British (or British adjacent) readers will by now probably have digested the main headlines of yesterday’s budget, but Katy Chakrabortty digs deeper in this guest post.
Since election manifestos tend to appear only twice a decade, party leadership pledges can be made in TV debates and quietly forgotten and the King’s Speech is delivered with an air of regal deference, it often falls to the Budget and financial statements – delivered twice a year by the Chancellor – to inform the country of the current policy direction of their government.
And so we heard yesterday from Jeremy Hunt of the drive for growth and the plan to get people working, all set against a background of economic forecasts and global markets.
Budget statements are key moments of transparency and accountability for government. The opposition parties prepare blistering responses (so they hope), the papers pore over the leaks and the details, parliament debates for days and think-tanks left and right count off their policy wins.
Except listen to the language used in these moments. We are not a country. We are an economy. We are not people; we are economic actors – only really visible in so much as we do or don’t contribute to formal paid work. We measure our fortunes by gross domestic product (GDP), no matter that this aggregate figure can tell you little or nothing about people’s real lives or the huge inequalities that remain. And we humans are primarily organised into businesses or workplaces, not families or communities.
(It is perhaps worth noting that while the government is proud of its record of three female UK Prime Ministers, we’ve never had a chancellor who wasn’t a man.)
Within the confines of this framing, there are very real and very welcome announcements in this Budget. The “drive for growth” has moved from faith in trickledown economics to measures that will genuinely help people to earn more, from increased childcare support, and upfront childcare payments. Childcare campaigners that we work with, like those convened by the Women’s Budget Group, deserve real credit for their advocacy on this. Continued household support for energy prices will reassure many, and the government has rightly seen off the calls to cut headline rates of tax for the biggest companies.
‘Into calmer waters?’ is the hopeful refrain from the Resolution Foundation think tank as it assesses this Budget. The news is of a shallower recession than feared, some ease in inflation, and a bit of fiscal headroom as government borrowing costs decrease.
But are the waters calm? Though the graphs in the Treasury documents today may tell a story of just about managing, many households are in real crisis. Some easing of inflation just means prices are rising less swiftly. The same news bulletins that tell us about policies to get people back to work, also report era-defining strike action continuing across the NHS and public sector. Those jobs are not paying enough, and the institutions they are in are at breaking point. And as that basic architecture falls away – the health service, the social care provision, early years education and childcare providers – no waving of the Budget Box will convince people that they are primarily economic agents in workplaces. They are disabled people, people with sicknesses and people with children and relatives to care for.
What would happen if we considered policy making differently? Not as a drive for growth per se, but a focus on improving people’s lives. Not a narrow conception of work coming with a paycheque, but a willingness to see unpaid carers as workers too. Not valuing people by how much money they have or make, but giving people money because of how intrinsically valuable they are.
On this basis, there is no charity or “scrounging” in carers receiving social security, it is what society invests in those who keep our society and economy going.
Rather than talking about the need to “get people back to work” in his statement. The Chancellor might applaud and recognise the very real work being done day in day out by millions – often women – as they take on unpaid care roles. Although they may prefer to be able to continue with paid work – they deserve a system that gives them a choice.
He might heed the calls of the Trussell Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation to enshrine in law a social security system that guarantees people can afford the basics in life – recognising that all have value and shouldn’t do without essential needs.
It might look like recognising that those in the ‘caring and green classes’ – the NHS staff, the teachers, and those who get us around on public transport – cannot live on clapping alone and offer a meaningful boost to public sector pay.
It might look like ending the narrative that sees those with the least in this country pitted against those with the least in the rest of the world as the overseas aid Budget continues to be cut and raided in the name of fiscal prudence and need at home.
And finally, it might look like seriously tackling economic inequality to do this. Tax Justice UK and Patriotic Millionaires have developed a range of tax measures for the wealthiest, ranging from a net wealth tax of those over £10 million to equalizing capital gains tax with income tax. Combined that could bring in around £50bn of revenue annually, as well as act on a brake on inflation.
The Chancellor would have us believe he was doing the best for us today with the hand he was dealt. But how that hand appears is defined by choices. He defines what “the economy” is, what to count, what to class as ‘crisis’, what to value, and for whom he wants stability and success. In this world of very real crisis for millions, we need a bit more imagination.