The Politics of ...

The Politics of ...

Monday, 30 August 2010

Hell and Hand-baskets

It's funny. We had a recession and I didn't really notice it much. I only really started to notice it when we were, allegedly, coming out of it.

Since June, I've been broke. Incidentals did it and as a result a time of the year when I normally don't spend much money, I've had to spend even less. The prognosis doesn't look all that rosy either...

Compatriot and Everton supporter, Roger Trenwith highlights the plight of some of the town's heritage in his Brouhaha blog over at Museums, like libraries and stuff of that ilk, are going to change beyond our recognition over the next few years. It seems highly likely, because regional museums cost money and we're being reminded almost hourly at the moment that there isn't any (and this is before October when we really find out who isn't getting what), there is a good chance that the whole dynamic of museums will change.

Listening to an interesting radio phone in the other day, which was outlining the aim of the government, through its Big Society, to get more people doing stuff for nothing - or volunteering if you want to use the correct word. Now, I've been working closely with the Voluntary Sector for the last ten years and I suppose for the unenlightened I should point out that the Voluntary Sector is run by paid people. It isn't a misnomer, because there are many people who do volunteer for things; it's just that it's run by people employed and therefore paid from monies that come from all manner of places; places that are likely not to have money any more, or for a long time.

The aim of the phone in was to show how the government would get more people taking control of amenities they feel are being inadequately maintained or run. If you didn't like the way your local service was being run you can take it over and put in the people who would deliver it better and at no cost whatsoever to any one, because you'd be volunteering to run it or help run it. Yes, the logistics would mean that councils would still own museums and would have a token member of staff to do all the necessary things such as ordering, banking and the like; but that person would be assisted by an 'army' of able bodied and willing volunteers...

Yeah, and if my aunt had balls she'd be my uncle.

Don't get me wrong. It's a valiant idea, but one that really, truly, shows how politicians are completely out of touch with life outside of their big eff-off mansions or their London homes. There is also some truth in it as well, the smart people at ConDem HQ have figured that with so many people losing their jobs over the next couple of years, then we can make this deal with the long term unemployed - go and do 30 hours of voluntary work a week, at your library or museum or even cleaning out bins and you'll get your dole cheque at the end of the week (now, of course, paid directly into a claimant's bank account!).

Last week, someone in the Guardian pointed out that if all the museums in the country charged £1 entrance fee and all under 14s go free, it would generate over £1,000,000 a day or getting on for £500m a year. Half a billion quid raised through sensible pricing of our heritage. Yes, there will be a drop off in attendees, but even if that figure dropped by a quarter, it's still 3/4s of a million quid a day, which is a lot more than they get at the moment. Yes, it's an extra tax in many ways, but its one you choose to pay rather than having it forced onto you.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies has ascertained that it will be the poor who get royally buggered by the austerity measures being put into place. The government were quick to disagree with the IFS. Funny how they hold the right to disagree with them when they don't like what they say, but are quick to get behind them when they say something positive?

In truth, I think any household that has a combined income of under £50k a year is going to struggle to make ends meet. I expect that 1 in 5 of those households will see a sudden drop in money thanks to redundancies or lay offs and no replacement jobs. Many experts are saying these austerity measures could have to last 10 years, which seems like a prison sentence to anyone, especially if you're one of the people who ain't going to come out of it smelling of roses. The problem is, a lot of people are looking at the bigger picture and none of them appears to be the government. We're having it rammed down out throats that we have to make cuts and tighten out belts, but what happens when all these measures destroy the lives of people? If the private sector doesn't pick up all the public sector cast offs then there will be an influx of people all looking for work and having effectively been removed from society, they suddenly can no longer use the things they once did and this will have its own knock on effect. The flood of people onto the jobs market will be so keen that it could have a totally detrimental effect on the private sector; especially peripherally.

You and the wife are quite comfortable, the two kids are at a reasonable school, the dog is healthy, you have two cars and a small mortgage. You in your private sector job and the wife in her public sector one. She becomes a statistic and your income is down by up to 50%. If she gets a severance package you're all right for a while, but when that runs out and she still hasn't got a job things start to change. You might have a small mortgage, which is always going to be manageable, but the second car has suddenly become a luxury and even though you need it; in case the wife gets a new job or for running the kids to school, it's an expense that you could really do without.

Then there's the fortnightly meal at your favourite restaurant or pub; that's going to have to be cut back to once a month or even completely - and while you're just one couple not using your favourite restaurant, you might be one of several customers who can no longer afford this particular social luxury. Hubby can't afford to go to the pub with his mates once a week and that's a tenner the publican isn't going to make and his beer prices are going up and his food customers are dwindling - hubby and the wife aren't going any more and neither are others. Suddenly the landlord is also struggling and of course the knock on from his struggles hits other companies.

Hubby also can't afford to play golf on a Saturday morning and his wife can't go to the gym, because she can't afford the once very affordable £50-£100 a month membership fees. The kids, both still at school, need feeding, clothing and entertaining and the 17-year-old one wants driving lessons. While he or she is learning with dad rather than with Red or BSM, the dog is run over, costing over £500 to fix, because they couldn't afford the insurance payments after the wife lost her job.

Dominoes. The economy is a precarious game of dominoes. And when the stakes are as high as the ones being talked about, one person can have a direct effect on a local business, which in turn has an affect on local trade, which impacts on regional trade, which in turn does the same for national. So, when you think you don't make a difference, you possibly do.

The shop I once owned almost beat the last big recession; but I became dependent on regular trade. I knew John Q was going to come into the shop every week and spend £50, you start to budget for it. Then John Q lost his job and suddenly he was spending £5 and not £50. You can argue that its bad practice, but it isn't; it's human nature. Newsagents know that all the people who get papers delivered will pay at some point - its guaranteed money; it's how they work. It's how a milkman works; it's how supermarkets work, obviously on a grander scale, but it all boils down to the expectation of people coming in because previous trends dictate.

The pessimist in me feels that we're all staring down the barrel of a gun and we're a different kind of society to the ones that saw mass unemployment in the 70s and 80s or the ridiculous boom bust survivors of the 90s. I don't think people are adverse to peaceful rebellion and longer and the unemployed become desperate, especially when their poverty starts impacting on the lives of their children.

If you think I'm scaremongering, you might be right, things never fall apart that badly, do they? I was chatting to mate of mine the other day, he's a policeman, has been for a long time. In fact, he's coming up for retirement soon and he'd take it tomorrow if it was offered. The reason is simple, he said to me. He doesn't want to be a copper any longer because he doesn't think it will be a safe job soon and he feels he may have to do things that he now feels he can't. He doesn't think he's alone. I spoke with a woman who holds a very high position in the Borough. She has been doing what she does for a long time and knows the inner workings of this kind of thing; she thinks that the world is going to change so drastically over the next couple of years that its going to leave some people shell shocked. She doesn't believe anyone is safe, not even front line jobs and services. She envisages councils being stripped back to the barest of bones, all services farmed out to either the private sector or centralised like the probation service. This is a woman who grew up in an unemployment hot spot and thinks she's seeing history repeat itself.

I was too young to fully appreciate the mess the country was in during the 70s; I was too preoccupied with sex and drugs and rock and roll in the 1980s to really let my years of unemployment and desolation concern me (until it was too late); I suffered the 16% interest rates, almost losing my house and being made bankrupt in the 1990s and yet I never lost my optimism. I always thought that the change was just round the corner, that there was hope. I look ahead to 2011 and beyond and I feel empty, worried and a wee bit afraid. It wasn't our fault we're in this mess, but we're the only schmucks that receive the bill.

It's a pretty bleak outlook when the one bright side you can see is that millions of others will be in the same boat.