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24 September 2015

In May, the country embraced austerity. But what happens when it starts hitting the sharp-elbowed middle class?

The landscape over the next five years is different. More of us will feel the pain, even though many believe the financial crash is long past and the worst is over.

By Helen Lewis

Throughout the last parliament, the left braced itself for a revolt against austerity that never came. It wasn’t for want of trying – the TUC led a march of 250,000 people through London in 2011, the largest demonstration since the Iraq war.

But there was a curious incident: the anti-cuts dog never barked. Widespread civil unrest never spread, and in May the Conservatives were returned to government with an overall majority. The Tories’ present mood (a few revelations about pig-based debauchery aside) is barely disguised glee; many believe Jeremy Corbyn is leading Labour on a long march into the electoral wilderness. Meanwhile, Britain has swallowed the austerity medicine and is ready for more.

Are they right? In the last parliament, cuts to public services were often felt disproportionately by the poorest. Take council cuts: these fell hard on care services, which make up half their budgets. But the numbers affected are relatively small: according to the Financial Times’s Austerity State series, 150,000 pensioners have lost access to vital services such as help with washing and dressing. This explains the newspaper’s other major finding: “public satisfaction with how councils are run has risen or stayed the same in most areas”. It reminds me of the Not the Nine O’Clock News Budget sketch where the chancellor announces 100 per cent duty on wheelchairs, white sticks, false limbs, glass eyes and diarrhoea medicine: “Observers will notice I have deliberately chosen to penalise those members of the community who can’t hit back.”

The landscape over the next five years is different. More of us will feel the pain, even though many believe the financial crash is long past and the worst is over. The Local Government Association, which represents English councils – most of which are Conservative-controlled – has warned that “popular” services will be affected. “Vital services, such as caring for the elderly, protecting children, collecting bins, filling potholes and maintaining our parks and green spaces, will simply struggle to continue at current levels,” its chairman, Gary Porter, newly ennobled to join the Conservative benches, said earlier this month.

Then there are the sharp-elbowed professions. At the weekend, a Labour frontbencher told me he expected lawyers to be a thorn in the government’s side throughout the parliament, given the ongoing cuts to legal aid. (This year was the first time I’ve ever seen anyone on strike wearing an aggressively checked shirt and red trousers.) Several senior politicians trained as barristers, and many have lawyers in their family or social circles: Labour’s candidate for mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, was a human rights lawyer and is married to a criminal barrister; the party’s rising star Keir Starmer, elected in May, is a QC. By nature and training, lawyers are eloquent advocates and, crudely, they are more likely to know newspaper and television executives to whom they can air their grievances.

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The sharpest elbows of all, of course, belong to doctors – whose professional body, the BMA, has always managed to dodge the usual right-wing attacks on unions and present itself as a neutral, authoritative voice. The Conservatives scored a great success in the election campaign by defusing some of the potency of Labour’s NHS message, a feat largely accomplished by promising the service £8bn a year by 2020, the full amount its chief executive wanted.

However, the government also promised other “patient-centred” reforms, and these are now causing it trouble. The two most vexed are a “24-hour NHS” and the ability for patients to see a GP between 8am and 8pm, seven days a week. To achieve this, the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, wants to introduce new contracts for junior doctors that redefine “normal” shifts (paid at a lower rate) to cover 90 hours of the week, rather than 60. That means doctors would now be paid the same rate working at evenings and weekends as in the daytime. Annual pay rises are being removed for those who take time out to have children, and trainee GP salaries will be cut by 40 per cent.

Already, the Scottish and Welsh devolved governments have indicated they won’t impose the new contracts; and social media is now fizzing with angry young doctors. In a typical example, one called Luke Turner posted a photo of an email he had sent to Jeremy Hunt. “I was just dropping you a quick call to pin you down on a few details re: my contract next year (how much will I earn, will I ever get to see my family etc). Imagine my surprise to discover you weren’t in the office. In fact, no one was in the Department of Health. Surely this is a mistake! After all it was only 8.30pm on a Thursday. According to your most recent contract offer, sociable office hours are 7am-10pm Monday-Saturday.”

The professional organisations are barely more restrained. Professor Jane Dacre, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said the plans “threaten” patient care, while Professor Neena Modi, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics, said the contract was “unacceptable” and paediatricians “cannot remain silent” because children will suffer.

Perhaps there will be scant sympathy for doctors, driven by the perception that they are all raking it in. (Not exactly true: the basic starting salary for a junior hospital post, after five or more years of debt-fuelled study, is £22,636, although that gets topped up in various ways.) In which case – in an irony that will probably be lost on free-marketeers – thousands of our young doctors might take their skills to another English-speaking country where the pay and conditions are more favourable.

If so, and if other sharp-elbowed middle-class professionals join the fray, George Osborne might find that his greatest achievement – cutting public services and still getting re-elected – is unrepeatable.

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This article appears in the 23 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left