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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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.