfectly well for them, their families and friends, even if it causes real hardship for millions of their fellow-citizens.

After all, it hasn't fallen in, has it?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Robin, for showing up the Tory government as deaf, dumb and blind -likely willfully, consciously so- to the travails of the 99%. To extend blindness, ignorance and callous fear -that's their malevolent game. That's why they're gutting the BBC and its World Service, to render the 99% ignorant of their cold-hearted predations upon the struggling and the harried, ignorant of their fellows' like experience and solidarity, ignorant of solutions, ignorant of the empowerment and mutual trust that progress brings to a people.

Charlottesville, Virginia