Wednesday 23 March 2022

The Class Politics of Doing Nothing

Apart from Number 11 and select cabinet ministers, no one knew the specifics of Rishi Sunak's Spring statement on Wednesday. But it didn't require a consultation with Old Moore's Almanack to discern the shape of what was coming. Having toured the politics shows' studios over the weekend, the message was a simple expect nothing. "I can't help everyone" pleaded the chancellor, while announcing his intention through backroom channels to cut taxes and shrink the state. The usual red meat the dwindling Tory faithful love to hear.

At the best of times Sunak's statement would have been a complete waste, doing nothing to address the country's deep seated structural problems. But at a moment such as this, faced with galloping inflation, a double jump in energy prices, it's criminal. Not that you'd think this from the fluffy coverage the BBC have lavished on their poster boy. Their headline, "Rishi Sunak seeks to combat cost-of-living squeeze" could have come straight from a Tory party press release. It opens with the line the chancellor "has set out measures aimed at combating soaring energy, food and fuel prices", except this is marginal tinkering at best. James Meadway spells out what it means: cutting the price of petrol to where it was a week ago, a rise in the National Insurance threshold that will primarily benefit better off workers and does nothing for those earning under £9k/year, real terms cuts to benefits and pensions, and he's proceeding with the sham energy support scheme to ameliorate fuel bills. No wonder outlets like the New Statesman are publishing pieces with the subtitle, 'the death of disposable income'.

Coming hot on the heals of the Tories refusing to do nothing about the sacking of the P&O workers beyond an ostentatious shake of the head, this serves to remind us, as if we needed reminding, that this is a class war Tory government determined to make us pay for the Covid crisis and recovery. From this perspective, escalating energy prices and the war in Ukraine could not have come at a better time.

It's long been the argument here that for a brief period the Covid crisis opened up the space for political imagination. The Job Retention Scheme and support for some (but definitely not all) businesses broke the chain between work and the workplace for millions of people, raised the idea that subsistence social security should be at a higher rate, and demonstrated who, when it came down to brass tacks, were the real essential workers were that keep the economic cogs turning. But rather than thinking about how we might do things differently, the Tories - with the miserable connivance of the Labour front bench - were relentlessly focused on one thing: getting back to the old normal, of making sure the upset Covid caused class relations in this country were contained and the balance restored. This meant tying furlough directly to employers instead of approaching an emergency basic income, restoring conditionality and the sanctions regime to social security as quickly as possible, and through the cycle of stop-start lockdowns herd as many people back to work and school as possible. This along the way was combined with an individuating strategy that moved pandemic management step-by-step away from an incipient collectivist biopolitics to an ethic of personal responsibility - regardless of the health consequences for the clinically vulnerable and immunosuppressed.

The Tories have largely managed the politics of the crisis successfully, despite Johnson's egregious stupidities. But if PartyGate reminded the Tories of one thing, it's that the public are angry with having to make sacrifices and bearing the hardships of the last two years. In other words, potentially combustible stuff, particularly among the young and those of working age. The Tories avoided surrendering to public anger by not giving the Prime Minister the heave-ho, which had they done so might have whetted popular appetites for more concessions. And so energy and Ukraine appear like natural events that have fallen right into the Tories' laps. These are the sorts of crises that have disorientating effects by immediately inducing money worries and casting the pall of potentially existential threat over the moment. It stuns and therefore temporarily dulls the popular mood. Sunak's pledge to do nothing on bills and inflation, whether he realises it or not, doubles down on this dulling effect. It tells people they're on their own, the government isn't here to help you. It's got nothing to do with them. And the net effect is a dampening of expectations, which is the desired equilibrium for the management of class relations. It means whatever crumbs the Tories offer in the future can be trumpeted as major give aways, such as the chancellor's pledge to cut the basic rate of income tax by a penny in the immediate rune up to the next election. And it means they have a de facto consensus a useless Labour leader will do nothing to challenge.

There has been some speculation among the professional commentatariat that Sunak is going to have to return to the Commons and announce new measures, because today's offerings don't go far enough. The assumption being that once he's seen the facts and the suffering visited on the just-about-managings, the poorest, and the most vulnerable sections of our class that he'll be spurred into action. Where have these people been? The only way Sunak, as per all Tories, will concede something is if they're forced to. An appeal to his and their consciences won't cut the mustard.

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1 comment:

Blissex said...

Sometimes I am amused like here with our blogger's habit of so passionately informing people whom vote against the thatcherites (which includes Conservatives, New Labour, LibDems) that the thatcherites are out to screw them.

But pretty much everybody who votes against the thatcherites does that because they already know that they are being screwed by the thatcherites.

I would think that the "left" intellectuals might want to consider making argument to a significant chunk of the people who currently vote for the thatcherites or don't vote because they think it does not matter that they are also being screwed by the thatcherites, for example:

* Property owners in many of the "pushed behind" areas, where property prices and rents have been falling since the 1980s because of the outflow of well paying jobs and thus of renters and buyers from those areas.

* Smaller property and share owners, who regard the price of property as the basis of their financial security, that could realize that security through good social insurance and good social services is far more valuable and more secure too.

* People with both a job and a property, that ought to realize that a well paid and secure job and low housing costs are a better option than crap jobs and booming property prices.

* People looking to upgrade into a large property, and commuters from far away suburbs, who would hugely benefit from a spreading of the "good jobs" out from the tory south-east.

I guess that instead preaching to the choir is more traditional.... :-)