Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Comfort food for icy times

Two icy blasts chilled Britain today – and only one was to do with the weather.

Chancellor George Osborne unveiled his much-touted comprehensive spending review: the government’s plans for cutting the deficit.

With a straight face, he consigned almost half a million public sector workers to the dole queue – and that’s before the impact on the private sector is factored in, with analysts predicting the same number of job losses there too as a direct result of the cuts.

I remember the recessions of the 1980s – particularly the second one. I lived in the north west of England then. I lost my job – and then my home. Yet I was one of the lucky ones. With no dependents, I was able to move to London to find work. Metaphorically speaking, I ‘got on my bike’, as Norman Tebbit so eloquently put it at the time. All that I lost were my friends.

But those experiences created my core politics. And while I cannot see any immediate threat to my job now, I am well aware of the damage that is done by such decisions to individuals, to families and to communities.

And while, as I mentioned, there may be no immediate threat to my own work, I still find myself looking over my own shoulder, thinking back to the poverty – and yes, it was poverty – and to the loss of self-worth and confidence: such things are shattering. Poverty and unemployment are not fun or romantic.

Until the 2008 banking crisis, the Conservatives had given no indication that they considered public sector spending in the UK to be out of control – indeed, they promised to match the levels that it was then at.

But just over two years ago, an extraordinary thing happened: after several months of the banks and financiers being roundly condemned for their irresponsibility, incompetence and greed, the deficit became the fault of public spending. It happened over just two weeks – just two weeks at the end of summer, before the conference season: a massive change of tack.

Yet prior to the then Labour government bailing out the banks, the deficit was little different to that of the previous Conservative administration in 1997. And assorted international finance agencies had no issue with it either.

And in the years since 1997, we’d had a distinct shortage of stories about people dying on trolleys in hospital corridors. Perhaps that’s what the problem was?

Plenty of people – and that includes reputable economists – think that we now face a very real danger of a double dip recession or of going further, into a full-blown depression.

Some are starting to point out the myths of the neo-liberal economics that many Western countries – and the US and UK in particular – have been subjected to over the last 30 years.

These are myths that still seem to dominate thinking. The Labour government fell for them completely – the ‘Third Way’ was an effort to allow a totally ‘free’ market (in the belief that that was A Good Thing), while attempting to ‘correct’ anything negative with increased public spending. It didn’t work.

The idea of ‘trickle down’ is nice, but there is no evidence that it works. Indeed, since 1997, the gap between rich and poor in the UK has widened more than it was before.

Today’s announcements included things that we have already heard: for instance, while the government plans to build more ‘low cost’ housing, it will reduce funding to councils, which will have to find the extra money for all this new building by increasing council house rents to ‘market’ levels.

This doesn’t remotely acknowledge that the median wage in the UK is around £21,000 per annum. Or that when private housing developers, as a condition of planning permission, have had to provide ‘affordable’ housing to ‘key workers’, it’s still far from affordable for most.

Let me give you an example. On my road in Hackney – the second poorest borough in the country – we’ve had two new, private housing developments in recent years. On the larger of these, half the flats were designated for ‘key workers’ and sold at half price. But the starting price of a non-‘key worker’ flat – and this was a flat with one bedroom – was £250,000. So a one-bed flat for a ‘key worker’ would have been £125,000.

Now it’s generally been considered that a sensible mortgage should be no more than three times your annual income. So for a £125,000 mortgage, you need – sensibly – an income of at least £41,666. And the median wage is £21,000? In other words, there are plenty of people earning less. How are they to sensibly – and presumably, responsibly – get a home, even at these sort of reduced rates?

Well, forget having a family if you haven’t got a household income of at least £60K – perhaps this is really just a scheme to reduce population?

But the point is that the figures, quite simply, do not add up. Then again, insane mortgages, a housing shortage and ‘the market’ were huge factors in creating the mess that we’re in in the first place.

Mr Osborne also announced that secured tenure in council housing will be cut – apparently, you’ll only get a guaranteed five years in a council home now before you’re suitability for such charity is re-assessed.

In the last few days, 35 business leaders weighed into the debate, egging on the chancellor to swing the axe – and claiming that they’ll easily be able to create lots more jobs to take the place of those lost. Which will mark a huge change in their job creation records of recent years.

But then again, higher unemployment means that you can get away with offering people less money and worse conditions. It might be a coincidence that some of the companies that these business leaders are in charge of make a percentage of their profits by buying cheap goods from abroad, made by workers who are paid little and work in poor conditions with little regard, for instance, for health and safety.

Or perhaps not. Those business leaders know from the experience of their own companies’ profits – and their personal pay packets – that insecurity (as long as it’s not their own) pays dividends.

Just when did we decide that job and housing security are not good things? When did we reach the conclusion that ‘the market’ should not serve people but visa versa?

I’m not talking about people all being paid the same wage. I’m not saying that no company should ever be able to get rid of someone who swings the lead. Goodness, I’ve worked alongside lead swingers (when they could be bothered turning up) and have no sympathy for such people.

But I really would like to know just when we decided that Joe and Joanna Public do not deserve security and a decent standard of living.

Yet now the message seems to be that we cannot expect our savings to produce much and indeed, that we should spend instead of save.

It depresses me that decent people, doing decent jobs – and not for a huge sum of money – will be cast onto the scrapheap of unemployment or expected to work for even less.

The latter will be – is – the result of much privatising services: after all, how do you make a profit (the first responsibility of a private company) from, say, care for the elderly, if you can’t cut the costs? And since the main costs in such situations are people, then that is the cost you have to cut.

We’ve seen it already: carers only being given 10 minutes to deal with a ‘client’ – it takes more than 10 minutes to bathe someone, possibly to take them to the toilet or to feed them. But no: 10-minute appointments help to create profits.

Or school dinnerladies taking cutlery into their school because their private employer won’t provide enough – and don’t laugh, because it’s happened with Compass in Sheffield.

Or hospital infections such as MRSA and c-difficile, which held a party to celebrate when privatised hospital cleaning services shed half the workforce.

And yet, the people who actually caused the record deficit are let off. Would you seriously expect that, if someone came into your home and damaged it, you should pay and not them? Yet that, in effect, is what’s happening. The bankers’ bonuses are already back to 2008 levels and likely to exceed them soon – even though the banks, being a law unto themselves, are damaging the economic recovery by refusing to lend to small businesses and help them.

I want to live in an humane world – is it really too much to ask? Right now, there is an iciness around that is a million miles from humane.

But I won’t leave you on that note: the weather has turned cold too. Cold and gloriously bright in London today. A first taste of winter.

I’m wearing layers for the first time in months. And comfort food is required. Nothing too ambitious, though: thinly sliced potatoes are soaking, before being layered in a dish with butter and seasoning, and drenched in cream. Yes, this is a night for dauphinoise.

And to accompany that? Well, I’m going to open a can of confit de canard and cook that. The instructions on the can – which is from France (where they fight for their lifestyle rather more vigorously than here – vive les travailleurs!) – suggest serving with “potatoes or green vegetables”. Oh hell – I may get thoroughly ambitious and boil a few frozen peas as a garnish.

And after that – some of the chocolate tart that finally turned out right: but I’ll tell you about that another day!

In the meantime – wrap up as best you can against the chills, my friends. And spare a thought for all those that are tonight worrying that their livelihoods are about to go tits up – just in time for Christmas.

I feel a sense of nostalgia for the 1980s – the only thing’s that’s missing is Norman Lamont telling those of us that were losing our jobs and homes that: “unemployment is a price worth paying”.


  1. An excellent piece Syb! Dynamic and forceful writing expressing sentiments with which I totally and fervently agree!

    We are living, once more, in interesting times!


  2. I am probably to be one of the 490,000, your post makes heaps of sense to those who are prepared to listen.

  3. Thank you again, Ian – and Dante's Voice: all the best for whatever the future holds for you.