Wednesday, 4 March 2015

It’s the economy, stupid


Our kitchen was installed in 1986.  It is fair to say it has seen better days.  The work surface is starting to come away from the wall.  It is a relentlessly brown colour which my wife was appalled by when we first saw the house, but I have become used to over the past two years.  Still, it needs replacing.  I never thought I would be the sort of person who buys a kitchen, although I also thought that I’d never own a property, so there you go.  It with some surprise, therefore, that I find myself heading to Croydon Ikea on a grey, miserly Saturday morning and as we grind through the slow moving traffic, I find myself thinking about politics in a grouchy, frustrated fashion.

1992 was a strange election.  It was the first I sort of understood.  I was aware of 1987, but it felt too vague.  I had no real comprehension that anyone other than Mrs Thatcher could be Prime Minister.  By 92, on the cusp of adolescence and beginning to listen to the six o’clock news, I at least realised that there were alternatives.

No-one expected John Major to be victorious.  A man seen as a bland compromise for a party unable to countenance Michael Hestletine’s flamboyance at its head, but recognised that Thatcher had gone past the rational.  It had no idea of what life after her would be like so played it safe.  Major was an experienced politician, but not considered his own man, many expected him to be a puppet for his forcibly retired mistress.  He was so anonymous that Spitting Image portrayed him as physically grey, saggy eyed and having a passion for boiled peas eaten in the gloom. 

On the other side of the floor, Neil Kinnock appeared confident of over-coming the characteristics middle England seemed so appalled by: being Welsh, ginger, left-wing with the misfortune to have, once, fallen into the sea at Brighton.  Even with those disadvantages it seemed inconceivable that the public majority wouldn’t swing for him.  The election process was merely going to be a coronation.

We all know what happened next.  Major, against all expectations, proved to be an exceptional campaigner trawling around small towns and cities carrying a soap box and a loudspeaker, willing to engage with and argue his case with anyone passing.  It was a piece of public engagement one can’t imagine David Cameron being willing to conduct, with his preference for carefully staged photo opportunities which add to his “I met a man” repartee on his travels “up and down the country”.  Backed up by a clever marketing campaign – “What can the Conservative party offer a working class boy from Brixton?” – and the support of Murdoch dominated press (If Labour win, will the last person in Britain turn off the lights?) the Tories managed to suggest that the party could be something for all people, that it had more than the interests of its wealthy backers at heart.

Kinnock, meanwhile, flew around the country by helicopter like some erstwhile President, shook triumphant fists with Roy Hattersley in arenas like he was in Simple Minds and preached to the converted with dull test group vetted phrases and not like the conviction politician inside him and probably not like a Prime Minister.  Not in those days, anyway.


Another missed opportunity.  Although to my young mind it simply felt like the natural order had reasserted itself.  Instead of something new we got another five years of Conservative government leading us into financial crash with Black Wednesday, a housing market bubble (again), and MPs who seemed less interested in supporting and developing public services than finding ways to discredit themselves through their personal fetishes and tearing their party apart over Europe.

It seems like nothing changes.

Ikea is as hellish as I remember it.  Insanely busy at ten o’clock, the majority of customers share the same dead-eyed, desperate expression for the whole experience to be over.  There’s a smattering of young couples setting up home for the first time, finding cheap furniture for their rented flat.  They seem to be enjoying themselves.  Let them; it won’t last long.

The Conservatives managed to keep the keys to Downing Street in 1992 even though the economy was sinking into recession, but it was close.  As we approach May this year, the current government are rushing out as many dubiously snaffled together statistics as they can to show that the economy is buoyant.   The reasoning is that if they could win twenty-three years ago with the country’s finances in the doldrums then harping on about wealth and growth being back up to pre-financial catastrophe levels will only help this time round.  And they’re right.  Nothing sells change like a recession, or a major scandal and they will do everything possible to prevent either occurring over the next few weeks. 

So, growth back to 2008 levels they cry.  The highest number of jobs created for any parliament.  But what does this mean, is any of it real and are we all better off than where we were in 2010?

The economy has undoubtedly improved.  Personally, my financial situation has never been more secure.  But both measures have to be put in the context of things being about as bad as they could possibly have been.  The fault for which rests, partly, with Gordon Brown.  Taking a greater interest in financial regulation at some point in the decade running up to 2008 would have helped, although 2008 was a global disaster and much of it was out of the UK’s reach.  Besides, Brown’s decisive action to refinance the whole system cleared some of the blame from his shoulders. 

In reality, just like every other statistic, the message being used for is one of over-simplification.

We have an economy and economic confidence (the latter of which is arguably, in political terms, the more important) overly reliant on an financial sector, which still (still!) sees itself as some sort of desperado ranger on the wild frontier with scant regard for anyone else, and that old British institution the value of our house.  Anyone would be excused for thinking that the global meltdown of seven years ago, which was caused by these two factors plus our own greed, never happened.  If the political market never changes, it would appear the economy’s chief drivers don’t either.

More jobs?  Well, probably, but that doesn’t mean they are the jobs which people want, or need.  There has been a significant growth in part time positions and the insane idea of zero hour contracts which not only put employees utterly under the thumb of companies but also, handily, restricts the benefits they’re entitled too because they are in work.  But not being paid.  The defence of this is that it creates a more flexible society suitable for the twenty-first century.  No longer should we just be expected to work nine to five, later for pub landlords.  Work is whenever you want it to be.  Except it isn’t.  The majority of data shows that those in part-time work want more hours to be financially stable.  Part time positions and zero hour contracts are skewed massively towards low paid and minimum wage roles, where less money on a weekly basis makes all the difference.

At my most financially stretched, I once ate boiled brown rice infused with gravy granules and some frozen spinach I’d had to scrape out of the freeze.  For three nights in a row.  An extra £20 would have made the difference.

If the rate of inflation for the minimum wage had risen to the same degree as senior directors, then it would be £15.30 per hour not £6.30.  In real terms, those on the minimum wage are a £1,000 a year worse off than they were ten years ago.  That’s not so far away from when I was last on the minimum wage and not so long ago that I can’t remember how little it felt in my pocket.  We’re creating a rich economy or those already rich.

So, average take home pay remains in doldrums and pay-day loan companies with interest rates worse than the Wiemar Republic’s inflation plug the gaps as people struggle to fill their shopping baskets, pay their gas bills, get their kids a new pair of shoes because the soles are hanging off the old ones, and besides they’re too small.  In the past few months prices have started to come down, but that’s more to do with economic sanctions on a Russia more interesting in dusting off the seventies approach to diplomacy and chaos in the Middle East both messing up oil prices than the economic genius of Gideon Austerity Osborn.  It is, however, fortunate timing and people are, understandably, more interested in the cost of their weekly shop than the global political picture.

Meanwhile, youth unemployment is stratospherically high as people emerge blinking and battle scarred from a university environment so terrified at the life buggering level of debts incurred that they’re turning to drugs, not for fun or escape but to get better grades.  How is this not storing up problems for the future?  Saddling everyone with levels of personal debt impossible to pay off when no-one wants to give you a job.  So what if it expires after thirty years?  You’ve still got it hanging around your neck like the heavy corpse of learning for a generation.

 Even if you could get a job, it would never as highly paid as expected.  Some politicians seem to think every graduate waltzs into the equivalent of a managing director’s chair when in the end, they’ll start on something around £19K just like everyone else.  So, people’s credit rating is screwed which will scupper their ability to buy a property – which they’ll be desperate to do because everyone tells them it’s the only guaranteed way to make money.  And when the property market, which is propping the whole fragile economy, tanks then where are we?

I can’t decide whether the current government really doesn’t care or just doesn’t get it.  Whether they’re verging on downright evil, only interested in short-term enrichment, or whether their world view is so distorted to their own privileged Cotswold set that they genuinely can’t see how much damage this sort of thing does to ordinary people.

In a recent speech, Cameron called on the private sector, on business to give Britain a pay rise.  Except Austerity Osborne has frozen public sector wages so he’s suggesting that the market should do the opposite of the government.  Unsurprisingly the market pretended not to hear and hoped everyone would forget about it.  That’s not how the market works.  High salaries erode profit margins, but if public sector wages look more desirable then the private sector will offer increases to keep hold of its best people.

There’s no reason for the public sector to be seen as inferior to or worth less than business, unless, of course, you have an ideological objection to the whole thing in the first place.  And so that means they have an ideological objection to me.  To you.  To everyone else, except those on the inside.  

The poor only have themselves to blame, they say.  If they don’t have enough money for what they want, then don’t buy it.  Except for when what you want is food for the first time in three days and there isn’t a penny in your bank account.  Eric Pickles has clearly never been in such a scenario.

A booming economy does not have a million people reliant on food banks.   Success is not having child poverty rates increasing for the first time in twenty years.

The Tories will say that we are recovered from financial disaster because their mates are doing okay.  There is a fundamental problem when this government gives, rather than loans, money to financial institutions for it to then be loaned to small businesses to kick start the economy, but when the banks kept the money instead the government simply gave them more.  On the flip side of the coin, local councils around the country are being denied permission to take on loans, not tax payer supported gifts, to invest into infrastructure projects.

My wife and I have never been to Ikea together, a fact she find remarkable and I attribute to careful planning. 

‘We should have done this before,’ she said when the South Circular ground to a standstill.  ‘It’s one of those tests all couples have to undertake to check they’re compatible.  If it all goes to hell this morning, it’s too late.  We’re already married.’

Inside, we don’t argue, but I do become grumpy and bored as for over two hours we examine the numerous barely distinguishable mocked up kitchens, with the same curiously uninspiring shiny cabinets and sympathetic lighting.  At one point I get my hand stuck in a handle, my wedding ring snagged between the curved aluminium and the slick drawer front.  There’s a metaphor in here somewhere, I think while I struggle to extract myself and my wife looks on, faintly embarrassed, once again.

‘What have you done?’ she asks, mildly exasperated.

Quite.  What have we done, indeed?  And more to the point: what are we going to do to fix it?

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