During the past month, Britain’s sporting heroes in Team GB have taken on the world at the Olympic Games and, with performances which exceeded expectations, have delivered our biggest haul of medals for over 100 years. What a contrast with the other Team GB, the Conservative/LibDem coalition, which also promised success but has delivered a shrinking economy, increased unemployment and debt, poorer social provision and the biggest squeeze on the living standards of ordinary people in living memory!
When the coalition took office two years ago, it inherited an economy which had been hit hard by the worst global recession since the 1930s but was recovering and had been growing for five quarters. Instead of consolidating and encouraging that growth, however, it embarked on an unnecessary and unnecessarily savage austerity programme which choked off recovery, led to growth contracting over five of the following seven quarters and resulted in a return to recession.
Yet, when announcing his first budget after taking office, George Osborne said that if he didn’t introduce a harsh programme of tax increases and spending cuts, Britain would face:
‘Higher interest rates, more business failures, sharper rises in unemployment, and potentially even a catastrophic loss of confidence and the end of the recovery. We cannot let that happen. This budget is needed to deal with our country’s debts. This budget is needed to give confidence to the economy. This is an unavoidable budget.’
Bold words but what has been the outcome? Interest rates have remained low but, as Nobel prizewinning economist Paul Krugman has pointed out, they have remained low in the USA and Japan as well, countries with higher debt levels which didn’t rush into austerity.
On the downside, however, business failures have continued, with almost 4,000 companies going under in the last quarter and retail insolvencies rising by 10.3%. Unemployment remains well above the level Osborne inherited in May 2010, over a million young people are out of work and underemployment has become a major problem with a record 1.42 million people working part time because they can’t find full-time employment. Business and consumer confidence has collapsed to levels not seen since the worst point of the original recession, we have the highest trade deficit in 15 years, national debt is rising and the economy has contracted in the last three quarters, driving us into a double dip recession for only the second time since the Second World War.
And there’s no good news on the horizon either: The Bank of England is predicting a 0.2% contraction in growth this year and probably five further years of economic pain. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research is prediction a 0.5% contraction and the IMF has stated that Britain’s economic outlook is now deteriorating faster than that of any other major economy.
When Britain was facing big economic problems in the 1970s, Dennis Healy said that the first thing to do when you found yourself in a hole was to stop digging. Another smart bloke (either Albert Einstein or Roy Keane, I can’t remember which) said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. But Osborne remains adamant that he will not change course and that there is no Plan B for the economy. Such arrogance from a chancellor and cabinet which have clearly lost the plot is now coming under increasing attack, not only from unions and political opponents but from coalition politicians (one of whom called Osborne a ‘work experience chancellor’), from business organisations and leaders and from the general public. The majority of economists who backed the austerity programme during the 2010 general election are now calling on Osborne to change course. And the IMF, which also previously backed austerity, is now urging the chancellor to think again about cutting back and to focus on growth and on ‘boosting the bargaining power of labour’ to get more demand into the economy.
It’s not as if there is a shortage of good ideas about rebuilding confidence and demand and getting the economy back on its feet again. For example, stopping or slowing down the public sector and benefit cutbacks (even if only temporarily) would help lower the rate of unemployment, keep people paying taxes and maintain demand in the economy. Borrowing, at our famously low interest rates, to rebuild our creaking infrastructure and to build houses for people to live in, would boost employment in construction and related industries and get people spending again. Putting money back in the hands of ordinary people by cutting VAT (even if only temporarily), ending the freeze on public sector pay and even introducing quantitative easing for people, by creating money to put in the hands of the most needy rather than in the coffers of the banks, would all boost demand and encourage spending.
Indeed PPI refunds by the banks, which totalled £4.8 billion up to May, have already done more to boost the economy than the coalition, because people who have had money refunded have gone out and spent it!
The Olympics showed us that we don’t have to accept mediocrity or assume that we cannot reach new heights. We may have the fight of our lives on our hands but, as the TUC’s Frances O’Grady said, if we keep people together, build confidence and give a sense of hope and vision that things don’t have to be like this, we can build a better world. We can help win that better world by defending our rights in our workplaces and communities. But we can also help win it by mobilising now for the TUC’s national demonstration for a future that works on 20 October. It’s time to stop agonising and start organising!
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.