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Laurie Penny: Let’s exchange our Blitz mentality for the spirit of ’68

Invoking the Blitz implies that there are no alternatives to the coming austerity.

"The strikes won't beat us!" screamed the headline of last night's London Evening Standard, 70 years after the first German bombs fell on London. As hundreds of thousands of city workers wrestled on to heaving buses and trains, conservative press outlets were co-opting a patriotic narrative about British defiance in the face of adversity -- this time in the form of organised labour rather than imminent Nazi invasion. We stood up to the Kaiser, we stood up to Hitler, and by George we're going to stand up on a crowded bus to work!

We all know Londoners are tough, but summoning the spirit of the Blitz to counteract the quotidian annoyance of transport strikes is rather pushing the envelope. What next, sounding "The Last Post" when they run out of tuna baguettes in Pret A Manger? At the risk of invoking Godwin's Law, there is really no equivalence, apart from the natty uniforms, between the Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and the Third Reich.

The strikers are inconveniencing ordinary Londoners not because they want to bring the country to its knees, but to take a stand over avoidable job losses and failures in Transport for London's safety programme. Union leaders say that near-disasters have occurred in the tunnels on several occasions this year, and that these may well have been caused by cutbacks in spending as part of the "failed experiment" on prospects for privatising London Underground. When you understand that this strike is about protecting workers and protecting commuters, the fury over a few difficult journeys in to work begins to look a little myopic.

Many of those interviewed by the Standard and other papers were furious about the possible effect on their own jobs, saying that an interrupted commute doesn't help when they are already worn out, overworked and living in fear of reduncancy and lost contracts. If these people had strong unions to go to themselves, if we lived in a culture of solidarity where workers were respected and protected on the job, they might be less likely to see other working people as the enemy when they stand up for their rights. It is entirely to the credit of the candidates for the Labour leadership that none of them has come out to condemn the strikes, despite being prompted to do so by the tabloids.

The Blitz spirit is also being appropriated to shore up the mythology of the looming cuts to public services. As a guest on Sky News tonight, I was privileged to watch a segment of the Murdoch station's Hard Times feature being filmed. Yet again, the story seemed to be all about how the British will cope: are we going to let the hard times get us down, or are we going to hold our heads high like true Englishmen and weather the storm uncomplainingly?

These are the wrong questions to pose. Yes, of course Londoners are tough, and living in this city at the moment does feel a little like being under siege: everyone is making do and struggling to hang on to a sense of normality, and there are mawkishly retro Blitz-era inspirational posters on the walls of every hipster house party I go to.

However, adopting a bunker mentality and vowing that disaffected workers or choppy economic waters "won't beat us" is the wrong attitude. Tthe British will survive the coming cuts -- we've survived a lot worse in the past. But that doesn't mean that we should accept them as inevitable. The country isn't being invaded by hostile forces totally outside government control. This regressive Budget has been imposed by the coalition forcibly, for reasons that are as much to do with ideology as economic necessity. Ordinary folk are being primed to make do and mend our way through the coming austerity, but there are alternatives.

This week the French are striking in their millions in protest at a proposed pensions cut that looks like peanuts, compared to the chunks due to be ripped out of the British welfare state next year. We might do well to heed the example of our former allies and exchange our bunker mentality for a little more spirit of '68.

Read Laurie Penny's weekly column in the New Statesman magazine.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

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