by Sue Konzelmann
10th December 2019

In 1852, the troopship HMS Birkenhead was wrecked off the South African coast. On board, aside from the soldiers themselves, were many women and children. With limited lifeboats available, the decision was made that those women and children should have first priority. At the time, this was an astonishing decision – the usual rule being ‘every man for himself’. And in spite of the huge loss of life in the wreck, the ‘Birkenhead Drill’ was a game changer, setting a standard that’s still the rule at sea today.

The UK government, however, has conspicuously failed to learn from this idea, especially when the economy is, well, at sea. We’ve now had four decades of ‘every man for himself’. When the financial services sector hit the rocks in 2008, it was more a case of ‘money and banks first’, with women and children, and indeed most men, coming a very poor second.

Come the new year, we will have yet another new government, which will be faced – amongst other things – with the consequences of a decade’s worth of cuts to services that, one way or another, the majority of us rely on.

Whilst there’s been much talk from most of the parties of a second industrial revolution based on green tech, there’s been remarkably little detail on what it is, how it would be made a reality, when we might see some results, or even exactly what ‘green’ means. There’s even less detail on how to address the ballooning number of people reliant on food banks and other support services – much of it provided by charities instead of the state.

Whilst reliance on food banks is the result of misguided spending cuts, rather than climate change and global warming, there’s still a very large elephant in the room: What do the various party manifestos on offer suggest we should do about the effects of all that austerity?

The Conservatives, who, along with the Liberal Democrats, gave us austerity in the first place, seem to have taken a ‘job done’ approach. Although the NHS and police appear to be in line for additional resources, there’s no sign of any reversal of cuts to social support or indeed significant modifications to Universal Credit, both of which make life much harder for many, and busier for food banks. In other words, there probably won’t be additional austerity, but we’ll still be stuck with the results of more than a decade of cuts. Not very helpful.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats appear to have been partying with Cameron and Osborne’s Kool Aid, promising us a budget surplus as a matter of course. Aside from the implications of this for yet more austerity, there is also the question of how they would in short order – as they promise – turn the UK into an exporting powerhouse, like Germany or the Netherlands, to achieve the necessary income. Like the Conservatives, they envision a ‘green’ revolution, but appear equally short on ideas to make it happen. Two thirds of EU member countries currently run a deficit, and ours is one of the largest; but it could be worse if the UK eventually joins the EuroZone. The euro is managed by strict limits on both public deficits and national debt; and from what we’ve seen imposed on Greece, that can result in austerity that would make the UK’s experience look like a walk in the park. So, not much joy on the austerity front from the Lib Dems then, either.

Labour do seem to have at least realised that the damage caused by austerity needs to be reversed, rather than simply slowed or, in some cases, ignored or denied. They, too, see a second industrial revolution based on environmental technologies as the best hope for the UK economy; and their manifesto includes a national business bank, with the resources to help make that happen. Universal Credit would also be scrapped and replaced by a different benefit structure; whilst it’s hard to see how a replacement could actually be worse than Universal Credit, we have still to see what that structure would look like. There is also the promise of an immediate increase in the minimum wage, although how much this would help those in parts of London, such as the people served by the Euston Food Bank, is somewhat of a moot point; a 2 bedroom flat in Euston costs at least £2,000 a month to rent, against a national average income of £28,000 per year, which is why many living there are forced to prioritise rent over food, to avoid becoming homeless.

Whilst Labour offers some hope for those of us who have been variously referred to as the ‘squeezed middle’, the ‘pinched bottom’ or even the ‘just about making its’, the main debate in the media and elsewhere is still all about the money – not about what actually needs to be done. People are still coming a very poor second to money and banks.

So instead of demanding “where’s the money coming from?” the question we should really be asking, is “where’s our society and economy going?”


Rethinking Britain book coverRethinking Britain edited by Sue Konzelmann, Susan Himmelweit, Jeremy Smith and John Weeks is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £11.99.

Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – sign up here. Please note that only one discount code can be used at a time.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Image Credit: Matt Brown via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)