The austerity cliff and how to avoid it

By Virginia Moffatt
September 30, 2014

In 2008, the banks collapsed, and everything changed. The then Labour government, anxious to avoid economic meltdown paid billions to bail them out whilst starting on a programme of public sector cuts that would only increase under the Coalition.

So began the Age and the Myth of Austerity. The prevailing wisdom of the last six years has been that the country has run out of money, and that the only way we can rectify the situation is by tightening our collective belts and cutting government expenditure wherever we can. The Conservatives and Labour Party all believe the only way to balance the books is to cut, cut and then cut some more. And yet, as Ann Pettifor points out, the opposite is true: the more we cut, the less we spend, and the more we increase the deficit. In fact, if the government spent more, as Germany has, we would see growth increase, and the deficit diminish .

But it is not just the flaw in the economic arguments that makes austerity so damaging, the human cost is immense. Local government cuts are affecting everything from libraries and leisure centres to social care and housing . Meanwhile, the NHS is being stretched to breaking point, with job cuts and A&E closures whilst welfare cuts continue to cause harm and distress to the poorest people in society, in particular, the sick and disabled.

Austerity was very much on my mind during last week's training. On Wednesday my run was dominated by my reflections on the fine speech Harry Leslie Smith gave to the Labour Party Conference, in which he described the "bleak", "barbarous" health system and poverty of his childhood. I've long been a fan of Harry Leslie Smith's writing, and his recollections of his youth chime with the stories my father told me. How it wasn't uncommon for his peers at primary school to fall sick, and die. How at the age of five he and his sister, were left alone in the house whilst my grandmother looked for work, and there was only a crust of bread to eat. And how years later, when Atlee government founded the NHS, developed social housing, set up the welfare safety net, and education for all, she couldn't believe political leaders could be so generous. Which was when she also warned, that when those in power worked out what they had given away, they would do everything they could to get it back. As I look at the stark figures of how the gap between rich and poor has increased since the Coalition government came to power, it seems we live in the times she predicted.

Friday's run took place during the Iraq airstrikes debate. I wore a T-shirt saying 'Bread not Bombs' in the vain hope that my positive thoughts might persuade Parliament might make the right choice. Alas, they didn't, and, as usual such circumstances, there was no mention of austerity and the need to save money. It seems we can always find the money to bomb people.

My final run of the week took place on Sunday. We were staying with Chris' family in Hampshire, which meant my long run took me to Highcliffe and then back along the beach to New Milton. I ran early in the morning, arriving at the cliff top to the sight of the newly risen sun shining on the water. There were few people about, and I appreciated the rare opportunity to have the beautiful scenery all to myself. It was easy for several miles till I reached the end of the beach and literally ran through a metaphor I have been considering for some time. The cliffs have been crumbling for a while and recent landslides meant that the path home was blocked. The only way forward was a scramble over slippery rocks and trying to avoid falling in the sea. What should have been an easy ten minute stretch, became a half an hour of precarious balancing, stretching over blocks of stone as I tried to avoid breaking an ankle. Above me, the cliff was impenetrable, and it was only when I reached the other side to the other side that I managed to find my way back up to the top.

It was a timely moment to encounter such difficulties, because I have long thought of austerity as a cliff. There are far too many people who have already gone over the edge, but if the government continue as George Osborne is planning to do the whole cliff face will collapse. If that happens, life for everyone but the elite on the cliff tops, will become a relentless scramble just to stay in one place, with the path upwards blocked for the majority, whilst the very poorest struggle not to be dashed on the rocks below.

Ekklesia was an early critic of the austerity agenda and over the last four years, we have frequently highlighted its impact on the poorest in our society. As we head into election year, we will continue to champion alternative economic models including the contributions that the care sector can offer, as proposed by our associate John Gilibrand. We will work alongside other think tanks such as the Centre for Welfare Reform and Common Weal to develop alternative policies that can work to the common good of all our society. We will support initiatives like Citizen's Income and Living Wage and point out that the best way to cut the benefits bill is to pay people a decent wage. We will point out the best way to bring down the deficit will be to increase public spending. And we will call on all political parties to commit to creating a society that provides equal opportunity for health, social care, education and housing for everyone.

In 1945, the economy was crippled after years of war and the deficit was triple what it is today. Yet despite that, we created a system of free health care for all, free education for all, a safety net for those struggling to find work and affordable social housing for those without. Because the prevailing ideology back then was that a decent society was one where we all took care of each other, rather than leave our fates to the mercy of market forces. The last six years have shown us that the current ideology is damaging both economically and socially. And it hurts us all, because as Samuel Johnson once said "A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilisation". It is time our politicians remembered that fact and acted accordingly, otherwise, we will all be heading for the cliff edge, and there will be no way back.

* I am running the Oxford Half Marathon on Sunday 12th October, to raise funds for Ekklesia's work. If you would like to support the work of Ekklesia, please do make a donation through Paypal here, marked 'run'.

* Alternatively please send a donation to the Ekklesia office, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 235 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, WC2H 8EP making it clear that your donation is in support of Virginia's run. You can follow her progress on @run_ekklesia and see previous blogs here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/blogs/virginiamoffat

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.