This miserly budget privatises social struggle as individual shame

“What has happened in Parliament in recent weeks should have us all very worried. Never before has it been more obvious that our democracy is a front for the management and control of capital, big business, and profiteering.”

By Laura Smith

If, like me, you are in your thirties, then the politics of the British economy is beginning to seem like Groundhog Day. All I can remember, for all of my adult life, is variations of the same message over and over again, on a seemingly recurring loop. We must ‘tighten our belts’, ‘live within our means’, ‘be fiscally responsible’, work harder and harder for a promised reward of a livable life that proves to be endlessly deferred. 

Meanwhile, what growth there has been – now grinding to a halt in the third crisis in a decade, from the financial crash to Covid and now the meatgrinder of the ‘cost of living’ crunch – has been steadily syphoned upwards, bloating the asset values and wealth of a bunch of fat cats who are growing richer and richer. Private wealth is further and further amassed amid public squalor. And government policy serves only to accelerate this, as can be seen in the latest Robin-Hood-in-reverse budget. 

As fat cats go, they don’t come much fatter than our rulers today. Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is ‘worth’ a cool £14 million, while Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, is the richest MP – perhaps even the richest MP ever – and along with his wife is ‘worth’ around £750 million. As the public is urged to brace for another round of austerity, this belt-tightening has not reached up to the echelons of society in which these fat cats move.  Luxury goods firms are reporting record demand, and champagne is selling out as the super-rich clink their flutes at the fact that they’ve never had it so good. Every day now I ask myself: ‘How much more will the British public put up with before they truly say enough is enough?’

Unfortunately, in this dog-eat-dog (unless you are a royal Corgi!) economy, it would appear that too many remain trusting of the very people who have caused this ongoing crisis, such that Sunak can enter Downing Street promising to deal with a failing economy which he himself was greatly responsible for creating. But ordinary people are too busy desperately trying to get by, balancing their household budgets and exhausted by life, trying whenever they can to get some modicum of enjoyment for their hard graft. And, of course, there is the British stiff upper lip—ingrained into us from birth. Occasionally the mask slips and someone on a parents’ WhatsApp group or a work chat hints at financial struggle and at things not being too rosy. This is quickly offset with a disclaimer—‘but of course I could be worse off’—as they compare their lives with the thought of some poor soul in even greater turmoil. This is the privatisation of social struggle as individual shame.

The right-wing media machine is in full operation once more, making sure that if people are struggling they are left in no doubt that they are to blame themselves. If only they had tried that bit harder, stretched that bit further, cut back that bit more, they could be the ones whacking up the heating this winter. Of course, this is all nonsense. The fact remains that in a rigged economy most of us stand no chance at achieving any real financial security unless we are the lucky few at the top who own all the assets. Real work isn’t rewarded, only real wealth. As inflation devours ordinary people’s pay cheques, capital gains remain king.

As guardians of the existing order, the establishment media has been in overdrive, seeking to reassure people that the brief period when Liz Truss and the far right of the Tory Party were overreaching so spectacularly was but a moment, an eccentric aberration, and normal service has resumed. The pendulum having swung too far one way, the crazies have been deposed by the capital markets, and there is a reversion to the status quo. Even this is being used to secure the existing state of things: I mean, the lesson is that you cannot go around tearing up the rule book in such a blatant fashion, right? Or the markets will discipline you. The ‘bond vigilantes’ are back in town (or so we’re told); Britannia is back in chains.

Truss and Kwarteng, in their determination to appeal to far-right populism and tax the poor to give to the rich, did overreach, and their fantasy fever-dream born of the wild imaginings of the conservative think tanks was clearly never going to be a vote winner. But let me be very clear: what has happened in Parliament in recent weeks should have us all very worried. Never before has it been more obvious that our democracy is a front for the management and control of capital, big business, and profiteering.

Never forget that Sunak and Hunt are part of the same beast. Caring little about anything other than keeping people in their place. The working-class and, indeed, large segments of the middle classes will suffer a 7 percentage point drop in living standards in the next two years as a result of the latest budget. Incomes are evaporating before people’s eyes as it becomes so obvious that all the government really wants from them is hours of labour only to gobble away their wages to fatten up stock prices and share values through rip-off bills and continuing privatisation. For many people this will mean real financial difficulty if not utter destitution.  

Food price inflation continues to rise even faster than the overall rate, and energy prices are trebling. Rents are rising, and the bottom is falling out of housing. As more small businesses struggle, they are left with little option but to raise their own prices. Trickle-down economics is a busted flush. All the while the government and their attack dogs in the media, together with the fat cats in management, have the arrogance to attack those taking industrial action who are bravely stating that enough is enough.

Workers, especially those in the public sector, are being expected to stick to pay limits which are a fraction of the level of inflation – a real terms reduction in pay after years of wage stagnation. Schools, hospitals and council services are already cut to the bone, but they are being hit once more – and for no other reason than that this Tory government (in whatever form it takes) continues to get away with it and has done for over a decade.

Whilst Hunt and Sunak are much more careful to be seen to tax the rich a little bit more, this is continued austerity, plain and simple, with no desire to really do what is required in this country to make the economy work for the many not just the few.

Working people are experiencing an unprecedented attack on their living standards. Millions are being forced into misery by skyrocketing bills, low wages, a threadbare welfare system, and poor housing. Real pay is falling at a record pace as poverty and insecurity surges. But while workers and communities face relentless and growing pressure to simply make ends meet, corporate profits are booming and the very richest have seen their wealth explode. If inflation is always a distributional struggle, we are living through a brutal and one-sided class war.

This is not by accident. We have arrived at this crisis – and are experiencing it in this acutely unequal fashion – due to policy choices (both short and long term), choices driven by political decisions and priorities. Those choices have actively turned the economy into an inequality machine, extracting and concentrating the wealth we collectively create for a narrow ownership class. It is no surprise, that the system has responded to the crisis by forcing costs onto working people while expropriating the gains for a wealthy elite.

In response, the question is simple. Whose side are you really on? The workers or the bosses? The trade unions or the privateers? Private affluence amid public squalor, or a New Deal for ordinary working people? And what agenda can respond to the crisis with the ambition and scale the moment demands?

The whole working-class movement needs to be building resistance and finding a way to support each other to push back once and for all at this greed-driven system run by and for parasites. We must transform who has economic power, redistributing wealth and income so everyone has access to the resources needed to live a secure, thriving life, and reversing the failures of privatisation. That in turn will require reviving tools that have long been proscribed: public ownership, democratic planning, social investment, and revitalised worker power. We cannot continue to waste time waiting for a saviour to come along and rescue us. We must act ourselves, and the time must be now.

  • Laura Smith is a trade unionist, councillor in Cheshire East and former MP for Crewe & Nantwich. You can follow her on FacebookInstagram and twitter.
  • CONFERENCE: Solidarity, Struggle , Socialism – Saturday 10 December taking place at Conway Hall 25 Red Lion Square, London, WC1R 4RL. Speakers include: Laura Smith // John McDonnell MP // Sarah Woolley, BFAWU General Secretary // Richard Burgon MP // Mick Whelan, ASLEF GS // Nadia Whittome MP // Zita Holbourne, Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC) // Lord John Hendy KC // Hilary Schan, Momentum // Ben Chacko, Morning Star // Sabby Dhalu, Stand up to Racism // Heidi Chow, Debt Justice // Steve Howell // Holly Turner, NHS Workers Say No // Jon Trickett MP // Dave Ward, CWU GS & more. Register here.
Featured image: We won’t pay for their crisis

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