How much social unrest will the UK suffer?

Britain's limited welfare state means that austerity measures will be harder to implement.

After last week's student protests, activists warned: "this is just the beginning". But how much social unrest will Britain suffer compared to other European countries? Société Générale has put together a fascinating graphic (see below) that attempts to predict the levels of social unrest that different austerity packages will trigger.

It suggests that the threat of social unrest is greatest in Spain and Ireland, where unemployment has risen sharply since the crisis began (by 97 per cent in Ireland and by 61 per cent in Spain), and predicts that austerity measures will be hardest to introduce in the US and the UK, where social provision is low by European standards.

The OECD has previously warned that the comparatively small size of the UK's welfare state means that the rise in inequality is likely to be more severe. "Because there is already less public spending on some areas, there is a risk that it will crumble away more quickly," Herwig Immervoll said.

Olli Kangas, another expert on inequality, pointed out: "Sweden has a fat welfare state, Finland's is a bit slimmer, and in the UK it is thin. If the welfare state is losing weight it will have more impact in the UK than in Sweden and Finland."

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It also means that there is less fat for George Osborne to cut to begin with. The danger for the coalition is that theoretical savings fail to materialise in practice. A recent report from the Commons public accounts committee revealing that only £15bn of the £35bn of savings identified in the 2007 Spending Review have been achieved, and that just 38 per cent of those were considered "legitimate value-for-money savings", was an early warning. Faced with this conundrum, Osborne is likely to resort to slashing frontline services. It is for this reason that the poor, who are disproportionately reliant on public services, are certain to be hit hardest by the spending review. Prepare for a lot more social unrest.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

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