Dr Lisa McKenzie
Dr Lisa McKenzie is a working-class academic. She grew up in a coal-mining town in Nottinghamshire and became politicized through the 1984 miners’ strike with her family. At 31, she went to the University of Nottingham and did an undergraduate degree in sociology. Dr McKenzie lectures in sociology at the University of Durham and is the author of ‘Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain.’ She’s a political activist, writer and thinker. Follow her on Twitter @redrumlisa.
George Osborne, the former Tory chancellor and architect of the post-2008 austerity regime, this week advocated a new round of swingeing cuts to state spending once the pandemic is over. But the poor won’t stand for it this time.
Many of us are now looking out to the future – and when I say that I mean the next few weeks and months. I’ll be honest: I’m not hopeful. In fact, I am full of fear.
The UK government’s Covid-19 financial package will not last for as long as it will be needed. So far, the furlough scheme, in which the Government will support businesses in keeping their workforces going at 80 percent of their wages, is only in place for three months. We are already a month into that scheme, and it is pretty obvious that there will be thousands of businesses that will never open again.
What we can expect is that there will be mass unemployment over the coming months and years. The country is about to enter the worst depression it has probably ever known.
I’m a social scientist –a sociologist– and I know from 15 years of research in working-class communities that working-class people in the UK have suffered cruelly over the last 12 years since the 2008 banking crisis. The government’s response to that was not to punish the bankers who caused the collapse, but to put in place a deep and unprecedented programme of austerity affecting poor people.
Local governments all over the country have had their budgets slashed, and have cut local services in some of the poorest communities by over 60 percent. The welfare reforms that were implemented by Iain Duncan Smith as Minister for Work and Pensions (and architect of the hated Universal Credit) have had devastating effects on working-class families – while the wealthiest people in the UK have seen their wealth increase over the same period.
What austerity has done is redistribute wealth from the poorest to the richest – this is not a secret; it is well known and well researched. Since 2008, the wealth of the richest one percent has been growing at an average of six percent a year and, in 2016, academics from the London School of Economics published research showing clearly that austerity had been selective, with cuts falling heavily on the poorest.
I have been feeling apprehensive for a few weeks now about what British society will look like and will have to offer the working-class when this pandemic is over. This week, my anxiety turned to white-knuckle fear as I read that George Osborne –the former Tory chancellor who I thought always looked sadistically happy about the pain his government was causing to working-class people– said in a webinar at a Confederation of British Industry event that a new programme of austerity would be needed after Covid ends, to bring down the debt caused by government’s huge spending to try to tackle it.
This was the man who launched a so-called ‘We are all in this together’ budget in 2012 – what a lie that was: we knew that we would not all be in this together. We never are, as it’s one rule for the rich, and nothing for the poor. This was clearly demonstrated in 2016 when The Panama Papers were released, showing millionaires, business tycoons, politicians and celebrities hiding their money from the tax man, while working-class people were having their wages cut, their public services destroyed and those claiming benefits sanctioned for minor discrepancies such as being 10 minutes late for a job-centre appointment.
I have seen over the past few years some of the worst poverty that I have ever seen. Mothers and children living in homes with no heating on in mid-winter because they were afraid of the bills. People dying of starvation after having their benefits cut, such as a 57-year-old found dead in his flat weighing just four-and-half stone (30kg).
The British working class have nothing else left that can be taken – and they can see through the faux kind words of the celebrities asking them to donate their own money to support the most vulnerable.
It needs fundamental change, not charity from hypocritical tax dodgers like the pop star Gary Barlow and the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber asking for donations on the BBC’s Big Night In programme this week.
Without real structural change and the drastic redistribution of wealth (just for clarity, for any Tory chancellors reading this, I mean redistributed downwards, not like last time), I fear that what little security the working class have now in already sub-poverty-level welfare benefits and wages, will be further destroyed.
But I have a warning for those politicians who think they can keep causing economic depressions and then bring in round after round of austerity on poor people: if you take everything away from people and leave them with nothing, they have nothing to lose.
They will not be tricked again. You cannot batter the working class into further submission – Austerity ‘Mark-One’ taught them we are not all in this together. With millions already unemployed, and enduring, shameful levels of absolute poverty and demeaning, degrading welfare benefits systems, people know that politicians are not to be trusted and the rich – despite their periodic feel-good acts of charity – are happy to take food from their children’s mouths.
My prediction is that we will have Austerity ‘Mark-Two,’ then we will see widespread civil disobedience and riots on the streets of Britain’s towns and cities, and the rich will need all their private jets, private Islands and safety bunkers to try to escape from the thing they fear the most – the angry mob seeking justice.