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The Grenfell Tower fire has turned a spotlight on austerity's limits

After seven years of spending cuts, the UK's frayed public realm cannot be disguised.

After the coalition’s austerity programme began in 2010, cabinet ministers would often boast of its success. The government, they would say, was managing to do “more with less”. In 2013, at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, David Cameron went as far as to declare that it was his mission to create a “leaner, more efficient state ... not just now, but permanently”.

But one no longer hears such doctrinaire rhetoric from ministers. In 2017, the UK still has a budget deficit of £52bn (one not due be eliminated until 2025 – a decade later than promised) and austerity’s costs are increasingly visible. Though recent tragedies, such as the horrific Grenfell Tower fire and the London Bridge attack, cannot be directly attributed to cuts, they have focused attention on the fraying of the public realm.

“If you cut local authority expenditure then the price is paid somehow,” Jeremy Corbyn said of the Grenfell fire (in which at least 17 have died and many more are missing), noting the failure to install a sprinkler system and to overhaul fire safety regulations.

Residents say they sought to obtain legal advice over safety concerns but were prevented from doing so by cuts to legal aid (the Ministry of Justice says an approach was never made). Other tower block residents, many of them among London's poorest, have been anxiously contacting MPs for fear of a similar fate.

Though fire crews were quick to arrive at the Kensington tower block (engines were there six minutes after being alerted), the effects of cuts were visible. “Put it this way, you’re meant to work on a fire for a maximum of four hours, we’ve been here for 12,” said one firefighter.

Recent Home Office figures show there are nearly 7,000 fewer firefighters in England than five years ago, leading to longer response times and a 25 per cent fall in the number of fire prevention visits. Though the number of fire-related deaths has fallen from 750 a year in the early 1980s to 264 in 2015, it last year rose to 303.

Just as Theresa May accused the Police Federation of “scaremongering” over the risks of police cuts in 2015, so Boris Johnson told a Labour opponent to “get stuffed” in 2013 when confronted over fire service cuts. But the fear that emergency services can bear no further reductions is now widespread. During the general election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn successfully challenged May on her home turf of security by highlighting an 18,991 reduction in overall police numbers, and a 1,337 reduction in armed police numbers.

The central government grant to local authorities has been progressively eroded since 2010, forcing some to impose cuts of 80 per cent. The consequences are visible to all in unrepaired roads, uncollected bins and closed libraries, gyms and children's centres.

A recent survey of councils by the Local Government Information Unit found that three-quarters had little or no confidence in their financial sustainability, and more than one in ten believed they were in danger of failing to deliver legally required services. More than 40 per cent of local authorities anticipated making cuts in frontline services, "which will be evident to the public", rising to 71 per cent among social care authorities.

Many Conservative MPs attribute their party’s underperformance to public anger over strained schools and hospitals. Though May has broken with austerity in rhetoric, she has not in practice.

The public sector pay cap of 1 per cent and the freeze in working-age benefits (including tax credits) until 2020 have been maintained. The extra £8bn promised by the Conservatives for the NHS would still lead to a £12bn funding gap according to the Health Foundation. School spending per pupil would fall by 3 per cent between 2017-18 and 2021-22.

In both political and policy terms, austerity has reached its limits. Thoughtful Conservatives, such as May’s former aide Nick Timothy and Tory policy board chair George Freeman, recognised the Brexit vote as a symptom of national discontent. But the Prime Minister failed to take the opportunity to break with austerity in deed, rather than merely word. Will multiple crises now force her to do so?

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.