Over fourteen million Britons, a fifth of the population, are living in poverty. This includes 4.5 million, or one third, of all our nation’s children. Another 2.5 million workers are subsisting barely above the defined poverty line, and 1.5 million are utterly destitute, being unable to afford even basic essentials. Families suffering from unemployment and disability are particularly hard hit and likely to find themselves in persistent poverty.
These were the findings of a September 2018 report by the Social Metrics Commission, a ‘cross-party independent body’ with impeccable bourgeois credentials, which investigated its topic with sufficient rigour, however, to take into account not only family income, but also such skyrocketing and unavoidable costs as childcare and accommodation.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report into living standards, poverty and inequality in the UK (2017/8 to 2021/2), meanwhile, has predicted that child poverty could rise by a staggering 7 percentage points between 2015 and 2022, to a rate of 40 percent.
Passing the burden of the economic crisis onto the backs of the poor
These figures may seem shocking, but the impoverishment of Britain’s workers has not come out of the blue.
Since the financial collapse of 2009, when Gordon Brown’s Labour government spent almost an entire annual budget’s worth of tax revenue on bailing out Britain’s bankers to the tune of £850bn, there has been a concerted, penny-pinching squeeze on government spending, and a determined rearguard action by the capitalists to recoup their losses at the expense of the working class. What we are seeing today are the effects of capitalism in profound crisis.
British workers have been subjected to relentless attacks upon their pay and conditions, pensions, social provision and social wage – including education, housing, health and welfare facilities, services and payments. By contrast, property prices, rents, grocery and household bills and childcare costs have soared. All this is necessary, we are told, ‘to keep the economy afloat’ – to maintain profitability for the financial oligarchs. The latter being, of course, too big to fail.
In 1997, even as Labour prime minister Tony Blair was addressing the nation announcing that “a new day has dawned, has it not” – apparently contrasting his government, to the neoliberal Thatcher and Major years – he and his then chancellor Gordon Brown were particularly keen to reassure the city of London’s financiers of their business-friendly agenda, to pass macroeconomic levers from politicians to bankers, and to glorify the ‘efficiencies of the market.’
‘Market efficiency’ was Gordon Brown’s mantra when, as chancellor of the exchequer, he extolled the great benefits of pushing lucrative government contracts to private financiers.
As soon as Labour got its hands on the levers of parliamentary power, Brown, Blair and their health secretary Frank Dobson were falling over themselves to push through billions of pounds in private finance initiatives (PFI) – those costly contracts whose debt burdens are currently destroying public provision, while yielding 700 percent dividends to the very same bailed out bankers.
But it seems that the levers of ‘British democracy’, of parliamentary power, can work only in one direction: channelling wealth away from the most needy, away from the working class towards the already wealthy and powerful. Even, in fact particularly, when the allegedly efficiency-promoting ‘free market’ is actually collapsing, and plunging our entire world economic order into crisis.
UN rapporteur: ‘a disgarce, a social calamity, an economic disaster’
These staggering levels of working-class and child poverty were highlighted by a recent visit to the UK made by – of all things – the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, an Australian academic who works as a professor of international law at New York university.
These figures, said Professor Alston, are “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster”. (UK austerity has inflicted ‘great misery’ on citizens, UN says by Robert Booth and Patrick Butler, The Guardian, 16 November 2018)
He was speaking at the end of a 12-day trip during which he visited Scotland, Wales and northern Ireland, as well as many parts of England. Rapporteurs are unpaid volunteer experts who deliver findings to UN specialist bodies – in Professor Alston’s case, to the UN’s human rights council (UNHRC).
“It is patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty,” he said, even though the UK is the world’s fifth-largest economy, adding that compassion has been abandoned during almost a decade of austerity policies that have been so profound that key elements of the postwar social contract, devised by William Beveridge more than 70 years ago, have been swept away.
His report paints a stark picture of working-class Britain in the 21st century; one with which the relatively well-off, and certainly the ruling class, are profoundly uncomfortable, and have no wish to examine too deeply.
Britain is indeed a wealthy country, famed in the recent past for its imperial grandeur, which was built upon the exploitation of a vast empire upon which ‘the sun never set’. Yet in one regard, Professor Alston is profoundly mistaken. Under the reign of Queen Victoria, at the height of its imperial power, when huge fortunes were amassed upon its industrial output, monopoly market, and the systematic looting of its vast colonial possessions, the British isles were rife with Dickensian poverty.
Poverty among the working classes in Britain and poverty in the colonies characterised the empire in its heyday, and the growing rift between rich and poor today, between ‘first-world’ and ‘third-world’ conditions, are in fact the natural state of polarisation of wealth under the capitalist mode of production, whose entire economic order is built on turning productive labour into wage slavery.
This fundamental capitalist injustice, in fact, is right at the heart of our ruling class’s much touted ‘British values’.
One reason that children are disproportionately impacted by austerity has been the cuts to child and housing benefit, and in particular the slashing of social spending that has accompanied the introduction of universal credit.
Ninety percent of single parents are women, and recent changes to benefits have hit single parents especially hard.
Professor Alston drew attention to the effects of social security policies, including what he termed Britain’s “two-child policy”, which pays families no extra child-related benefits for their third or subsequent children. (Ministers in denial over ‘social calamity’ of UK poverty, UN figure says by Robert Wright, Financial Times, 16 November 2018)
Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is in predictable denial. The Department for Work and Pensions has said it completely disagrees with Professor Alston’s analysis. “With this government’s changes, household incomes have never been higher, income inequality has fallen, the number of children living in workless households is at a record low and there are now 1 million fewer people living in absolute poverty compared with 2010,” it claimed.
In view of the fact that the government abandoned measuring national poverty indices in 2015, one can only marvel at the aplomb with which the government makes such assertions.
Professor Alston noted that it was indeed valid for him to report on poverty in the UK, where absolute levels of deprivation are lower than in the poorest countries in Africa and Asia, because people experienced poverty relative to others in their own society.
Austerity: the inevitable consequence of capitalist crisis
The Labour party, its left hangers-on, and the liberal media have their own angle on these findings. They persistently claim that such grinding poverty is an ideologically driven choice. They seek to use the plight and suffering of British workers and our children as a cheap ruse in their electioneering strategy. All will be different under Labour because the party is not ideologically driven to punish workers, they say.
But what is Labour’s alternative ideology, might we timidly enquire? Austerity is not necessary is Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s message – it is a choice. If it is a choice, then it is one with which the Labour party in government has been absolutely complicit.
In fact, the truth is somewhat different. The postwar conditions that saw capitalists in the imperialist countries take a voluntary cut in profits in order to give workers a better life were the peculiar product of the class forces prevalent at that time – they did not come from the Labour party and social democracy’s class-collaborationist ideology, but from the strength of the revolutionary communist countries and movements, which threatened the very existence of British, French, Japanese and US capitalism at the end of WW2.
The economic conditions we now face are a product of the unbridled economic model of free-market capitalism in its monopoly stage. The concentration of capital, of society’s wealth, into ever fewer hands is an iron economic law that is carrying on inexorably, through competition and crisis, and which is impoverishing huge swathes of the world’s population in the process.
In Britain, the political rule of the super-rich, served by the parliamentary capitalist dictatorship, is a fact. This fact is not altered by our electoral process, that most well-oiled charade of ‘democracy’; nor is it acknowledged by the Labour party, which would rather blinker the workers than prepare them for the necessary fight for their freedom and empowerment.
“The omnipotence of ‘wealth’ is more certain in a democratic republic [as] it does not depend on defects in the political machinery or on the faulty political shell of capitalism. A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell (through the Palchinskys, Chernovs, Tseretelis and co) [through the Blairs, Browns, Cleggs, Mays, Camerons and, yes, even the Corbyns], it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it.
“Frederick Engels, the co-founder of scientific socialism, was most explicit in calling universal suffrage [the right for all workers to vote] as well an instrument of bourgeois rule. Universal suffrage, he said, taking account of the long experience of German social democracy, is ‘the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the present-day state.’” (F Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, 1884, Chapter 9, cited in VI Lenin, The State and Revolution, 1917, Chapter 1)
Labour’s fundamental ideology, let us note, is to maintain the system of monopoly capitalism, and therefore the wages system – wage slavery. Without any attempt to address this fundamental injustice, from which all others – including child poverty – stem, all the noble talk is just the window dressing of hope over reality.
The economic crisis of capitalism is not a question of ideology; it is a product of the really prevailing economic and material conditions. Without taking the ‘ideological’ step of disavowing capitalism, and of arming workers for that step by preaching its necessity for their very survival, and preparing organisationally for that step, there can be no serious talk of addressing the problems of crisis within capitalism, except by the very means that the capitalists are presently doing: by further impoverishing the workers at home and workers exploited by British capital abroad; by ratcheting up competition with foreign capitalists; and by driving steadily towards trade and all-out shooting wars.
That exploitative capitalist relations continue to inflict misery on humanity is indeed ‘not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster’. It is up to the working people of Britain how long they allow this social calamity to continue.