Sunday 3 March 2024

Squeeze Even Tighter

John Harris writes:

A few days before Rishi Sunak emerged from 10 Downing Street to warn of forces “trying to tear us apart” and his belief that our streets have been “hijacked”, there was a news story about a national emergency that has yet to spark any such theatrics. The Guardian reported the findings of a new study by the children’s charity Kindred2, in which 1,000 primary school teachers in England and Wales were asked about the developmental condition of kids starting school, and the widely shared sense that “school readiness” has long since fallen into decline. About one in four children entering reception year, they said, are now not toilet-trained. Nearly 40% “struggle to play or share with others” and 28% “incorrectly use books”: their instinctive response to being presented with one, it seems, is to swipe or tap it, “as if using an electronic device”.

Even if a lot of what sits behind those figures is confounding and complicated, it is not hard to join the relevant dots from these heartbreaking problems to the defining political fact of the last 14 years: austerity, and how long years of cuts have played out in millions of lives. Since 2010, England has lost just over 1,400 of the children’s centres that the last Labour government set up to tackle exactly the developmental issues that now seem to have exploded. If kids seem unfamiliar with books, that probably reflects the woeful number of public libraries that have gone, with even more set to close in the midst of local government’s latest financial crisis. Meanwhile, austerity’s most vivid manifestation – simple poverty – is surely at the heart of what is now evident in thousands of reception classes.

All this ought to form one of the contexts for this week’s budget. But when the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, addresses the House of Commons on Wednesday, there will be much louder chatter about what his announcements mean for the forthcoming election. As chancellors usually do, he will doubtless rhapsodise about corners being turned, and claim that his and Sunak’s “plan” – whatever that is – is working. Nonetheless, cuts and their human consequences will surely hover over the proceedings, in terms of the political present, the UK’s immediate future, and a set of dashed Conservative promises that go back into the recent(ish) past.

Back in 2015, George Osborne’s autumn statement – in which he announced a £27bn fiscal windfall – prompted supportive media outlets to announce what the Daily Telegraph heralded as “the end of austerity”. Three years later, Theresa May reprised the same tune. “A decade after the financial crash, people need to know that the austerity it led to is over and that their hard work has paid off,” she said. Boris Johnson framed his period of misrule in terms of “building back better”, and levelling up. But here we are again: councils are straining to avoid bankruptcy, daily headlines highlight the dire state of public services, and what awaits after the election may well turn out to be even worse.

Which brings us to a fact that nags at our politics like a headache. In last year’s autumn statement, Hunt announced tax cuts of around £20bn, which only deepened the sense of a looming cliff-edge. He is sticking to the fiscal rules centred on national debt falling as a percentage of GDP by the fifth year of the Office for Budget Responsibility’s latest forecast, which the Labour party also insists it will obey. Reports over the weekend that Hunt is now targeting public-sector “waste” and ferreting around for money to fund another round of tax cuts – from a levy on vapes, a move on tax breaks for holiday landlords, and pilfering Labour’s plan to abolish non-dom status – do not affect the basic picture. Because of – among other things – anaemic economic growth, just about all credible projections show that, unless something fundamental changes over the next five years, we face dwindling public investment and annual real-terms cuts of about £20bn to “unprotected” government departments. These are the ones that see to the police (so much, it seems, for the prime minister’s bloviating about “a new robust framework” for keeping the public safe from extremists), prisons, transport, further education, jobcentres and, most obviously, funding for the local councils that deliver so many basic services. The budget, moreover, may well make that squeeze even tighter.

But will cuts as severe as these actually materialise? Given Labour’s poll lead, that is a question now being asked of the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves. She recently acknowledged that public services need “an immediate injection of cash”, but Labour’s very limited plans for fiscal changes will get nowhere near filling the holes. Just before Christmas, Keir Starmer warned that “anyone who expects an incoming Labour government to quickly turn on the spending taps is going to be disappointed”, which seemed to confirm some people’s worst fears. Others insist that cuts on this scale would be politically impossible, and speculate about a drop in the cost of borrowing opening the way to increased public spending, or some other tax change that Reeves will keep secret until after the election doing the same. But even those possibilities do not detract from the inescapable fact that, without a really drastic shift in fiscal policy, we still look set to remain a country in which decay and decline are an ingrained part of the national condition.

We all need to understand what this will mean. Kids will carry on struggling at school and needing help with some of the most basic life skills. Pensioners’ care packages will be serially hacked back; the crisis in special needs education will grind on. Crime will worsen; our cratered roads will continue to deteriorate; far too many towns will be forlorn places, with shut-down swimming pools and the most paltry public transport. For some people, the word “cuts” will carry on being a visceral term for what is missing from their lives; for others, austerity will be the ambient, low-level feature of everyday existence that hardens up their sense of being ignored.

After all those promises that austerity was over being followed by more of the same, maybe this is where the elusive “British way of life” is now to be found: in the shared experience of constantly living in pinched circumstances, which often gives rise to a stoicism – “mustn’t grumble”, and all that – that the people responsible really do not deserve. That said, there is something that has long been unsettling our political system that politicians on both sides of the House of Commons ought to take very seriously indeed. We probably saw it again last week in Rochdale – where, although Gaza was the big issue, plenty of reports also mentioned the town’s air of weary disconnection from Westminster. Paging Hunt, Reeves, Starmer and Sunak: if your actions suggest you are not much interested in these basic aspects of people’s lives, a lot of people will carry on having very little interest in you.


  1. After how it treated Jeremy Corbyn the Guardian needs to cry more.