Prime Minister’s Questions on 11 June was, unsurprisingly, painful to watch. David Cameron admitted that turnout at the recent European elections was “very depressing,” before deciding to punish us by conjuring up a mental image of himself in speedos. Even more often than usual, mentions of “the recovery” and “the long-term economic plan” popped up. The Conservatives hammered home the fact that 2 million jobs had been created since 2010. But most striking was the Prime Minister’s claim that “inequality is at its lowest since 1986”.
Forget the latter declaration, which was enough to make me cough up the water I was sipping at the time. The former one, brought up by Tory backbencher after Tory backbencher, blatantly ignored the reality that 80% of those jobs created involve zero hour contracts. This means that 1.6 million of those people have employers who aren’t obligated to provide them work. And whilst Cameron can claim a victory on unemployment, underemployment is the real problem.
An analysis in March by the Local Government Association (LGA) shows that 1.2 million 16-24 year olds are either overqualified or underemployed, in workplaces which don’t reward their abilities, or which don’t give them enough hours. Additionally, the number of people working part-time because they cannot find full-time work is running at a near-record 5% of people in employment. Most significantly, 2 out of 3 children in poverty are now living in working households.
This last fact was mentioned in Prime Minister’s Questions itself. “Please, please tell me where it went wrong in the first place,” a Labour minister said, before being overwhelmed by a chorus of approving shouts and deafening shrieks. His speech hit hard and true, deflating Cameron’s claim that “the best route out of poverty is work.” Clearly, it’s not anymore.
Of course, the demand for more hours comes on the back of a squeeze in real wages – 8% since 2008. A recent Guardian/ICM poll highlighted the fear of wages lagging behind living costs – a fear held by 57% of those surveyed. The ‘lack of permanent posts’ was another big worry. Livelihoods are being squeezed, inflation is again likely to go up soon, according to Money Week, and a rise in the minimum wage is clearly, desperately needed. Not only would this help over 10 million people, but it could also increase spending.
But this doesn’t appear to be on the cards, which of course, are all in the hands of the Tories. They can be glad that their propaganda machine is working. Despite only 18% of people admitting to feeling the effects of the recovery in the Guardian survey, an incredible 56% agreed that it was ‘underway’. If they’re not seeing it for themselves, then where is it happening? How can it be called a recovery?
There’s mounting evidence that this is a recovery for the rich, and not the rest. A report from the Office for National Statistics found that Cameron has presided over the longest fall in living standards since 1964. While working people are on average £1,600 a year worse off than in 2010, the Tory-led government have led a £3 billion tax cut for the top 1% of earners. Furthermore, the poorest 10% of households pay eight percentage points more of their income in all taxes than the richest – 43% compared to 35%, according to a report from the Equality Trust. Time has told us that wealth isn’t ‘trickling down,’ the phrase coined by Tories to justify their rich-pal-friendly policies. ‘Peeing uphill’ would probably be more suitable.
In fact, the Prime Minister’s claim that he has boosted equality is based on the Gini coefficient, which expresses income equality as a percentage. 0 means everyone earns the same, and 100 means all the income goes to one person. The flaw in his claim is that the number has barely changed since the 1980s – it has hovered between 33 and 36 for the last 3 decades, barely reacting to what has really been going on in the economy. Here is yet another murky, misleading political promise, which you have to research before making a fair judgement.
Cameron also claimed that he has lifted 300,000 children out of poverty. Again, he isn’t giving the fairest possible summary of the long-term poverty trends. In terms of relative poverty, he is right. However, he is wrong in claiming it as a victory for the Tories. The Child Poverty Action Group says: “The fall of 300,000…has to be largely attributed to legacy policies of the Labour government, including above-index increases to child tax credit.” He is also wrong in terms of absolute poverty; this trend is exactly the reverse of the statistic quoted by the prime minister: it has risen from 2.3 million to 2.6 million children since 2009/10.
So now we know what the Labour ministers were roaring about before the speaker of the house interrupted them to start pontificating about curry. While investment and resources have been gobbled up by the southeast, one third of children in the northeast are living in poverty. This last, sickening fact was also thrown in Cameron’s face in Parliament – right before he made his malformed, misshapen, misleading assertion. It is important to note that, at a time when we have surpassed the pre-crisis GDP of 2007, an economic recovery has certainly occurred. But a social recovery, a recovery that resembles the one described by our Prime Minister, a recovery that has ‘taken hold’ – is yet to be seen.
By Jacob Montgomery