Sunday, 27 October 2013

Politics, poverty and the Church

There was a very telling moment earlier in the year at the St Pauls Institute debate on the Common Good and the City, when former Bishop of Worcester Peter Selby challenged the keynote speaker Archbishop Vincent Nichols to take a side on poverty and join in schools of resistance.

“In the light of what we have been going through in the last five years, we need schools of resistance as well as virtue,” said Bishop Selby. “The question is whether the Roman Catholic Church and Church of England are prepared to become schools of resistance on some of these issues.”

Archbishop Nichols refused to be drawn on the point, preferring instead to avoid taking sides appealing to people’s better nature. The response said much about the positioning of the Catholic Church in the public discourse today.

The Church is concerned to secure as bigger influence as possible in the public square. Faith schools and the work of agencies like CAFOD all form part of this presence.

The Church is keen to extend its influence in the domestic social welfare agenda. In this respect the work of Caritas Social Action Network has been to the fore, representing a myriad of agencies, including the Cardinal Hume Centre, Housing Justice and the De Paul Trust.

The organisation has done some excellent work over recent years questioning government policy in areas like work and welfare as well as helping to develop a network of support. The Church often via its agencies but also directly through the bishops has made some valuable interventions on issues like the effects of the austerity agenda on the family. There has been the whole debt issue, including loan shark lenders. The Church of England have moved further on this with its initiative to rival Wonga.

The problems of poverty in work have also been commented upon. The Church is also doing some excellent work on the ground, supporting the foodbanks network – 350,000 people now go to foodbanks. Helping destitute asylum seekers, the homeless and the work of the SVP in helping the poor. Much of this work is being done in the name of charity, which is fine – it is an important part of the faith commitment. However, the question that always arises is what about the justice? As Pope John XXIII said charity cannot replace justice.

Charity is always easier to do than justice. I remember in my own parish, as part of the J&P group, we never had a problem with getting in food and other goods to take to the refugee centre, however, there were problems when we tried to ask why there were refugees – pointing to the causes and some of the government legislation that caused the hardships. People were less comfortable. We are seeing a similar thing today with foodbanks. Up and down the country, churches collect goods for foodbanks but how often do those putting their cans in the bin, ask why in the 5th biggest economy in the world are 350,000 people a year going to foodbanks. Why in a country that has 88 billionares are we in this situation?

It was the questioning of where is the justice in all of this that came to mind at a CSAN conference in June titled “the Catholic response to the poverty crisis.” Again, worthy contributions but much of the conference was about what the Church was doing on the ground to deal with poverty, yes important but should the Church not be questioning the whole austerity agenda and whether or not we should be colluding in it at all?

Let’s accept that due to the banking crisis of 2007/8 something had to be done. Funds had to be raised from somewhere to service the debt. The big question was where. The problem for many is that it appears that the government’s answer is that the poor and most vulnerable in our society - who were not responsible for the crisis - are the ones being made to pay.

The late author Iain Banks summed the situation up nicely when he said: “Your society's broken, so who should we blame? Should we blame the rich, powerful people who caused it? No, let's blame the people with no power and no money and these immigrants who don't even have the vote – yeah, it must be their fucking fault."

So the Coalition Government used the crisis as an excuse to further extend the neo-liberal project that has been going on for the past 30 plus years, an excuse to privatise the public services and cut workers rights. There have been the cuts to welfare for the poorest but no cuts to welfare for the richest – eg tax credits continue to provide a subsidy to big companies who refuse to pay living wages. Then there are the greedy landlords who push up rents and trouser most of the housing benefit needed to meet the bills

*The banks have been bailed out time and time again, via direct subsidies and via the likes of quantative easing and the funding for lending scheme. All have been used to bolster up balance sheets. This welfare has been nicely punctuated by ongoing scandals from libor fixing to payment protection mis-selling.

*Workers have been made to pay with lower wages, worse terms and conditions. Justice has been denied by raising costs to go to the likes of employment tribunals – all done in the name of competition or in layman’s language to allow bad employers to exploit their workers ever more easily. If we accept that there was a debt that needed to be paid there are other places and people who could have taken a bigger share –

*There are 88 billionaires in UK, up from 53 in 2009. The top 1,000 richest people in UK now have £450 billion of wealth. The top 200 have £318.2 billion. The top 1,000 have increased their wealth by £150 billion plus in the past three years. How much tax do they pay?

*HMRC estimates that in 2010/11 it was deprived of £9.6 billion in VAT, with £3.3 billion in excise duties, and £14.4 billion in income tax revenues, national insurance contributions and capital gains tax. The HMRC say that the tax gap for the whole economy amounted to £32 billion in 2010/11 or a third of the deficit of £120 billion for 2012/13.

* What of the companies who pay little tax. Starbucks paid £8.6m in corporation tax over 14 years of trading in Britain, and none for the past three years, despite sales of £1.2bn in the UK. Starbucks pays a royalty to its parent company in the Netherlands, which offsets profits here. Amazon reported turnover of £207m in 2011 for its UK operation, on which it paid tax of £1.8m. However, £3.35bn of its sales were from the UK, 25 per cent of all sales outside the United States. Its profits are booked in Luxembourg, where the tax is paid. Google recorded revenues of £396m in 2011 in the UK and paid corporation tax of only £6m. However it is estimated that Google actually had £2.75bn of revenue from its operations in the UK with an estimated pre-tax profit of £836m. Google’s profits are registered in Ireland.

Other areas that could prove fruitful for those looking to save money are overseas military adventures like that undertaken in Afghanistan. Some £37 billion has been spent on war in Afghanistan. It is proposed to spend billions more in renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system. So there are other areas where funds can be obtained to pay the deficit.

The decision to cut as this government has done was quite deliberate – it amounted to making a preferential option for the rich. I would question the way that our Church has accepted the government’s approach, it should have questioned it on faith and moral grounds. We need to return to Catholic Social Teaching. Take a look at concepts like the Common Good.

I’d argue that the Church hierarchy are looking at the common good more from the viewpoint of the boardroom and the owners of capital than the mass of humanity. From our position as Christians the Common Good should look at what economic decisions mean for the dignity of the human person. This would include the welfare of a person’s family, the effects on the environment and the community as a whole, not just the bottom line and how much profit has been accrued in a financial year.

Let’s take an example – the privatisation of Royal Mail (RM). What this is likely to mean in human terms. There will be job losses and worst terms and conditions for workers. Presently, RM staff get a wage of around £20k, not high but a steady wage. They get paid leave and can take time off sick. What privatisation will mean is joining the race to the bottom. The competitors in the market have staff on casual contracts, with no guarantee of hours, pay at minimum wage level and no holidays or sick pay. How does reducing RM workers terms and conditions down to these levels work for the common good? How does this help the family? It may provide more profit but how does it contribute to the dignity of the human person and common good of society? And we haven’t even touched on what will happen to the service to rural areas etc?

What is our Church’s position on privatisation? The exploitative nature of the employment relationship where workers are not represented by a trade union should be a cause of constant concern to our Church as should the polarisation of wealth towards the few.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that between 1977 and 2008 the wage share fell from 59 per cent of national income to 53 per cent, while the share of profits rose from 25 per cent to 29 per cent Trade unions rarely get mentioned in the Church discourse.

There is also the growing incidences of in work poverty, coming about as a result of forcing people into low paid work.

* A recent study by the Joseph Rowntree Trust found that 6.1 million people living in poverty came from households where at least one person was working. Just 5.1 million of those living in poverty came from workless households. Some 14 per cent of the total number of people in in-work poverty live in households where all of the adults are in full-time work.

So we need to go back to CST to see what it says in terms of poverty and the austerity agenda. So what is the Church doing? Well there is the excellent work of organisations like CSAN, Housing Justice, Anchor House, Pact, CAFOD and the NJPN. There is the practical work via the likes of the foodbanks, refugee and homeless shelters but what of that voice of justice.

This brings us onto what should the Church be doing? What is needed is a multi-faceted approach. The need must be met but charity and justice need to come together. Support the foodbank yes but don’t forget to ask the question why are they needed in the 5th largest economy in the world, with increasing numbers of billionaires and millionaires? We need a proper critique of justice in the workplace, issues like privatisation, taxation and poverty. Working for the common good is not the same as working for the maximum profit of a company or enterprise.

The need to work for justice brings us onto the state of the J&P network. At present, it is under attack. The loss of J&P workers, funding shortage, lack of people coming through into networks. An ageing movement. There is a need for NJPN to look at itself. There is a need for a change of structures. Formation needs prioritising. Change has to be from the bottom up, strengthen the networks and make the hierarchy change – they are innately conservative so unlikely to provide any sort of radical lead.

At grass roots level, more needs to done to bring people into J&P. There needs to be linkage with the unions and progressive parties, like Labour and the Greens. Other campaigning organisations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International, CAFOD and Oxfam can provide good partnerships in broadening the appeal. The linkage with community organising groups like Citizens UK and London Citizens needs developing. The movement needs to resist the desire to disappear into its own comfortable silo of like minded Catholics. It needs to broaden and build alliances inside and outside the Church.

This new agenda would see the Church rediscover its prophetic voice on poverty in this country but also for the real politic practioners at the Bishops Conference it would also extend the Church influence in that public square. The Church would have a bigger say if there were a thought out serious critique of the economic approach that is causing hurt and suffering to so many people. A church speaking for the common good on issues effecting everybody’s daily lives – a Church dare I say it relevant to the papacy of Pope Francis.  

*Presentation given at the annual general meeting of the Hexham and Newcastle J&P co-ordinating committee on Saturday 26 October

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Economic recession and anti-immigrant sentiment driving rise in racism

Racism is on the rise in the UK, having increased exponentially over recent years, fuelled by economic recession and anti-migrant sentiment.

So recently there has been the news of landlords in London refusing to let properties to black people. This was something that most people believed had disappeared with the no Blacks, no Irish, no dogs notices so commonplace in the 1960s and 70s.

This form of discrimination was made illegal by the Race Relations Act of 1976. It remains so, yet as the BBC reporters discovered the law is being flouted by these rogue landlords. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission is now to investigate the incidences.

A major driver of the latest wave or racism is the poisonous debate on immigration. As a result of wildly inaccurate information, the public discourse on immigration is set almost entirely on the default position of reducing numbers. No political party is prepared to make the positive case for immigration.

Much of the hysteria around immigration is fueled by the press, who sell papers on the back of scare story headlines about the subject. Hardly the basis for a balanced debate or progressive policy making.

The anti-immigration ferment has resulted in the scenes like those of Home Office deployed white vans going round London streets with the message “In the UK illegally – go home or face arrest.” As these vans make their way through the multi-ethnic streets of Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge, Brent, Ealing, Barnet and Harlow, what has been the effect on the communities in those areas?

Another driver of racism and division has been the ongoing efforts of politicians and media to label Muslims in the UK as a suspect community. This has been going on since the so called war on terror began in 2001. Muslims have been treated as the Irish before them, with the whole community treated as suspect. This has seen police stop and search on Asians increasing incredibly. Whenever there is an incident, that happens to involve a Muslim, the whole community gets the blame. The effect of this approach has been to make the community draw in on itself feeling under threat. The net result being that those who are a real threat will find it far easier to hide and operate. It has all happened before with the Irish but few lessons seem to have been learned.

The net effect of all these developments has been to increase racial tension. The economic recession has helped increase racism. A situation where work is in short supply sees the indigenous community turning to blame others. The cry that the immigrants are coming to take our jobs is never far from the headlines. The fact that immigrants are often coming to do jobs that the indigenous don’t want to do is a less often heard.

The reality is that Black and minority ethnic peoples (BME) are usually hit hardest by economic recession. Many are at the bottom of the pile, so when hard times come the group of people worst effected are always likely to be BME females.

The sad reality is that many in the white indigenous working class do not seem to understand or want to understand the common circumstances that they share with their BME brothers and sisters. Professor of Education Gus John believes the education system has much to answer for in bringing about a situation, where the white working classes have progressed little beyond a misguided concept of identity bound up in imperialism. “You have to ask what is the point of education in a post colonial world? Why has no post war government put racism high on the educational agenda?” said Professor John.

The combination of economic hard times and growing racism has seen a resurgence of far right groups across Europe. In the UK, there has been the BNP and English Defence League peddling race based politics. In Europe, there are groups like Golden Dawn in Greece and the Northern League in Italy on the rise. The economic recession has allowed the seeds of racism and hatred to grow, thereby benefiting the far right.

There was a time before when this combination of circumstances came together to devastating effect. It was the 1930s, which saw the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini sweep across Europe. Although, people today like to think this could never happen again, the seeds are there from which just such a political outcome could develop. History offers many warnings, few of which are being heeded at present.

There is a need now for a re-establishment of tolerant pluralism in our society. Stop looking to blame the other for societal woes. Look instead to some of the real causes of economic hardship: the banks, multinational companies and individuals that don’t pay their taxes. Also accept that immigration is good. It has provided a vibrant diverse society in Britain that should be valued. Indeed, in the fullness of time it will probably prove to be immigration that contributes most in enabling this country to compete on the world stage in economic terms...that is if anyone still wants to come here.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Growing scourge of homelessness

Wealth levels may be increasing around the world but growing numbers of people are going to bed without a roof over their heads. Homelessness is a growing scourge in the modern world. Pope Francis has spoken of how heartbreaking it is that the world today is more concerned about the health of banks than homeless children dying of starvation and cold. "This is happening today. If investments in banks fall, it is a tragedy and people say 'what are we going to do?' but if people die of hunger, have nothing to eat or suffer from poor health, that's nothing. This is our crisis today," said Pope Francis, who organised a reception for 200 homeless people at the Vatican in July. "Today, and it breaks my heart to say it, finding a homeless person who has died of cold, is not news. Today, the news is scandals, that is news, but the many children who don't have food – that's not news. This is grave. We can't rest easy while things are this way." The Pope called on the Catholic Church to seek out those who need help the most. This would include the 100,000 million plus homeless people across the world. Latest figures for the UK from the Department for Communities show 13,460 people accepted as being owed a duty relating to homelessness for the quarter to June 2013. This was an increase of 5 per cent on the corresponding quarter for the previous year. 56,210 households were classified as being in temporary accommodation, a nine per cent rise. There have also been growing numbers of rough sleepers. Overcrowding is also growing. A number of charities have been seeking to respond to Pope Francis’s challenge. Keith Fernett, the director of Anchor House in east London, tells of a 62 per cent increase in homelessness in London over the past two years, with 6,500 rough sleepers counted. Mr Fernett also tells of the thousands of hidden homeless, people sleeping on friend’s sofas and such like. He sees the cuts in welfare, coming about due to the government’s austerity agenda, hitting some of the most vulnerable people hardest. “The under 25s are being systematically disenfranchised. The under 35s are only allowed to share a room,” said Mr Fernett, who refers to “a tsunami of people” moving from central London - as a result of things like the housing benefit cap and bedroom tax – to outlying boroughs and other parts of the country. The rents in the centre of the capital are going up with a ripple effect outwards. Even in Newham, where Anchor House is based, and one of the poorest areas in the country, individuals seeking to rent in the private sector are having to pay £150 to £250 a week for one bedroom flats. Operating in Westminster, the Cardinal Hume Centre has seen the effects of the cap on housing benefit, set at £250 a week. In an area where single rooms are being let at £350 a week, this is contributing to people moving out. Mr Fernett describes an inequitable situation, where the rental levels are going up, with many of the jobs available offering only minimum wage at best. “If someone is on minimum wage, most the money will be going on accommodation,” said Mr Fernett, who also regularly sees examples of overcrowding in the locality. “There is a lot of overcrowding with 20 or 30 people often living in a four bed house.” In Newham, there have been huge cut backs, with the social exclusion budget, which deals with the homeless, reducing by 70 per cent. Indeed, Anchor House is the one remaining provider of support for the homeless that still has a council contract. Even Anchor House has problems due to the lack of facilities to move people onto, so violence levels are increasing at the centre as frustration overflows. Mr Fernett describes a crazy situation whereby individuals with a variety of problems from having been domestically abused to mental health issues come to Anchor House which is expected to support them for £50 a week. The charity is doing remarkably well in this quest, still managing to get 50 people into jobs out of its 119 staying in the past year, but there seems to be a growing realisation that those in government simply are not bothered about these issues. The result at the end of the day seems to be that as all the supports are withdrawn, it becomes more likely that individuals will turn to crime. They then end up in the criminal justice system. So many of those who, if they had received the help needed at the right time, could have got back on their feet and lived independently, instead end up in prison. And for those continually concerned about the cost of everything, this finishes up costing the taxpayer around £40,000 per prisoner a year. What Mr Fernett would like to see is an increase in the level of housing, which means building at least 250,000 units a year. Most of these need to be affordable. He also believes that the term affordable needs a redefinition to take in those on low incomes. At present to be eligible for affordable accommodation often means earning £35,000 a year. Mr Fernett also thinks there needs to be a New York style rent capping system, to stop the landlords continually raising rents. What is rarely mentioned in the ongoing debate on housing benefit is the amount that is taken up because landlords keep raising the rents. Charity Housing Justice has focused on the damage being done to family life by the bedroom tax. This welfare reform means that people on housing benefit who have a spare bedroom have to either move or see benefit reduced by £60 a month. “In order to avoid having to move, affected tenants have been reported as cutting their food expenses, even to use candlelight instead of electricity,” said Alison Gelder, chief executive of Housing Justice. “Moving, as often as not, simply is not an option, as it implies moving far away, because of the severe shortage in affordable housing, and this is deeply unfair to people who have lived for a great number of years in their home - some of them having even raised their children in their flat, the reason why there is a spare bedroom in their home in the first place.” Cathy Corcoran, chief executive of the Cardinal Hume Centre, tells how the bedroom tax has left many people in rent arrears, who are now threatened with eviction. “Many of these people have never been in rent arrears before,” said Ms Corcoran. “Bedroom tax is affecting many disabled people who need an extra room for care purposes. “ More widely, Housing Justice reports growing demands in the area of homelessness. "Churches and homelessness projects in our network all have to deal with the growing demand for their help. Soup Runs and drop ins are seeing many more people in need of food, including those with no recourse to public funds and UK nationals whose benefits have been cut or sanctioned. As well as the need for emergency food and support there is a growing gap of places where people can get advice and advocacy, especially households affected by the benefit caps and the bedroom tax," said Alistair Murray, director of projects at Housing Justice. So there is much to be done to combat homelessness in this country and the wider world. The challenge for Church in the UK is to address policies that seem to be disproportionately hitting the poorest people hardest. Politicians seem absorbed with the need to stoke up the housing market whilst failing to understand the growing number of human casualties being created by ill thought out welfare reforms.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Damian McBride is contrite but proud

Power Trip: a decade of policy, plots and spin by Damian McBride , Biteback Publishing £20 This easily accessible account of the role of Gordon Brown’s former spin doctor Damian McBride at the centre of the new labour project, provides an insight into many of the main players as well as the murky world of Westminster’s journalistic goldfish bowl. A north London Irish Catholic boy McBride attained a degree from Cambridge, prior to landing himself in the fast stream of the civil service. He worked in customs, majoring on VAT, before moving onto the Treasury in 1999 where his skill as a manipulator rapidly landed him the head of communications position. The perception is of a man who works hard and plays hard. The playing seems to consist in the main of fanatical support for Arsenal Football Club and drinking alcohol. McBride provides interesting incites on the Eds, Miliband and Balls. He says that Ball’s “tough exterior and bullish style belied a real warmth and sensitivity, as well as some level of insecurity, while Ed Miliband’s friendly demeanour and natural good humour obscured a steely ruthlessness about his ambitions and a single minded sense of mission.” He believes Ball’s ideal would be to produce the perfect budget while Miliband would like to win a second term as Labour Prime Minister able to change British society and its economy for good. Not surprisingly McBride believes that the two men in tandem will be more than a match for messrs Cameron and Osborne come the next election. McBride also has an interesting view on the Brown/Blair feud that raged for most of the time that Labour was in government. He believes it was good for the Labour Party and the country because the conflict became the only story in town for the media. Issues like the public services, education and health were all seen through the prism of the feud but this kept these issues centre stage. The opposition were effectively excluded from the scene. Devotion to Gordon Brown, however, was central. “Whenever I was with him I felt I was in the presence of greatness and of genius and could never feel anything less than fierce and devoted loyalty, “ said McBride, who not surprisingly would virtually do anything to promote his boss. He dismisses the suggestions that he was at anytime out of control briefing off his own back. His value to journalists was in giving Brown’s line on everything, they were not interested in the personal views of a spinner. Once this currency had gone, McBride was irrelevant as far as the hacks were concerned. All seems to be going well for McBride and Brown up until the fateful decision in autumn 2007 to not go for a snap election. After this retreat, things seem to start falling apart. McBride believes that he was unjustly blamed by Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander for briefing against them. The writing was on the wall for McBride when Brown brought back Peter Mandelson to steady his ship. There was hardly hidden disdain on both sides. On other individuals, McBride dismisses Chancellor Alastair Darling as simply having a bad media operation that kept cocking things up. He refutes any claim he was briefing against Darling, declaring it was more a case of damage limitation. He quotes at some length the interview with the Guardian when Darling said it was the worst economic crisis in 60 years. He is equally dismissive of David Miliband’s efforts to unseat Brown as leader, accusing him or high handedness and a willingness to retreat at the first sign of resistance. McBride finally fell, when emails about Tory politicians between himself and Derek Draper became public. There has been much hot air around concerning the publication of this revealing book. The sight of the likes of Alastair Campbell climbing up onto the high moral ground to accuse McBride and others of skulduggery and costing Labour the last election was nauseating in the extreme. Journalists also who entered into a faustian pact with McBride that saw them get exclusives and splashes on a regular basis have much to answer for. McBride was good at what he did but does now seem to have had time to reflect. “I regret - or at least have retrospective reservations about - the vast majority of what I did and, as my old parish priest Father Cassidy used to tell me when I went to confession as a child, you can’t expect forgiveness unless you speak your sins out loud.” There is some contrition, though there is much of this book that seems to be a trip down memory lane, reliving the old times, when Gordon Brown really did save the world. A good read but one unlikely to do much to enhance the reputations of the political or media spheres to the wider world.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The great austerity con - how austerity was sold as the answer to Britain's woes, when it has just made matters worse

The present government has carefully used what has become known as the austerity agenda to dump on working people. So a crisis that began five years ago with the reckless behaviour of the banks has effectively been used to cut and privatise public services, reduce wages and slash benefits. Worker’s rights have been reduced in the common media parlance “to enable British business to be more competitive in world markets.” Put another way, these moves have benefited only bad employers by making it that much easier to exploit workers. Among the consequences of the austerity approach has been the sight of over 300,000 people going to foodbanks over the past year, the disabled being denied benefits and more than one million unemployed young people between the ages of 16 and 24. The whole process was nicely summarised by the late author Iain Banks who said: "Your society's broken, so who should we blame? Should we blame the rich, powerful people who caused it? No, let's blame the people with no power and no money and these immigrants who don't even have the vote – yeah, it must be their fucking fault." The crisis has effectively been used to once again reconfigure capitalism, so that workers have to work harder for less whilst those who own capital take ever greater profits. Data from the Office for National Statistics confirms the trend, showing that between 1977 and 2008 the wage share fell from 59 per cent of national income to 53 per cent, while the share of profits rose from 25 per cent to 29 per cent. The way in which the crisis has been handled, targeting the public sector and welfare for the poor, confirms the intent to restructure capitalism once again in favour of the rich. The PCS union have questioned: how £30bn of welfare and tax credit cuts can be necessary when there is £30bn to give back to businesses in tax breaks? “If university fees have to be trebled, then why is Trident replacement essential? Why does the government spend huge resources on £1.2bn of benefit fraud, while £120bn of tax is avoided, evaded or uncollected?” said Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS. This is not to mention the £37 billion already expended on the war in Afghanistan or the “legitimate” welfare subsidies to low paying corporations in the form of benefits to make up employees wages. The deficit could be reduced in a whole number of different ways, including higher taxes on high earning individuals and companies. So the austerity agenda has a direct political intent, which is to make working people pay for the behaviour of the banks. What makes the trick of selling this con all the more impressive is that in economic terms the austerity approach has failed. Economist and academic David Blanchflower points out that GDP per capita is now around 7% below where it was five years ago. “66 months in, the UK economy is still approximately 3% below its 2007 peak. This compares with the recessions of the 1920s and 1930s when at a similar point GDP was just under 7% higher. GDP after the shallow recession of the 1990s was 10% higher,” said Blanchflower. “The UK has grown 1.8% since 2010 but this is markedly slower than the United States, Canada, Australia and Germany.” Jonathan Portes, the director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and former chief economist at the Cabinet Office points out that in June 2010, the Office of Budget Responsibility predicted that by now the economy would be about 7% larger, driven by a sharp rise in business investment and exports, while the deficit would have fallen by two-thirds. “What has actually happened? In fact, GDP has grown at less than a third of that rate, business investment has fallen, and the path of deficit reduction bears no resemblance at all to the original projections,” said Portes, who claims that “without austerity, UK real output would now be steadily climbing above its 2007 peak, rather than being stuck 2% below.” Yet despite the clear failure of austerity as an economic as opposed to a neo-liberal idealogical strategy the narrative still holds good with the public. This no doubt has much to do with the selling of the narrative in the media. This meant in the early stages, first likening the crisis to the inter-war crash and then blaming it all on the last Labour Government. Carys Afoko, head of communications at the New Economics Foundation, tells how “well-framed, well-crafted and often repeated, the austerity story is the dominant political narrative in Britain today.” “It shapes how most of us think and talk about the economy. It has convinced most of the country of the need for huge public spending cuts and presents a coherent vision for the kind of society we should live in,” said Afoko, who tells how “vivid images” and “emotional metaphors” have been used to sell the austerity story. The central themes are dangerous public debt caused by excessive public spending; Britain is broke; austerity is a necessary evil: welfare is a drug with benefit claimants weak, reckless, undeserving and addicted to hand-outs. There is also the strivers and skivers element. The story clearly sticks with people. “Polling data shows that month on month, no matter what people think about the Coalition, they continue to believe their spending cuts are necessary for the economy. Attitudes to welfare have hardened over time so that half the country believe the unemployed choose to stay out of work. Evidence indicates that more people may blame Labour for the economic situation we are in now than did three years ago,” said Afoko. The effectiveness of selling the austerity story through the media has now set the scene for the final act, which is that the medicine worked and those promoting austerity were right all along. The Chancellor has begun this process with the news that the economy grew 0.6% in the last quarter. This has been heralded as a great success, “turning the corner” and vindicating his policies. This view is also resonating with the parts of the public because the austerity story has been so well received earlier. The lowering of expectations when mixed with a helping of historical amnesia mean that this tiny upward turn in growth can be trumpeted as a success, when as Blanchflower and Portas have pointed out nothing could be further from the truth. Britain is way behind the recovery in other countries that took a different approach to the economic crash. What is needed is a new alternative vision that can be communicated effectively to counter the austerity narrative. The NEF suggest creating a counter version with powerful frames. This could centre on the casino economy and big bad banks. The theme of treading water, stagnation and not moving on as a nation. Some of these themes were picked up by the Labour Party at its recent conference. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady set out five simple aims that resonate with Labour’s programme and could form the basis of an alternative. The first was a return to full employment with decent jobs. These would be paid for by fairer taxes. Second, the building of one million new council and affordable homes.Third, fair pay. This would mean a living wage and new wages councils to back it up. Fourth, that the NHS will once again be a public service run for people and not for profit. Fifth, fair rights at work. There is much to be done if the austerity story is to be truly exposed and replaced by another approach that seeks to make those who created the crisis in the first place pay the price of recovery.