“I really hate the increasing use of the word ‘vulnerable’ to describe people, who are, more truthfully, oppressed.” Frankie Boyle
Many consider the Brexit the most decisive turning point in UK politics since the end of the Second World War. From a cabal within the Conservative party Cameron wanted to smother by winning a referendum on Europe, the Brexit has become an all-encompassing monster with a government out of control, hijacked, as Wren-Lewis writes, by a small minority of elite super neoliberal fundamentalists (see here). True, but the caveat applies that already long before the Tories started to gamble with the future prosperity of their population, the party was shooting craps with the lives of some of its own people. That is the defining moment, not of UK politics, but of our era.
The first part deals with unemployment, which is, according to the Tories, historically low and proof positive of the benignness of their policies. It isn’t true. The second part deals with the Tory cuts to social welfare and health care. Following Chernomas and Hudson, I call it social murder. I referred to a study from 2015, which argued that cuts and sanctions led to the excess death of 30.000 people. But forget this. Last evening, both The London Economic News and The Independent published articles highlighting the results of a new study. Now it is all over the news: since 2010, the Tory cuts have been responsible for the excess deaths of 124.000 people. The Independent calls it ‘economic murder’ (see here; here for the London Economic).
Tory accomplishment no.1: “unemployment lowest since 1975”
The UK witnesses the slowest wage growth since Napoleonic Wars. Currently, it has the worst productivity growth in the EU. Its national debt almost tripled during the last seven austerity years (national debt in 2009 was £ 0.8 trn; in August 2017, it stood at £ 1.9 trn). Inflation is at its highest point of almost 6 years. The UK has the lowest ever credit rating and the highest ever trade gap. But, the Tories say, at least, unemployment plummeted. “Under this Government we have seen, on average, an extra 1.000 people in employment every day since 2010,” May boosts. It is true?
The official unemployment rate stands at 4.3%. Unemployment is not at a 42 year record low of 1.425.000 – it stood, for example, at 1.397.000 in 2004. More importantly, wages lag behind the cost of living. In real terms, wages fell by 0.5% compared to a year ago, with inflation rising – it currently stands at a five and a half year high of 3%. Meanwhile, the number of employed people dropped to 32 million, down 14.000 from the last quarter. The number of economically inactive people increased by 117.000 to 8.8 million in Q3. The figures show that the fall in employment is concentrated amongst the 18-24 year olds, suggesting that many of them are returning to education. This makes sense, because who wants to work and suffer for stagnating wages (at best) if there is a chance of getting a degree? According to the Statistics Office, productivity is growing, but at a much slower rate than before the financial crisis. It is therefore, the Tories say, paramount to maintain flexibility in the labour market. But the UK has already the most deregulated labour market in Europe. Where are the growing well-paid jobs?
Tory accomplishment no 2: plain social murder
One is not supposed to invoke social murder in a discussion – its sounds uncivilized and exaggerated, if not hysterical and takes you out of the discussion. But now, finally, the discussion is about social murder. Today, homelessness stands at 307.000 (an increase of 134% since 2010); food poverty is up 13% to 587.000; food bank use is up by more than 500%, child poverty is said to hit 37% by 2022; fuel poverty is up 11% and will hit 2.5m people this winter – there is no doubt that some thousands of mainly elderly will die the coming winter (see here).
Read again: in the fifth largest economy on Earth, one in 200 is homeless. In a few years from now, 37% of its children will grow up in poverty. Meanwhile, around £300 billion of British individuals’ wealth – the equivalent of ca. 15% of UK GDP – is stashed in offshore tax havens (the figure comes from Gabriel Zucman, here). The richest 0.01% of Britons siphon 30-40% of their wealth offshore into secrecy jurisdictions. Most of it is legal, as if that makes it right. According to Richard Murphy from Tax Research UK, 13 holding companies belong to its ultimate parent company, Virgin Group Holdings Ltd, based in the British Virgin Islands. Murphy writes that this type of company structure makes it unlikely that Virgin care will pay any tax in the UK in the foreseeable future (see here). Branson himself, with his net worth in excess of £ 2.7 bn, is not even domiciled in the UK. The newspapers have given remarkably precious little attention to the new allegations, the so-called Paradise Papers. James O’Brien explains that it is because the tax avoiders own the newspapers. Prosaic and stupid yes, and true (see here for the Murdochs, the Barclays, the Harmsworths – the owners of newspapers like the Daily Mail that, day in day out, attack the ‘traitors’ and sprout racism and xenophobia, while their masters are domiciled in the Virgin Islands, too patriotic to pay tax – ‘tax is for stupid people’) (see also here).
The homelessness crisis is due to the lack of construction, soaring rents and cuts in social welfare. The new “affordable starter homes” the Tories build, sell for £450.000 a piece (see here). Local (public) authorities in the UK built more council homes in 1946 than in 2014. The number of homeowners under the age of 45 in England has dropped by 904.000 since 2010. Average house price in London in 1996 was £79.000. In 2016, it was £488.908 – a 518% increase. Nine of out of the ten poorest areas in Northern Europe are in the UK (the other one is Hainaut in Belgium – another scandal of decades of political neglect, industry moving out and no reconversion).
Trussel Trust handed out 1.182.954 three-day emergency food supplies to people in need during 2016-17. The primary reasons for the use of food banks are low income, benefit delays and changes to the social security system. Orwellian “welfare reform” is driving up demand and leaving vulnerable people hungry and penniless. More than 300.000 people in Britain – the equivalent to one in every 200 – are officially recorded as homeless or living in inadequate homes. Shelter said the official government data were an underestimate as they did not include people trapped in hidden homelessness – people who have nowhere to live but are not recorded as such and end up ‘sofa surfing.’ London, where one in every 59 people are homeless, remains Britain’s homelessness centre. In Manchester, one in 154 people are homeless (compared with one in 266 in 2016); in Birmingham one in 88 are homeless; in Bristol one in 170 (see here).
Do not expect this to make an impression on the Tory fundamentalists. Howlett, Tory MP for Bath, believes that “there are no children here that need free school meals. If it would be up to me, I would prosecute any parent who can’t afford to pay their own child’s lunch. These people are scum and need to be utterly eradicated.” For the rich, who isolate themselves from vertical socializing, the poor are something entirely theoretical. The rich are convinced that they know what is best for them – the basic mechanism of all oppression.
To simply put it as it is, the Tory government is killing its own citizens, the superfluous, the penniless, the chronically unemployed, the sick and the old. Claiming that the state is the direct cause of deaths of its own citizens is not a small thing. Until recently, it was more or less verboten to address. Last week Aditya Chakrabortty from the Guardian did it anyway on national television. Is the right, Zoe Williams asked (see here)? Some ninety people a month die after being declared fit for work, but can we really lay those deaths at the government’s feet? Is there a straight causal link between a sanction and a suicide, a heart attack, a stroke? Who can say these people would not have died anyway? It is here that the epidemiological research comes in. A previous study, from Oxford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, argued in 2015 that there had been 30.000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales, the greatest rise in mortality for 50 years, pointing towards the impact of cuts resulting from the imposition of austerity (see here).
Now there is a new study. The paper, published in BMJ Open on 16/11 (lead author is Dr. Ben Maruthappu) argues that there were 45.368 more deaths in the first four years of Tory-led efficiencies than would have been expected if funding had stayed at pre-election levels. Mortality rates in the UK had declined steadily from 2001 to 2010, but this reversed sharply with the death rate growing again after austerity came in. Based on those trends it predicted the next five years – from 2015 to 2020 – would account for 152,141 deaths – 100 a day. The figure could rise to nearly 200.000 by the end of 2020, even with the extra funding that has been earmarked for public sector services this year.
What happened? Under Labour, per capita public health spending between 2001 and 2010 increased by 3.8% a year, but between 2010 and 2014 – Cameron’s government – increases were just 0.41%. In social care, the annual budget increase collapsed from 2.20 per cent annually, to a decrease of 1.57 per cent. The researchers found this coincided with death rates, which had decreased by around 0.77 per cent a year to 2010, beginning to increase by 0.87 per cent a year. The majority of those were people reliant on social care, most likely, the paper states, because social care experienced even greater relative spending constraints than healthcare. One of his co-author’s, Professor Lawrence King of the Applied Health Research Unit at Cambridge University, said it showed the damage caused by austerity: “It is now very clear that austerity does not promote growth or reduce deficits – it is bad economics, but good class politics. This study shows it is also a public health disaster. It is not an exaggeration to call it economic murder” (see here).
Is there a reaction? Government officials vehemently reject all such claims, but, strikingly, take no further interest in the matter. You would think that, even if a government vigorously denied responsibility for near 150.000 excess deaths, it would, at the very least ask where, then, responsibility lay. But no one in power cares. People die having had their support system ripped from them and the response is a shrugging “whatever.” The dead don’t vote and there is a segment of the population that thinks ‘good riddance.’ The Tories made the UK into something to be absolutely ashamed off. When the news hit the newspapers that fitness to work assessors ask unemployed people why they did not kill themselves yet, the official matter-of-fact answer was that this was a standard question (see here). It’s okay then. This is the British social welfare state in 2017.