This budget has been the closest this election campaign has come to touching reality - but it still falls far short of the engagement with real issues that is so desperately needed.
The row still raging over the televised leaders’ debates is a perfect illustration of everything that is wrong with this election campaign. All parties have spent months debating debates, trading childish insults, and the main two in particular, using Prime Minister’s Questions to make cheap jibes at one another. Last week, Ed Miliband used six questions to ‘grill’ Cameron on the topic - highlighting the immense gulf between the point-scoring party politics of Westminster and the real issues faced by those who are at the mercy of this kind of politics.
While the budget comes closer to reality, there is still a vast disconnect between the way it is treated by politicians and the media, and the reality of the UK’s social and economic trajectory. Amid cheers, guffaws and ‘hear hears’ from a crowd of indistinguishable white men in suits, and a buzz of anticipation from journalists, George Osborne ‘announced’ that Britain is now ‘walking tall’; that living standards are rising; that we are on the road to recovery.
My question is this: do the Conservatives not realise that foodbanks, a phenomenon almost unheard of when this government first took office, were used by over 900,000 people over 2013-14, or do they not care? Do they not know that this parliament has seen a 50% rise in long-term unemployment for young BME people, or are these young peoples’ lives simply collateral damage in the coalition’s battle to ‘fix’ our economy?
This budget, like all before it in this parliament, does nothing to address the rising tide of poverty and inequality in the UK. The raising of the tax-free personal allowance, while benefitting all taxpayers, will be ‘little help to those who are really struggling,’ according to the chief executive of Citizens Advice, while the changes to the Help to Buy ISA has been denounced by many as simply not effective - in order to obtain the maximum bonus of £3000, you would have to save for four years, in which time house prices are likely to have risen even further. The National Housing Federation, among other organisations, have condemned the government for failing to address the root cause of the housing crisis - namely, that we are not building enough. The new personal savings allowance will benefit pensioners the most - as, of course, will the announcement that from next April, pensioners will be able to cash in their annuity savings.
This is a budget designed to appeal to savers, pensioners, and the middle-class. This is not a budget for the young, the poor, or the jobless; where is the commitment to scrapping the Bedroom Tax and the benefits cap, or increasing public sector pay? But no budget ever is, since these groups are so far alienated from our political system that their votes are too sparse to be worth courting. It is an indictment of the nature of this country’s politicians that the measure of a person’s worth to the government is measured by their likelihood to vote and not by their need. This government has allowed the coffers of the rich to swell, unfettered, while taking benefits, security and dignity from those out of work, living with chronic disabilities or illnesses, or in insecure, low-paid employment.
The young in particular have seen their benefits slashed, their access to education reduced, and their career prospects recede into the distance. While Osborne boasts of the jobs created under this government, the vast majority of those created are low-skilled and low-paid, leaving graduates not only lumbered with a massive debt but faced with a hostile job market that is unlikely to ever allow them to pay it off. For those who opt not to study at university, prospects are even grimmer, with the shortage of graduate-level jobs leaving graduates to fill positions lower down on the career ladder which those with A-level qualifications or less might once have filled. The Right to Buy scheme and this government’s failure to invest in housing is forcing young people into expensive, low-quality rented accommodation, faced with the prospect of never owning their own home.
What we need from a budget isn’t headline-grabbing giveaways, or the tantalising promise of austerity ending a little sooner than forecast. What we need is an acknowledgement that Britain’s economy won’t be fixed by austerity; by punishing the vulnerable, taking from the poor and selling young people’s futures down the river. We need a commitment to investing in public services, infrastructure and education; to making the minimum wage a living wage, and to making the richest in society pay their way through fair and enforced taxation. We need a commitment to empowering the young, not appeasing the grey vote. And most of all, we need a government that is willing to look beyond point-scoring and party politics, and engage with the reality of the lives of its citizens.