Too far too fast? We don’t need cuts at all

More cuts make everything better
Cartoon by the excellent @dochackenbush

A little over a year ago I was out on a protest against the welfare reform bill. I was doing one of several interviews of that day, explaining exactly how the welfare reform bill was going to cause serious harm to a great deal of people.

“But you do accept that we need cuts?” said the interviewer.

“No.”

“What…?”

The interviewer was lost for words. Of course we need cuts. We have massive debt! There’s no money left!

I said something about the debt being caused by banks and about corporate tax avoidance but I wasn’t prepared for the question and my answer was not convincing enough. The interviewer had clearly decided I was mad and he moved on.

A year later, as then, the opposition from Labour to the Tory / LibDem austerity appears to be a simple statement that we do need cuts, and lots of them, but that the government are cutting too far and too fast. The Labour alternative is simply to cut a little less and to take longer to do it so as not to dump it all on the people at once. I think they are wrong.

So how can I justify that? As Liam Byrne said in his famous note to his successor at the Treasury in 2010, “There’s no money left.” The national debt is at £1.15 trillion. That’s £1,146,732,208,608 right this instant as I write. The deficit – the difference between the UK’s income and expenses – is running at well over ten billion pounds per month. That is, we borrowed an extra £13bn in January. The government have been making cuts, desperately slashing expenditure on public services, welfare and the military, and yet the debt continues to rocket upwards. Even the deficit is still growing, despite what the prime minister claims. Andrew Dilnot of the UK Statistics Authority had to point out to the prime minister that our debt has risen from £811bn in 2010 when the coalition took office to £1.1tn at the end of last year.

Why then, if cuts are being made, is our debt still going up? There are several answers to this.

  • We are in recession and income from tax is falling because money isn’t being spent to tax.
  • Cutting expenditure causes a further shrinking of the economy and a drop in tax income. The Office for Budget Responsibility says that in 2011-12 austerity reduced GDP by around 1.4%.
  • Cutting costs money. Cutting services means that we simply have to spend elsewhere to undo the damage of those cuts. For example, the cuts to care at home and the Independent Living Fund results in people being forced to move into care homes which easily costs ten times as much. Ditto for the bedroom tax, which sends disabled people into care homes and makes whole families homeless who then get put up in a “bed and breakfast” (with no breakfast) at many times the cost.
  • The government aren’t actually spending less despite cutting spending on services. Among other things they are spending money saved by those cuts on administration of welfare reform in more complex testing of benefits and in administration of outsourcing most NHS services. (I prefer to call it privatisation but technically it is outsourcing even if the result either way is a private hospital.)

Cutting doesn’t work, and “cutting” the way the government are doing it isn’t cutting at all, it’s moving money around into administration of private companies to run public services and then claiming that actually more is being invested in the NHS and more benefits money is available for “the most vulnerable” and “those who need it most”.

Assuming that we accept the current growth-obsessed financial system at all then these are the solutions to recession that we need to aim for:

  • Government must borrow more to smooth over the deficit until the economy picks up and tax income rises again, so that our income matches our outgoings.
  • We need to make tax avoidance illegal and recruit more staff at HMRC to collect those taxes. Closing the loopholes and clamping down on the tax gap would raise tens of billions of pounds.
  • We need to invest in doctors, nurses and facilities for the NHS and in care for sick and disabled people, thus creating jobs and providing for our needs at the same time.
  • We need to build social housing, creating jobs in the building industry while simultaneously bringing down rents and reducing the housing benefit bill.
  • We need to bring welfare benefits back above poverty levels, which not only provides for those who need it most, the mark of a civilised society, but would also put money back into the economy when spent. For a really radical solution we could consider some form of Basic Income.

Doing all of the above would create jobs and reduce expenses elsewhere, and result in money being spent by the people and going back into the economy rather than disappearing off as a banker’s bonus sitting in an offshore account.

Telling the full story of benefit changes

Mainstream media has shown very little interest in covering the coming changes to benefits and the impact that this will have. There is an occasional segment on TV news and a few more newspaper articles but even after two years of campaigning few people realise what is actually happening. The common reaction is disbelief and accusations of scaremongering and exaggeration.

My idea is to create an hour long documentary film using all the professional tricks to make it compelling and informative so that it conveys the full impact of the changes hitting people who live on benefits, whether unemployed, disabled or low-income. It would use personal stories, graphics, commentary, interviews and music to tell the story. The film does not have to convey a political message, only the reality of the changes. Any positive changes that can be found should be included too. I believe that even if made as unbiased as possible the film will be devastating in its message.

To get mainstream appeal the film could be narrated by and feature interviews with celebrities, with well-known paralympians potentially being the best choice but others too.

While a spot on television would be the ideal, these days a film on YouTube can get millions of views – potentially more than would see on TV. An online campaign using very short clips and hashtags could attract viewers. To raise the chances of it being seen on TV a ten minute version could be made using materials from the full version and sent to TV stations everywhere.

I’ve noted some of the steps that I think will be required. They’re not necessarily in any particular order.

  • Find a suitable name and some introductory branding
  • Create a website for the film
  • Crowdsource a list of all benefit cuts, eligibility reductions, care and service cuts and the impact of all this.
  • Start an awareness campaign on social media to get people involved.
  • Ask people to submit short clips through Vine and YouTube telling their stories and what they expect to happen. Clips can be recorded with smartphones or webcams. Gather these clips under a hashtag on twitter.
  • Raise funds through donations  for travelling to record interviews.
  • Interested parties meet to discuss content. Further meetings where appropriate in later steps.
  • Record interviews with celebs.
  • Follow up personal stories for better recordings.
  • Create graphics and animations to explain the changes.
  • Edit together a draft version of the film.
  • Record narration of the changes.
  • Create transcripts and subtitles.
  • Meet up physically and make a final version of the film.

This is all very much at the ideas stage, please comment with your views, suggestions, offers of help etc. Lets make this happen!

Olympic Opulence: Bread and circuses without the bread

David Cameron in Trafalgar Square
A clown at the circus

I am getting increasingly unhappy about the Olympic games. I have no problem with the concept of international sporting events, but the obscene amount of money that has been spent on the 2012 Olympics disgusts me. The budget has constantly increased and rather than the £2.4 billion that was expected in 2005 we will actually spend £9.3 billion on the games. That is even more than the horrific £9 billion that has been cut from welfare. The budgets for the opening ceremony and the security around the event have both recently been doubled. Jeremy Hunt said this week that we will not have an austerity Olympics because we must harness the opportunity. He said that hosting the Olympics would have a “massively positive impact” on economic confidence. David Cameron talked about “the global drama of the Olympics and the glory of the diamond jubilee”, and insisted that we should “look our best” and “feel pride in who we are and what we can achieve.”

Both of these statements seem to show that they care more about how the UK looks to the rest of the world than about how we develop our country or distribute our resources. There is an argument that looking good to the rest of the world might bring foreign investment to the UK but but quite honestly I think that’s irrelevant. It is unlikely to create any jobs where they matter and all the profits simply leave the country and return to the investors. And to be honest, they’re not very clever investors if they are fooled by some fancy games and by seeing idiots waving flags for a redundant queen.

Much was made of the benefits that the 2004 Olympics would bring to Athens and Greece but after that event the new infrastructure languished unused and bringing no economic benefit. There might be some benefit from the new infrastructure after the 2012 games are finished – thousands of homes have been built for the Olympic Village and housing association Triathlon Homes will purchase 1,379 of those homes. Another 1,439 homes will be bought by investors Qatari Diar and developers Delancey at a loss of £157 million. Personally I think that if these homes are being sold at a loss then they should ALL be social housing, not privately-rented homes. After all, our government is slashing housing benefit to save money and yet is not finding any alternative homes that people can afford to live in. And we still don’t even know what we will do with the Olympic Stadium after the games.

It has been reported that four thousand BMW cars have been purchased so that VIPs can be chauffeur-driven through London for the Olympics in reserved lanes and automatically given green lights that will cause chaos for all the other traffic in London. (Also in The Telegraph and The Daily Mail for those that way inclined.) Presumably this has been done to impress rich and important people and damn the consequences for the peasants. Overall the Olympics look to bring travel chaos and huge disruption for most ordinary people in London.

This is, quite literally, a case of Bread and Circuses. Keep the population happy with trivial entertainment and give them food and the politicians can screw the country over for the benefit of themselves and their banker friends without interference. Except the Tories seem to have messed even this simple thing up – there’s no bread. Bread has been cut.