George Osborne’s turned a sleight of hand trick by announcing what he called a ‘living wage’ in his budget. Yet if you look behind the spin, 'osbornornomics' far from prioritises basic needs it leaves us alone as we face the market.
In unlinking the rate at which the living wage is set from being based on basic needs, as academics have long defined it, to being based on median incomes, Osborne is engaged in Orwellian double speak. The living wage was always meant to challenge the notion that markets should decide the minimum return for a workers labour. Now Osborne has returned it to a calculation based on market fluctuations - re-defining the very idea for which the term stood.
It’s worth remembering that according to a similar relative standard, child poverty partly fell during the early part of the last parliament – not because children were becoming better off – but because the middle class was losing income. As their incomes fell, so did the median income causing the level considered poverty to fall with it. Osborne also cut back tax credits, which are credited with reducing child poverty – cutting them from 35% to 19% of children between 98/99 and 2012/13.
By attacking these vital credits at the same time as promising a ‘living wage’ by 2019 he is giving with one hand whilst taking away with the other. Rather than being a budget that supports working people, this budget hits the vulnerable hardest: especially low paid working families and under 25s who won’t be entitled to the new ‘living wage’. Osbourne’s message is clear: “you’re on your own mate”.
With rumours of proposals to make workers save for their own sick pay it’s clear that the overarching direction of Osborne’s economic strategy is to leave you very much on your own in negotiating your wellbeing with employers. How much easier is it for employers to impose top down re-structures and erode conditions, when workers can’t rely on Job Seekers allowance knowing they can be withdrawn through sanctions? The feeling that this safety net can no longer be relied upon weakens the hand of even those hard working people Osborne claims to champion by leaving them in a much weaker position vis a vis their employers. They have no place else to go and that vulnerability increases as those very same workers could have children or become disabled or sick. Again the market will be left to determine whether there's enough to meet basic needs, the state having withdrawn from this correcting role.
Moving on from the budget’s impact on the individual level, the direction of travel is even clearer. Osborne’s proposals to legislate to make ‘balanced budgets’ a requirement, except during ‘exceptional’ times, serves only to lock in austerity. No longer can the state borrow to invest in the public good. In its place, private capital becomes the determiner of where surplus resources are allocated: forever directed where it can extract the most profit thereby strengthening its own hand in a vicious repetitive cycle. Public services, which respond to need not the ability to pay, will be cut back, again leaving everyone on their own. As capital invests to maximise its return, state could be allocated to meet need not profit dwindle.
In the wake of austerity, social goods, public services and all the things that bind us together are under attack. Once again “you’re on your own mate” is the mantra behind the headlines - the market (and ability to pay) increasingly determining whether basic needs are met.
An assault on the trade unions
Of course, hand in hand with this economic strategy to individualise society is a political attack. The (anti-) Trade Union bill attacks the rights of workers to bargain together in the market [through strike action] and force their employers to the table to negotiate.
In a double whammy, the restrictions are tightest on public services where unions are fighting not only for the conditions of their members but to defend public services against cut backs, re-organisations and privatisation. This leaves not only the public sector workers worse off, but also the public who depend on those services. Once again when workers attempt to negotiate with the the market to have their needs met, Osborne say’s “you’re on your own mate”. The right of people to join together in the face of a voracious market hungry for profits is more and more restricted.
In the face of this push toward rampant individualism, our resistance has to be collective. Our demand must not solely for a slightly larger share of the pie, but for rules which prioritise need over profit.
Owen Espley, Senior Economic Justice Campaigner