CHANCELLOR Rishi Sunak’s Budget seemed at times to be delivered from an alternate reality.
Lacklustre opposition and a highly partisan, pro-Tory media have made for a brazen government that boasts about its response to the coronavirus crisis, confident its claims are unlikely to be subjected to scrutiny.
How does that square with Britain’s 120,000 deaths — more than anywhere else in Europe — and an economic downturn steeper than in any other G7 country?
More audaciously still, Sunak echoes the outrageous lie that 10 years of Tory spending cuts somehow left Britain in better shape when the pandemic struck.
Sunak’s resurrection of the claim that a decade of Tory governments “rebuilt our fiscal resilience” so we could dig deep when faced with an emergency is ominous.
It lays the groundwork for making ordinary people pay for the costs of this crisis through attacks on pay and the public sector.
Yet 10 years of the poisonous economic cocktail dubbed “austerity” are a major reason coronavirus has hit Britain harder than almost every other country.
As Keir Starmer pointed out in his response, we entered the crisis with 100,000 unfilled posts in the National Health Service, 3.6 million people in insecure work and record levels of in-work poverty.
As for fiscal responsibility, he was right to criticise the “failed experiment” of hefty corporation tax cuts under George Osborne, even if the message was undermined by Labour’s pre-Budget opposition to a rise that Sunak ended up pushing two years into the future.
The chaos and inefficiency of an outsourced public service model has been an unmitigated disaster, from NHS Supply Chain’s problems with delivery of personal protective equipment to the privatised test-and-trace fiasco that meant we were unable to prevent second and third waves of the virus.
Workers on insecure contracts without proper rights or sick pay (and the criminally low level of statutory sick pay was left untouched in the Budget) cannot afford to isolate, a major factor in virus transmission.
Amid this ruinous scene Sunak boasts of extending furlough. But job losses already run into the millions and half of those on furlough expect to lose their jobs.
The Chancellor dangles ludicrous levels of tax relief in the hope of tempting businesses to invest when the case for direct government investment to create jobs and deliver services — especially in sectors like education, where smaller class sizes have an obvious safety advantage in a pandemic — is overwhelming.
And he threatens to further undermine workers’ rights while reducing corporate obligations to the public by creating “free ports” likely to function as tax havens.
Even pluses like the temporary extension of the £20 uplift in universal credit draw attention to the fact that the payment is set at a rate too low to live on — but which ministers will be happy to force on the country’s most vulnerable once the claimant numbers fall to politically safer levels.
It is no surprise that a Conservative Budget does not address any of the serious structural injustices blighting the British economy. It doesn’t tackle the unemployment crisis, the job security crisis, chronic low pay, a social security system that does not protect people when they need it. It did not acknowledge the pressing question of corporate capture of our public services.
That puts the onus on our movement to make social and economic justice the overriding political question of the day — as Labour managed to under Jeremy Corbyn between 2015 and 2017. This means a counterattack in defence of jobs and wages.
Starmer’s strong attack on austerity in Parliament today was welcome, but must be extended to encompass questions of ownership and control, the relationship between mass poverty and elite wealth — the many not the few.
That cannot be done in Parliament, even if Labour were still led by socialists. It is a job for all of us.
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