Clay figures made by artist Liz Crow to symbolise the human cost of austerity. Photo: Matthew Fessey
Show Hide image

Under austerity, deprivation in the UK is becoming normalised. Don’t vote for any more of it

Austerity was a choice and one not born from economic reasoning but political ideology: a desire to dismantle the benefit system and with it, the state.

Jenny Tomlinson, 24, hasn’t eaten in two days. She has fibromyalgia, a painful chronic illness that means she can’t leave the house, and feeds herself by online shopping “when [she] can afford it”, but after paying her electric and council tax, her benefits have run out. She’s been waiting six months for an assessment for the new care and mobility support, Personal Independence Payments (PIP), and her disability unemployment benefit, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), won’t go into her bank account for three days.

“I’m out of food now,” she says. “My cupboards are empty, bar a handful of pasta and half a bag of chips in the freezer. There isn’t anything I can do.”  

There’s a food bank in Jenny’s town now but she won’t be able to use it. Because she’s unable to get out of bed, she can’t get to the Citizen’s Advice centre that gives out the voucher she needs. 

I’ve spoken to a lot of “Jennys” over the course of this government. Twenty-something disabled men working out what biscuits would fill his stomach because the PIP cuts meant he’d soon have no one to help him reach the oven. Women who fled abusive husbands only to have the benefit cap force them to feed their children on a few pounds a week out of a cramped, mouldy flat. Severely disabled wheelchair users – ordinary young adults – given 15-minute slots by their local authority to go to the toilet in the day and told to hold their bladder through the night.

I would like to say that I remember each of their names but there are too many – and most ask to be anonymous. They are ashamed at the thought of their neighbours finding out what is happening behind closed door or scared of the Department for Work and Pensions. I think of them sometimes when I see David Cameron patting himself on the back for this country’s so-called “recovery”. That’s been a lot lately. It is election time. I imagine it is easier to campaign for another five years of power if you block out the citizens you have already starved. 

As Robert Skidelsky put it for New Statesman last week: “Over their five years in power” – and “at the heart of their election campaign” – “the Conservatives have claimed their austerity policy saved the country from disaster”.

I wonder what exactly they think they have saved this country from.  Our schools now have to act as “miniature welfare states” – feeding, clothing, and washing children – after cuts in services to the poorest families, a study by the National Association of Head Teachers found last week.

If that is not defined as disaster, I would like to know what is. £43.5m of school budgets – taken from the money that should be spent on their education – is being used to plug the gapes left by the Coalition. One school surveyed has its own food bank now. Two thirds of headteachers say they’re buying their pupils things that five years ago were delivered by social and health services. That’s haircuts and underwear. The month before, it was shoes and winter coats. These studies seem to come out weekly now – and the revelations are getting darker, readying for the point where we are no longer shocked. 

Deprivation is becoming normalised. In one of the richest countries in the world, over 700,000 people – including 300,000 children – have been pushed into poverty over the past two years. The New Policy Institute released their findings now because the government refused to publish the official data – that’s the evidence that shows the impact of their mass social security cuts, like the bedroom tax – until next month. There’s an election coming. It is best to hush up the truth.

Do they know what the truth is at this point? I do not buy the idea Iain Duncan Smith is sadistic or that David Cameron is stupid. They behave as zealots, caught in the fervor that other people’s poverty is not on their hands. As Paul Krugman puts it in his new book, The Austerity Delusion: “The austerian ideology that dominated elite discourse five years ago has collapsed, to the point where hardly anyone still believes it. Hardly anyone, that is, except the coalition that still rules Britain…”

Three years ago, professionals were predicting the consequences of austerity: the increased risk of benefit claimants killing themselves and children being taken into care. The warnings are here again, for anyone who wants to listen: Oxford University says the Conservatives’ plans for £12bn of social security cuts will double the number of people forced to use food banks. It means nothing. The blindness around the austerity agenda has gone from selective amnesia to hallucination, as if the only way its architects can look at reality is by sticking to the myth all this was inevitable.

Austerity was a choice and one not born from economic reasoning but political ideology: a desire to dismantle the benefit system and with it, the state. There should be no surprise what it has done to this country. Austerity by definition is the act of building a national recovery off the backs of personal misery.

The evening before election day, the disabled artist Liz Crow will show the “human cost” of austerity, burning 650 small clay human figures – each paired with one MP and a story of someone’s malnutrition, eviction, or death. As the country goes to the polls, the idea of choices and consequences is worth remembering.  

The past five years has been built on a lie. There is money for tax cuts for millionaires but social care for severely disabled people needed shredding. Britain's richest can double their net worth since the recession as grown men are crushed to death in skips scavenging for food. If austerity was a necessary sacrifice, it is telling it is the poor’s to make.

*Names have been changed

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.