As it became clear that a general election was looming, there commenced a curious and quite dramatic transfiguration here in the United Kingdom: the hulking deficit started to shrink; jobs began to fall like manna from heaven upon the hordes of unemployed; and, most importantly, ‘the economy’, previously stagnant, did not merely evince signs of growth, but was all of a sudden surely and rapidly expanding.
The main effect of these reputed developments has not been a salubrious material one for the mass of worker-consumers. Instead it has been the conjuration and reinforcement of an illusion, namely that of Tory ‘competence’ in matters pertaining to ‘the economy’. The tedious purveyors of this equally tedious legerdemain are found primarily of course in the Conservative Party itself, but also in great numbers across the whole of the corporate media. Their efforts may well be rewarded tomorrow with five more years of a Tory-led coalition.
The truth is that each element of the above-mentioned transfiguration can be shown to be illusory. First of all, there is the supposedly flourishing economy, which George Osborne claimed in his most recent Budget statement has ‘grown faster’ in the last year than that of ‘any other major advanced economy’. The artificial conjunction of ‘major’ and ‘advanced’—based on the IMF’s classifications of each—is convenient, because the economy of the United Kingdom was neither the fastest-growing major economy in 2014, nor the fastest-growing among those which are reckoned by the IMF to be advanced. Osborne’s artful assertion therefore rings hollow.
But let us not bed down with bland rhetoricians in mires semantic. On April 28, it was revealed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that quarterly growth had halved to 0.3% in the first three months of 2015. For the Tories, whose entire campaign has been built on the conceit of fiscal competence, news of such glacially slow expansion must have come as a blow. But it could not have come as a surprise: the actual rate of economic growth over the past five years has consistently failed to keep pace with the estimates and promises proffered by the Conservatives.
But gripes about sound bites and statistical analyses are no more than secondary to the question which crowds the mouths of voters everywhere: who are the beneficiaries of this so-called growth? The ordinary Briton does not seem to be among them. By most measures—and there is no place in this majority for the one on which Osborne relied in his Budget—living standards have fallen dramatically under the current government. Real wages are significantly lower than they were in 2007, with the Economist going so far as to call ‘pitiful’ the pay taken home by British workers. VAT was raised in 2010, household debt has never been higher, and rents continue to climb. Then there is the small matter of nearly a million people having sought sustenance from Trussell Trust food banks in 2013-14 alone.
Meanwhile, corporate profitability is soaring, and corporation tax has been slashed yet again. The obscene wealth of the thousand richest Britons has doubled since 2009. Indeed, the ONS in May 2014 reported that the richest one per cent of the population owned as much wealth as the poorest fifty per cent, and Credit Suisse, no less, has found that the most affluent ten per cent of Britons control 54 per cent of the country’s wealth, more than they did before the financial crisis struck. It is no coincidence that those who fund the Conservative Party belong to this gilded decile. Although the appalling concentration of riches is mirrored across the world, and worsening everywhere too, the United Kingdom is (still) among the most unequal societies in the ‘developed’ world, and the only G7 country in which wealth inequality has widened since the turn of the century. The Tories, their specious metrics notwithstanding, have in fact done nothing to reverse any of these patterns, and a great deal to sustain them.
In conclusion, then, the salutary effects of the so-called economic recovery have not been felt by the mass of people in this country. On the whole, we are no better off than we were when this government entered Whitehall, and in many respects we are poorer. We ought not, then, to be hoodwinked by hocus-pocus about a thriving economy; such a thing exists only in those parallel realities spun and inhabited by politicians and capital, and talk of it obscures completely the social relations which guarantee our continued subjection and alienation.
The second element of the great transfiguration is the claim that, owing to the status of the British economy as a ‘job-creating machine’, there are a ‘record number of people in work’. The (un)employment rate matters because jobs—the ‘stupefying, enervating, pseudo-automatic jobs of capitalist progress’—happen to be the only means by which units of labour-power—or rather, people—can muddle through. With jobs come security and prosperity, ostensibly at least. Job creation requires and necessarily flows from economic stability, or so we are led to believe. It is in the interest, then, of any given government to underscore the wondrous effect it has had on the rate of employment, however phantasmal such an effect has really been.
As far as this Tory-led administration is concerned, the official figures must not receive our full credulity. They are misleading in and of themselves, and therefore to the extent that they appear to support the narrative of increasing prosperity. For example, the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) last year found that just one in 40 of the new jobs created between 2008 and 2014 was a full-time position. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of people are languishing at present on zero hours contracts. Such contracts are the very embodiment of worker insecurity, which one esteemed neoliberal economist, in a distillation of the zeitgeist, celebrated for being ‘healthy for society’.
There are other reasons to be critical of the figures trumpeted by the coalition government. Osborne et al claim to have brought about a precipitous fall in unemployment. But why has the number of claimants of housing benefit—a reasonably accurate barometer of pecuniary hardship—shot up in the last five years? Could it be that even those in relatively secure employment are simply not paid enough? What does an (illusory) rise in employment matter, if workers cannot subsist on what they earn?
One final point exposes conclusively the tumefied deceptions of the Tory-led government on this matter. Two years ago, the Guardian, among others, noted that employment figures had been quite significantly bloated by the inclusion of those on government-supported schemes. One such scheme—perhaps the most notorious—is Workfare, which requires that labour be performed in return for welfare payments. Unremunerated drudgery is many things, but it is not employment. Yet this government and the ONS do not agree. The Director-General of the latter has said that ‘[t]hose participants whose activity comprises any form of work, work experience or work-related training are classified as in employment. This is regardless of whether the individual is paid or not.’ We may dismiss at once, then, Gideon Osborne’s lies so far as the (un)employment rate is concerned. But perhaps we ought not to question his resolve: he, and Atos, and Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions, have been so determined to find employment for the woebegone that their ‘fit-to-work’ assessments have mobilised individuals—like Karen Sherlock and Tim Salter and Brian McArdle—who were on the verge of death.
Lastly, there is the deficit. We cannot vacillate in deciding whether or not to recognise the following fact: this Tory-led government, under the guise of slashing the deficit, has savagely and systematically punished the poorest in society. There is, after all, no such thing as austerity for the rich, who have seen the top rate of income tax fall to 45p, and corporation tax reduced to the lowest rate in the whole of the G20. At the same time, spending cuts have bruised the NHS, which is also being privatised by stealth. Dozens of welfare cuts (e.g. to housing benefit, disability living allowance, legal aid et cetera) and very many more welfare sanctions have been effected since May 2010, leaving the poor, the young, the disabled and the elderly billions of pounds worse off than they were before the Tories took office. It is always worth remembering that real people have died as a direct result of this government’s policies, and not just in faraway Libya. Such policies, wicked as they are, might well have been protested in the courts, but the tuber-headed non-lawyer Grayling—having overseen the privatisation of the probation service, and the decimation of legal aid, and the summary administration of harsh sentences following the ‘riots’ of 2011—has moved to limit judicial review. Meanwhile, the very wealthy are handsomely subsidised to shoot grouse on their enormous estates, and ‘our’ Members of Parliament have awarded themselves a ten per cent pay rise at a time when the pay of (other) public sector workers has remained essentially the same.
The state apparatus will forever be mounted upon the runaway train of global capitalism, no matter which of two colours we decide it should be painted. We ought not to glorify the right to vote, or equate it with the existence of a functioning democracy, because it amounts to nothing more than a potential opportunity—extended to us only twice a decade—for damage limitation. It is, after all, absurd—and one is reluctant to cheapen Bookchin’s name by invoking it alongside Cameron’s or Osborne’s—to sincerely believe that ‘charismatic leaders, [bureaucratic] centralized institutions, and power-oriented political structures’ can create—among a population of tens of millions—an ‘active public sphere’, in which people, qua citizens, are able to shatter the existing economic order and effect the dissolution of social hierarchy in all its protean forms.
Nevertheless, it is clear, in light of the sinister deceptions described above, that the refusal to vote is not entirely satisfactory. None of the parties which appear today on ballots across the United Kingdom is capable of delivering any more than very limited reforms within the capitalist framework. But, more to the point, none is capable of showing more contempt for, or more cruelty towards, the most vulnerable in society than David Cameron’s Tories. We should not deign, then, to discuss Labour’s misrepresentations, or those spouted by any other party. We should simply do what we can to uproot the Conservatives, pending an onrush of genuine opposition to the economic system which ensures our collective misery.