When David Cameron was giving his New Year message twelve months ago, he said that the coalition had pulled Britain out of the danger zone and had laid firm foundations for economic growth and for cutting the deficit. Yet it is now clear that the past year has been a disastrous one for the economy, with growth worse than Gordon Brown achieved when the country was emerging from recession and most economists predicting that a return to recession is likely in the first half of 2012. And as for the deficit, that is now higher than ever and will take longer to reduce than under the Alistair Darling plan which the coalition ridiculed at the time of the general election.
Promises to bear down on unemployment have also fallen flat with 2.64 million people now out of work and 5.67 unemployed people chasing every job vacancy. These are not only higher figures than applied at the worst point of the recession but the highest since 1994 when the Conservatives were last in power. And all the predictions are that there is worse to come, with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) expecting an increase to 2.85 million by the end of 2012 and Capital Economics expecting a rise to three million. And the coalition’s own Office for Budget Responsibility, which had predicted that public sector job losses would hit 400,000 by 2016, is now predicting 710,000 such losses by 2017.
Inflation has also been a huge failure for the coalition with the Retail Prices Index rising by 5% or more on 11 occasions in the first 11 months of 2011 (something which happened on only four occasions in the 13 years of the last Labour government). The Consumer Prices Index has not been quite as bad but has averaged 4.5% during the year and is now higher than the CPI in every other EU country, not to mention China, Japan and the USA. And rail fares have just risen by 5.9% on average, giving us the highest such fares in Europe.
Pay increases failed miserably to match inflation in 2011, with the gap between increases in average regular pay and the Retail Prices Index rising from 2.5% at the beginning of the year to 3.4% on the latest figures available. And, according to a recent CIPD survey, only 45% of workers got pay increases in 2011, with 48% having had their pay frozen and 5% having had it cut – worse figures than were ever seen during the recession.
Pensions have also been hit hard, and not only in the public sector (where two million people from 30 unions struck on 30 November – more than took action during the general strike). The Association of Consulting Actuaries recently said that there has been a ‘seismic collapse’ in private sector pension provision, with nine out of 10 private sector defined benefit schemes now closed to new entrants and 25% of companies planning to dispense with such schemes entirely in the next five years. According to other reports, employee participation in occupational pension funds is now at its lowest level since 1956 and 65% of employees have no such pensions and will only have the state pension to look forward to when they retire.
Because of the above and other factors, living standards have fallen sharply in the past year, with poorer families and those with children the worst affected. And all the indications are that this trend will continue, with the Institute of Fiscal Studies predicting that half a million more children will fall into ‘absolute poverty’ by 2015-16. This is not only reversing the fall in child poverty which we saw in recent years but indicates a level of impoverishment which has no precedent in modern times. And living standards are collapsing for older people as well, according to Age UK, with 1.8 million pensioners below the poverty line and local authority care services for the elderly cut by 4.5% in 2011.
While this is happening, the poor are being fleeced by pay-day loan companies like Wonga which can charge interest rates of up to 5,000% a year and by companies running ‘rent to own’ schemes which allow the poor access to cookers, washing machines and other necessities, but at outrageous prices. Pawnbrokers have also been doing a booming business and are making record profits from those who find themselves having to use their services.
The coalition says that all this austerity is inevitable because we have been living beyond our means and that we all have to make sacrifices before we can get back to the good times. Yet Britain is still one of the richest countries in the world (seventh richest according to the most recent assessment) and is awash with millionaires, multi millionaires, billionaires and cash-rich corporations for whom the good times have never disappeared.
These include corporate executives like Mick Davis of Xstrata, who made £18.4 million last year, Bart Brecht of Reckitt Benckiser, who made £17.9 million, Michael Spencer of ICAP, who made £13.4 million and Terry Leahy of Tesco, who made £12 million.
They also include Phil Bentley, CEO of British Gas, whose remuneration package was £4 million last year and Dave Hartnett, the HMRC head who agreed to let Goldman Sachs off interest payments of £10 million, who will be retiring this year with a reported £80,000 a year pension and a cash lump sum of £160,000. And F1 Chief Bernie Ecclestone has been so untouched by the hard times that he has been able to put £3 billion in a trust fund for his two daughters and reportedly gave £27.5 million to a banker to encourage him not to disclose information about that fund to HMRC. (His daughter Petra lives in a £54 million mansion in LA and had £12 million spent on her wedding. His daughter Tamara lives in a £45 million London mansion which has a spa and massage parlour for her dogs, as well as other features.)
It is because of people like these that income inequality is rising faster in the UK than in any other developed nation, as the OECD recently pointed out in a report called Divided we stand: why inequality keeps rising. That report said that the richest 0.1% of people in the UK own 5% of the country’s wealth, the richest 1% own 14%, and the poorest 30% of people own only 3%. Yet it is the poorest who are affected most by the coalition’s austerity programme!
In his 2012 New Year statement, David Cameron said that he ‘gets it’ when people tell him they are suffering because of job insecurity and rising prices – and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he ‘feels their pain’ as well. But what he doesn’t get is that it is his austerity programme which is destroying the economy, because people who have lost their jobs are not paying taxes to bring down the deficit and people whose living standards are being squeezed are not able to spend on the goods and services which other people are providing; consequently, economic growth is being choked off.
And what some of us are not getting is that there is an alternative to these attacks on our jobs, living standards, the welfare state and our rights at work and that we can turn them back if we stop believing the lies we are being fed and join the growing resistance to coalition and employer austerity policies at work and in our communities in 2012. Let’s do it!
Richard Lynch is a Dudden Hill resident. He is a retired Unite the Union official and currently conducts voluntary work on employment rights for the Brent Community Law Centre. He also acts as an accompanying representative for the GMB union.