How Five Years of Coalition Rule Have Totally Fucked the Young in the UK
Whatever happens in this week's election, the "lost generation" needs to reclaim its future.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
After five years of austerity that has reduced 13 million people to poverty, the coalition government have presided over a social disaster that shows no signs of abating. Against this backdrop, commentators have chattered about a "lost generation" who stand to be some of the biggest losers from the austerity agenda. By "generation" they mean you and me, and "lost" is a euphemism for "completely fucked." As the election looms we would do well to look back on how we have got here to see where we should go now.
The coalition limped into power in 2010 promising to eradicate the budget deficit—apparently brought about by welfare largesse—in a single parliament, through eye-watering cuts to public services. Austerity, it was claimed, would return the economy to growth, with the "long-term plan" touted as the only viable corrective. Yet for all the talk about the numbers, the coalition were mainly being economical with the truth: it was a global financial crisis—so severe the world economy was just hours away from total collapse—that had torpedoed the UK's finances. The UK had incurred huge debts not due to Labour's budget deficit—which was small in historical terms—but the handover of £1.4 trillion ($2.1 trillion) to the banks.
Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize winning economist and blue chip of Keynesian stock, recently remarked that the entire fundamental basis of the austerity push has been discredited; stating that at its core "results were based on highly dubious assumptions and procedures—plus a few outright mistakes—and evaporated under closer scrutiny." Krugman isn't alone in his criticism. Even the hawkish IMF has acknowledged austerity is doing more harm than good, so it's little wonder he describes it as an economic strategy akin to "repeatedly punching yourself in the face."
Unsurprisingly, given both their analysis and solution to the problem is so woefully, perhaps willingly flawed, the coalition have categorically failed on each of their own terms. Presiding over the slowest recovery in over 100 years, austerity has suffocated the economy and stripped it of the AAA credit rating it set out to retain. Osborne's much vaunted plan to "eliminate the deficit" was abandoned after just two years as negligible growth flatlined, forcing him to borrow more money in three years than Labour did in 13, leaving public finances almost exactly the same as when the coalition came to power.
Despite this catalogue of failure, with the spin machine running at full speed the only thing more stagnant than the economy is the discourse around it. Thanks to the economy ranking as one of the all-time most boring conversation topics, complexity mixed with apathy has turned disaster into success. But beneath the bullshit, the magic numbers and pretty graphs translate into a pretty vicious lived experience. Let's see how that's working out for you.
Perhaps the easiest way of understanding government policy is to completely reverse whatever lie they're claiming is truth. Take education: The Lib Dems came to power promising free education, but one of the first acts of the coalition was to treble tuition fees, slash funding, and abolish the Educational Maintenance Allowance—a lifeline for disadvantaged students. Without it, over 60 percent said they would be unable to attend college. Naturally students weren't so keen on this idea, warning the proposals would devastate education and registering their disaffection by smashing up the offices of the Conservative Party. The coalition responded in kind, meeting the outrage of hundreds of thousands of students by repeatedly dispatching the police to smash their skulls in.
The reason? The economy, stupid. Except the only stupid thing is the policy itself. By saddling graduates with up to £48,000 [$73,000] of debt many will never afford to pay back, the new policy of £9,000 [$14,000] fees will cost more money than it's saved and has created a time bomb in university finances. As universities and schools increasingly resemble businesses focusing on worthwhile endeavors such as property speculation or the arms industry, pay for senior managers has skyrocketed whilst wages for academics and cleaners has been savagely degraded. The promise of increased choice in the newly commercialized system has proven equally elusive, with 75 percent cuts to teaching budgets leading to sweeping course closures and a shortage of places that has locked tens of thousands out of education.
University or not, sooner or later you'll need to get a job—perhaps because you're one in every four young people with debts of over £10,000 [$15,000]. Luckily, you can do whatever you like, as long as it's in the service sector and atrociously paid. Despite Cameron's celebration of the creation of 1.8 million jobs, the coalition's desire to lure in foreign investment by "competing in the global race" essentially means we're trying to vie with low wage economies such as China, with obvious results for pay and conditions.
Under the coalition, casualization of employment has accelerated markedly: over 1.5 million people, at least 70 percent of whom are women, are under-employed, or on zero-hour contracts. Struggling from one week to the next with no idea how much they can expect to earn, the precariously employed are beset by significantly lower wages and can't risk complaining for fear of not getting any more work.
Here's another way of looking at things as the government pats itself for creating jobs: Your derisory pay packet and bullying boss are the result of coalition policies.
With sclerotic growth and low investment, wages are still well below their pre-crash levels. Meanwhile, skilled jobs evaporate: For each graduate job last year there were 75 applicants, fueling the meteoric rise in unpaid internships as people struggle to escape the dead-end jobs market for something more fulfilling. The closure of careers services and loss of youth centers have further curtailed the assistance available to those who haven't gone to university, predictably hitting the most disadvantaged hardest. Increasingly trapped in jobs we hate, we're all working harder, longer, and for less.
Still, those are the lucky ones. If you're unemployed—and if you're young that's more likely to be the case, doubly so if you're not white—then the coalition's sanctions regime, workfare, will cut your meagre benefits if you refuse to work for free. The Conservatives claim this "helps people get back to work." How a choice between involuntary servitude or starvation is "helping" anyone get back to anything except feudalism is unclear. This mobilization of reserve labor through welfare payments amounts to a huge state subsidy for corporate behemoths like Tesco, further undermining wages—and, conveniently, those annoying unemployment figures.
Vicious cuts to housing support have expelled the financially defenseless from city centers, devastating support networks, employment opportunities, and communities. In the past three years over 50,000 people have been forced out of London alone, whilst the destruction of social housing only exacerbates a housing crisis that's locking young and old alike out of basic access to shelter.
With housing benefits for the under-25s cut, people seeking to move out of their family homes for the first time while struggling to keep a low paid job have found the housing crisis is particularly acute. Record numbers of young people are still living with their parents. It's a strangely infantilizing situation to come about given the government's emphasis on standing on one's own feet.
There's no respite either. Leaked proposals show the Conservatives' plan to strip under-25s of access to unemployment and housing benefits, condemning those whose families don't have much money stashed away to destitution if they get unlucky. Single mothers will be forced into any job they can find, whilst sick pay will be made even harder to attain—this is at a time when cancer patients are already being deemed "fit to work."
With cuts to support payments ranging from the disabled to the terminally ill, the merciless assault on the destitute is eviscerating the lives of millions of people. A recent LSE investigation into the effects of Welfare "reform" in the South West lays bare the horror being inflicted: pensioners are being reduced to eating dog food to survive, whilst relentless harassment and sanctions have induced several suicides—far from isolated incidents.
Related: Watch our related documentary 'Shy Bairns Get Nowt: Inside Britain's Busiest Food Bank'
Little wonder that under the coalition, homelessness has surged, nearly a million people are reliant on food banks, and that last winter alone, 15,000 people froze to death unable to afford heating. Despite such degrading treatment of the most vulnerable in society, leading Tories such as Iain Duncan-Smith celebrate the success of their policies as if the human cost was incidental.
Writing in the 1980s, Antonio Negri suggested that the neoliberal hegemony that was emerging at that time came as a response to the economic crisis of the 1970s. In a desperate attempt to revive growth and profits, Western governments began developing the austerity approach. The full range of governmental policy tools would be brought to bear to drive down wages, whilst privatisation asset-stripped the public sector for the benefit of speculators. The shrinking of the state through monumental cuts to welfare provisions would be used to fund massive tax cuts for the wealthy, while the force of the state would be used to crush opposition. The effect has been a massive upwards transfer of wealth, creating inequality on a scale not seen in decades and an elite of unsurpassed financial power that dominates the global political landscape.
Since taking power, the coalition have presided over the exact same process in Britain. The worst-off in society have seen income drops of over 15 percent, whilst the super rich have doubled in value. Britain's five wealthiest families now control more wealth than 14 million of the poorest combined. In total, the top one percent monopolize more wealth than 55 percent of the entire population.
Negri's prescient writing suggested that austerity was a permanent state rather than a temporary measure. In November 2013, at a dinner for millionaires, the pretense that we are enduring pain now to enjoy a brighter tomorrow was dropped. David Cameron stood behind a golden lectern and made an appeal for "permanent austerity." The writing is there, in gilded lettering, on the wall of a banquet hall.
For decades, the government has demonstrably orchestrated the continued pillaging of the poor to satisfy the insatiable greed of the rich. Thatcher claimed her greatest success was Tony Blair, whilst Cameron came into Parliament stating that he was the "Heir to Blair." In this context, the coalition claim that "we're all in this together" more accurately fits the political class rather than any social program.
The difference between parties this election has never looked more paltry: Cameron has pledged to extend austerity and slash welfare in plans hidden from the electorate. Ed Miliband has promised to extend austerity and slash welfare in plans etched into a rock. Both parties have promised to deal with UKIP's "Schrödinger's immigrant," who lives off unemployment benefits whilst simultaneously stealing all the jobs. Neither party has a viable proposition to address the housing crisis, social emergency, or impending climate catastrophe.
In an election conducted almost exclusively through carefully choreographed spectacles and mediated largely through screens, a cross on a ballot does little more than alienate us from our own political agency. The future on offer is no future at all: We can pay to learn to work, but the work doesn't pay. There is nothing to stop us falling. If things go on like this, what will life be like at 40? To retake control of our dreams and our lives we must end the permissive passivity which enables the present situation.
As a generation whose lives are being dictated by an age of austerity, we cannot afford to allow our politics to stop at the ballot box. Whoever wins on May 7, it will take a vibrant and concerted street movement to achieve political redress. Successive governments have sold our future: We must steal it back.
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