This is what "savage austerity" looks like

Let's avoid the euphemisms

Today and yesterday, Alphaville put up a pair of posts detailing the terrifying lengths that the Greek state has been forced to go to in order to meet their austerity targets:

The country’s pharmacies are owed €500m by the state-backed healthcare insurer, according to reports. From next week patients will have to stump up the cash for their medicines upfront, and then claim a reimbursement from the National Organization for Healthcare Provision (EOPYY).

Greece: when the drugs run out

The desperate cunning scheme to get Greeks to pay property taxes by bundling them with electricity bills didn’t last long. You guessed it, people stopped paying their electricity bills and now it looks like the power company – which had to be bailed out last month – has stopped even trying to collect the levy.

Greece: when the lights go out

If the state healthcare company can't pay the pharmacies, it seems somewhat unlikely that it will be able to reimburse patients either. Meanwhile, the nationalised power company looks like it will run out of money again towards the end of June, unless customers start paying their bills again.

All of which goes some way to explaining the curious result that is seen time and time again in Greek opinion polls: contrary to what their actions – and their votes – suggest, the Greek people are actually overwhelmingly in favour of staying in the euro. They know how much membership of the single currency has benefited their country, and they don't want to lose it.

But they also know that the path they are on now – which, if it only involved Russian-style shock doctrine privatisation, would be getting off lightly – is unsustainable. They are losing healthcare, power, they have been paid negative salaries, and the word coming from Germany is that this will get worse, not better. Well, they're mad as hell, and they're not going to take it anymore.

That said, the latest news out of Greece indicates that preferences may be swinging back to the devil they know. Joe Weisenthal reports a Nomura briefing which says:

Opinion polls are looking more constructive from a market perspective.

Which is a very euphemistic way of saying the pro-austerity New Democracy party may win the election.

Lighting over Athens, but the power's out. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR