Although it was billed as delivering “the people’s priorities”, Rishi Sunak’s spending review only demonstrates how distant the chancellor is from the experiences and priorities of our people.
The million workers who are predicted to lose their jobs by the end of the year – and the millions of others who have had their wages cut – will be unimpressed by cute slogans while Sunak bathes in the adoring glow of a pliant media. If, like workers at Heathrow, you’ve been ruthlessly fired and rehired with your wages savagely cut – or you have seen your jobs shipped abroad by a taxpayer-funded company, as workers at Rolls Royce in Barnoldswick have done – you would feel entitled to shout, “What about us?”
Promises of jobs and opportunities in the future are meaningless for those struggling to get by on universal credit or on the government’s “living wage” that isn’t enough to live on – or sick pay that even the health secretary, Matt Hancock, has admitted he couldn’t survive on. The 3 million people excluded from any government support scheme will be bitterly disappointed at not receiving even an acknowledgment of their plight.
The Tories may not like to call it austerity any more – but continuing the dismal levels of child benefit, universal credit and sick pay means that poverty and hardship, especially in-work and child poverty, will continue to grow. Debts are mounting for many families as they use up what little savings they have and struggle to pay the rent or mortgage. In the first three months of the pandemic personal debt grew by £6bn. If a scheme to tackle debt was good enough for the banks in 2008 then devising a similar scheme to alleviate the debt burden of families should be good enough for today.
The chancellor says he’s freezing public-sector pay to ensure fairness but a pay freeze for teachers, firefighters and police officers won’t do anything for private-sector workers. This is levelling down, not levelling up.
Instead of “building back better” as Johnson and Sunak promised, the demolition of public services continues, as councils are denied the resources they need and more edge towards bankruptcy with further local service cuts.
To restore confidence in the economy, people need their security guaranteed. A minimum income guarantee based upon a real living wage, linked to a jobs guarantee that would promise a job or training or education, would demonstrate that this government is actually determined to see our country through this crisis and give real hope to people.
Good jobs will come from high and stable long-term levels of investment in greening our economy. But earlier this year, the government’s own climate change committee exposed just how far behind the Tories were in facing up to the existential threat of climate change.
The feeble scale of investment announced by the chancellor to tackle climate change not only fails to recognise the desperate urgency of the catastrophe facing our planet but, in reality, also gives up on meeting the minimum 2050 target for net zero greenhouse gas emissions. When future generations experience events such as the forest fires that hit California this summer – or the flooding and food shortages that have forced mass migrations across the global south – they will look back at the decisions of the Johnson government, and its allies in the Trump administration, with deep and justifiable anger.
The case for raising investment across the country to the levels in London and the south-east is unarguable. On today’s scorecard, the government is not only failing to replicate these levels of investment outside the capital – it is also potentially replicating the exploitation and inequality that still scar London’s economy. There is no plan to create anywhere near the number of jobs desperately needed; without effective trade union rights, too many will be insecure, low skilled and low paid.
Apart from dire warnings about government borrowing and hints of tax rises, the chancellor refuses to even discuss any fiscal plan for the future. This just encourages speculators into the bookies that are the financial markets. The basic principles should at least be spelt out – borrowing when needed, paid for by environmentally sustainable growth and a fair tax system, with the corporations and the wealthy paying their way.
For most people the last nine months have been tough. Leaked documents from the Cabinet Office project that it could get worse, with a systemic crisis resulting from the combination of the pandemic and Brexit.
Yet again, action has had to be dragged out of Sunak. We need a government capable of leadership and inspiring vision. Instead, the last measure of the spending review in cutting aid to the poorest of our fellow human beings demonstrates we are led by unthinking brutes.
• John McDonnell is the former shadow chancellor and Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington