Jason Riddle, co-founder of 'Save Our Savers' lifts a giant papier mache piggy bank outside the Bank of England. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour must resist Osborne’s reckless pension reforms

For the sake of a day of good headlines and a few billion pounds of extra tax, the Chancellor has put years of painful progress at risk.

Today Ed Balls struggled to explain why people can’t be trusted to spend their own pension savings as they see fit. So after a rapturous reception from the right-wing press, Labour shadow ministers will be worrying that if they oppose the pension reforms they will sound patronising and risk alienating the "grey vote". But oppose them they must, for these reforms are reckless and irresponsible

Yesterday the Chancellor threw out years of painful progress in designing a secure and sustainable pension system for Britain, all for a day of good headlines and a few billion pounds of extra tax. Here are four reasons why Labour must oppose George Osborne’s annuities assassination.

1. A law that make us do the right thing: One of the good things about governments is their ability to help people smooth out spending over very long lives. This happens through tax and spending but also through regulation: the requirement to buy an annuity exists to help people spend down their pension pot in a smooth, gradual fashion over long retirements. It follows the "goldilocks" rule: not too little, not too much. Annuities stop you spending too much, too early, so you have to scrape by in late old age. This minimises the extent people have to fall back on the state, but just as importantly, it helps people lead better lives over their whole life.

Turning savings into a guaranteed monthly income also stops you sitting on your money and spending "too little". Today this is a big problem: the evidence shows that on average people in retirement don’t ‘decumulate’ their property and financial assets at all, contrary to what economists would expect. This is partly because people are insuring themselves against the risk of dying late. Annuities pool the risk we face of being ‘lucky’ in the life expectancy lottery. Without this insurance it is prudent to under-consume throughout our retirement, just in case we live on into our late 90s.

2. Destroying choice, not creating it: The Treasury says it wants to give people the choice of whether to buy an annuity or not. But in reality they are destroying a market that needed healing not ending. There will be a downward spiral: fewer people will buy annuities and many of those who decide to will do so because they believe they will live longer than average. As a result the costs of annuities will rise; even fewer people will want one; and the costs will rise again. A risk that is currently insurable will in practice cease to be so; ironically at a time when the government is trying to create a market for people to insure themselves against the risks of long term care in old age.

It is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The annuities market needs reform to increase competition and help people buy the right product for them. But the real problem with annuities will shortly right itself: they are bad value because interest rates are so low. But interest raises will rise over the next few years. This is a massive reform to solve what is mainly a time-limited problem.

3. Housing market mayhem: Where’s all the money that would have been spent on pensions going to go? Almost inevitably into the housing market. All those lump sums which people cash-in just after retirement will either go to pay the deposits for the first home of lucky children or into buy-to-let investments. Either way, the affordability of housing will decline further and the gap between the housing "haves" and "have-nots" will grow worse.

4. Can we have our money back, please? Scrapping the requirement to turn your savings into a pension also begs the question of why the government needs to be so generous with all that tax relief. And why should employers contribute? If a defined contribution pension is just another long-term saving plan, well fine, but why should anyone except the saver care? The government and employer subsidy is part of a tripartite deal predicated on the money being to fund a retirement income.

Before yesterday, Britain had finally achieved a half-decent pension system, based on broad cross-party consensus, thanks to the Turner Commission, auto-enrolment and the flat-rate state pension. With this announcement, it will all unravel very fast. Labour must oppose these reforms.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Why Game of Thrones is the perfect show for the modern age

There is something horribly relatable about George R R Martin’s world of Westeros, whose characters have now become part of public myth.

By now, it feels as if George R R Martin – the author of Game of Thrones, narrative sadist and ruiner of all things beautiful and good – has been appointed scriptwriter for the news. I am not the first to observe this. Martin is famous for killing off everyone’s favourite characters and sending his stories careering into pits of bleak uncertainty just when you thought everything might turn out all right. Since Prince became the latest beloved star to die this year, it has become abundantly clear that life is imitating Game of Thrones, and there’s nothing to do but watch the next bit through your fingers and try to avoid spoilers.

The staggeringly popular HBO show based on Martin’s books is in its sixth season, and it is wild, glorious trash. I mean that as a compliment. I love this horrible, problematic show more than I can possibly justify, so I’ve stopped trying. It is hardly a social-justice warrior’s dream, given that it seems to be racing against itself to sexually degrade as many female characters as possible in the space of a 45-minute episode.

The argument for the endless misogynist violence is that it has to be shown, not to titillate viewers, absolutely not, but because that sort of thing just happened back in the murky medieval past. This would be a decent excuse if sexual violence were indeed a thing of the past; or, come to that, if Game of Thrones was actually set in the past, instead of in a fictional fantasy world where there are shape-shifters, zombies and dragons.

There is one aspect, however, in which Game of Thrones has a claim to being the most realistic show on television. Despite the wizards, the wights and the way every character manages to maintain perfect hair even when they’re being pointlessly tortured to death, there is something horribly relatable about Martin’s world of Westeros, whose characters have now become part of public myth. What sets it apart is not the monsters, the nudity or the festering gallons of gratuitous gore, but the overwhelming sense that the plot got run off the rails three books ago and is being steered towards a terrible precipice by a bunch of bickering, power-mad maniacs. This, coincidentally, happens to be the plot of the entire 21st century so far.

Viewers might tune in for what the actor Ian McShane called the “tits and dragons”, but they stay for the unremitting horror. Martin gleefully tramples over all the tropes of conventional sword-and-sorcery fiction. There are no noble quests or heroes’ journeys. Instead, horrible things happen to good people for no reason. Heroism goes extremely unrewarded. The few times injustice does get punished, it happens by accident. Fair maidens are not saved, protagonists are slaughtered at random, and war is always a stupid idea, even though the ­surviving cast members are still trying to solve all their problems by waging it.

Most fans of the show have idly wondered which warring noble house they’d want to be born into. Are you brave and upstanding like the Starks, an entitled aristocrat like the Lannisters, or a mad pirate bastard like the Greyjoys? Personally, I like to think that I’d be at home in Dorne, where knife-fighting and aggressive bisexuality are forms of greeting, but the truth is that I’d have been dead for at least two seasons by now and so would you. And not excitingly dead, either. Not beheaded-by-the-king dead, or burned-as-a-blood-sacrifice-to-the-god-of-fire-by-your-own-father dead. Statistically speaking, we’d be peasants. We probably wouldn’t even get names. We’d just be eating mud and waiting for the war to be over. You know it’s true.

The moral lessons so far are murky but sensible. Dragons are awesome. Men are invariably dreadful. Following religious zealots into battle is a poor life decision. Honour is a made-up concept that will probably get you killed. Most importantly, there are very few truly evil people in the world: instead, there are just stupid people, and scared people, and petty, vindictive people, and sometimes those people get put in charge of armies and nations, and that’s when the rest of us are really buggered. That’s what Game of Thrones is about.

I’m not even confident of a happy ending. I’ve made peace with knowing that my favourite characters are unlikely to make it out of the series alive, and even if they do, it won’t matter, because a giant army of ice zombies is coming to eat the world.

And that’s what makes it brilliant. There are plenty of horrible, sexy things on television, and in these anxious times every novelist worth his advance seems to be turning his hand to grim dystopian fiction. The problem with most dystopias, though, is that they’re too predictable. They serve up worlds where, however awful things get, someone is at least in charge. They are comforting for that reason, in the same way as conspiracy theories are comforting. It is less distressing to believe, for instance, that a secret race of lizard people is managing the destiny of the human race than to believe that nobody is managing it at all.

Stories help us rehearse trauma. They help us prepare for it. You sit down to watch terrible things happening to made-up people and you imagine how you’d cope if that were you, or someone you loved, and even if the answer is “not at all” you find yourself feeling a bit better. Right now, the really frightening prospect is that the world is actually being run by vicious idiots with only half a plan between them who are too busy fighting each other to pay attention to the weather, which is about to kill us all.

That, along with the epic theme music, is why I still love Game of Thrones. It feels like aversion therapy for the brutal randomness of modern politics, with a side order of CGI monsters and a lot of shagging. There you go. I hope that’s given you all the excuse you need to tune in for season six. I did my best. If you need me, I’ll be behind the sofa. 

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

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism