It's austerity Christmas: buy now, pay considerably more later

Adverts for short-term loans are everywhere. These companies know that people are more cash-strapped

Adverts for short-term loans are everywhere. These companies know that people are more cash-strapped than ever.

Austerity Christmas it is, then. Is it worth getting the giant inflatable Homer Simpson in a Santa suit out of the loft? Can you afford the illuminated parade of sparkly reindeer? Or, more importantly, can you afford the bills in January? And what can you do if you can't?

Those jolly companies who offer short-term loans -- with the 1000 per cent and 2000 per cent and sometimes nearly 3000 per cent APR figures not nearly as prominent as the smiling faces of the families who are HAPPY because they have CASH -- are filling up the advert breaks.

They're not dumb. Parasitic, perhaps; feasting on the misery of others, quite possibly; evil, well I wouldn't go that far -- but not dumb. They know that this year, more than many others in recent times, people are going to be feeling less festive about opening their wallets than ever before -- and they're offering the "buy now, pay much more later" solution to tide folk over.

Britain's been living on tick for a while now. With banks cheerfully whacking overdraft penalty payments onto the accounts of people who've overspent by a couple of quid, the never-never is getting more and more expensive.

But what do you do? Those of us who are fortunate enough to have paid employment are just clinging on and hoping that we're going to ride out the storm. Having been plunged into the void of joblessness earlier this year, I'm here to tell you that there are few better feelings than going back to work and feeling like you have a purpose in life again. Is it enough money to make everything all right again, though? Well, that's a different thing altogether.

This is the time of year when we're bombarded with aspirational messages that tap into our sense of entitlement. We want our lives to be like those glamorous people in adverts, swaggering from one crystal-embellished cocktail party to another; we think our children should be ignoring the mountain of presents at the foot of the John Lewis kid's bed in order to thank us for being so great, and buying them so many things.

Our leaders tell us that debt is bad, mmkay. For months, we've been lectured about how the economy is a bit like a credit card, which has been maxed out -- because we plebs are essentially thick, you see, we can't be trusted to handle concepts any more complex than the idea of a credit card -- and how everything now needs to be paid back. But how many of us are making the kind of swingeing household cuts that will see us pay everything back in a couple of years and get us back on track?

We don't mind so much if it's those nasty grasping public sector folk who are being bashed around the head and told they've got to cough up more pensions, because they were getting too much in the first place; but when it's us and our responsibility, we're not going to pay it back unless the red-topped letters start appearing.

There's a strange chasm, then, between what we're told to do by our leaders, on the one hand; and what the tempting short-term loan companies are (entirely legally) telling us on the other. Do we scrimp and save, or do we splurge now and regret it later? It could be a big, big hangover in the new year.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.