The Conservative economic agenda is not based on evidence. Rather, it is based on an ideology, one that is impervious to any form of evidence, one that is based on the idea that only a small state ends the inefficiencies that hold people back. Dazzled by the Thatcher years of economic liberalisation, the Conservatives are blinded to the inequality, poverty, poor growth, high debt and high deficit the Thatcher government ran.
Having studied ancient history, it would be reasonable to assume that the current chancellor, George Osborne, would be able to read and understand historical events and patterns, which would point towards the best way to drive us away from the ‘terrible mess Labour left us with’ (by increasing spending on benefits, directly causing the US sub-prime mortgage market to crash). He looked to the Wall Street Crash and saw Keyensian economics in action: stimulus inducing growth. He saw John Major – a Conservative – spend his way out of the second Thatcher recession, caused by a reduction in government spending. He saw these and thought, “No, this doesn’t work, let’s reduce spending.”
So he did. The growth between 2008 and 2010, which labour produced, stalled and the country headed towards a double-dip recession. This didn’t happen because Osborne paused austerity and belatedly increased investment. This is how Paul Krugman described this policy:
“Suppose that for some reason you decided to start hitting yourself in the head, repeatedly, with a baseball bat. You’d feel pretty bad. Correspondingly, you’d probably feel a lot better if and when you finally stopped. What would that improvement in your condition tell you? It certainly wouldn’t imply that hitting yourself in the head was a good idea.”
The Obama administration also introduced a stimulus package to improve the US economy. However, unlike Washington DC, Osborne reverted to type, pledging further cuts to welfare in an effort to shore up the shaky, painfully slow growth of 0.3%.
The UK is party to a number of human rights treaties, which place an obligation on the government not to implement measures that worsen the standard of life of the people under its jurisdiction. Conservative ideology will result in this, meaning the UK will breach its human rights obligations. More importantly, the UK will cause unjustifiable suffering to the weakest and most vulnerable in society. Below, I will focus on three areas which show how this austerity ideology has affected – and will affect – the human rights of the vulnerable in British society.
Austerity demands cuts. Cuts to benefits. It was benefits that got us into this mess – if you ignore all evidence – so it’s benefits that have got to go. Under the Conservative regime, almost all forms of benefit have decreased and panels have been created to stop all benefit fraudsters cheating the system, by assessing their so-called ‘disability’ and declaring that it does not exist. They are based on the idea that benefits claimants are somehow scroungers, who just need a jolly good kick up the arse to get them back into work, because work pays. They ignore the fact that 0.7% of the benefits bill is lost to fraud. That the biggest rise in benefits claims comes from in work benefits. They ignore the fact that most unemployment is involuntary.
Benefits cuts have contributed to increased use of food banks, an increase in homelessness and an increase in child poverty. An alternative plan, involving stimulus, is more likely to have increased growth, which means increased employment and the possibility that less people use benefits. No damaging cuts would have needed to have been made, and no person’s quality of life would have suffered.
This false economy can be demonstrated in the cuts to social care. Cuts to social care mean the elderly no longer receive as much, or any, at-home care as they did before 2010, resulting in increased hospital attendances and, therefore, increased public expenditure. This speaks to one of the central illusions of austerity: the state is inherently inefficient and it is cheaper to discard those dependent on it, leaving them subject to charity, ‘the market’ or public services which have been left increasingly unfit for purpose. This removes state responsibility for these discarded individuals, which contravenes the UK’s human rights obligations.
One of the most important functions of government is to improve the lot of those it serves, regardless of whether it subscribes to human rights obligations or not. With this in mind, it is hard to justify the scale of the reduction in the quality of living the poorest in Britain have been subject to under the conservative government. It may be the case that, eventually, austerity works, benefit cuts work, and suffering is greatly reduced. Is it therefore justifiable in the short term to make such decisions – which lack evidential foundations – that harm so many people, if there is an alternative available which will not cause suffering? Is it worth destroying the welfare state if lives are destroyed along the way?
The Conservatives believe that, in order to grow, business requires flexibility. That business cannot be held back by under-performing employees. That business cannot be held to ransom by frivolous claims against it. These beliefs led to the reduction of employee safeguards, the application of fees to employment tribunals and the proliferation of zero-hours contracts. These all combined to make workers feel insecure, unable to cause a fuss for fear of being unfairly sacked, and being unable to afford the cost of a tribunal to determine whether they were unfairly sacked – a claim they could only bring after two years employment in any event. These kinds of conditions do not lead to employees feeling valued, which leads, and has led to, low productivity in the UK. The attitude that business requires all of the safeguards and employees none, allows for this poor environment to take hold. Despite some companies understanding that happy workers are productive workers, the government’s ‘pro-business’ agenda fails to see this and, once again, is blinded by its ideology.
Business is an important economic driver and a valuable contributor to any society. However, the conservative model seems to see business, and the profit it creates as a good – and end – in itself. It is, however, only a means to an improved life. An immediate contradiction is created as soon as suffering is created to obtain profit when it is considered a means. If profit is seen as an end, the contradiction evaporates. Conservative ideology dictates that profit is an end, which opens up a space where a reduction in the quality of the working environment for employees is seen as acceptable. An uncertain environment with an uncertain pay package and a reduction of employee rights falls far short of the acceptable right to work which the UK is obliged to provide.
At the beginning of their term, the Conservatives appointed Ken Clarke as Justice Minister. He had some clever, insightful ideas, aimed at reducing the prison population. This would have saved money. So they sacked him, appointing Chris Grayling in his place, who wanted to be ‘tough on crime’. “Criminals need strong deterrents,” they say, ignoring evidence showing tougher sanctions do not change criminal behaviour. Grayling oversaw a reduction in legal aid, meaning people with less money now had less access to lawyers, unless they coughed it up out of their own pocket (“Have money issues? You should have thought about that before getting arrested”). Further, if you are lucky enough to be in receipt of legal aid, you will no longer have a choice of lawyer. Instead, you will be lumped with the cheapest lawyer the government can find. That is not to say that a cheap lawyer is a bad lawyer. All lawyers are bad lawyers. On top of this, the cheap lawyer will be paid the same amount whether or not the client pleads guilty (no trial and no time and resources spent) or not guilty (trial and massive time and resources spent). This may lead to some unscrupulous lawyers pressuring their clients to plead guilty when they are innocent. Not only is this a travesty of justice, it also means a massive increase in costs as it will increase the prison population. This move led to strikes from lawyers and judges.
Not content with reducing criminal access to justice, Chris Grayling then went on to increase court fees in civil cases by 600 percent. This will of course lead to less claims being entered, which could lead to a reduction in the protection of the law, as it is too expensive to access. Only well off companies and individuals will have any redress for wrongs they suffer.
Now, Michael Gove, teachers’ nemesis, has been appointed Justice Secretary. Although it is too early to know how he will further decimate the UK’s world renowned legal system, we do know that he has been given a mandate to scrap the Human Rights Act and, possibly, replace it with a British Bill of Rights. This could lead to British Citizens having basic rights which are denied to other human beings.
Rather than being based on economic ideology, his move seems to stem from a mistrust of all things foreign, a belief that “we know best”, forgetting that we are a member of the European Court of Human Rights, and that our own judge sits in it. It is still, in a sense, ideological, in that there is no rational reason to distrust a Human Rights Court, and no evidence to support this distrust. Something that contributed to this yearning to cast off the shackles of the Human Rights Act was the Conservatives’ inability to kick Abu Hamza out of the country, because the Court reminded the UK that it is likely that he would face trial based on evidence obtained from torture. Thinking “there’s nothing that he deserves more,” the UK wasted money unsuccessfully contesting this decision, rather than obtaining an agreement from the Jordanian government that all evidence would be torture free. This is eventually what happened and Abu Hamza left to be tried in Jordan without torture rearing its ugly head. He was acquitted. This highlights the myopic perspective of human rights the Conservatives have, believing them to only be applicable to people who deserve them rather than being applicable to people. The Human Rights Act protects us against the excess of government, nothing more. It should frighten you that a government wishes to do away with it. Terrify you. Run for the hills.
On another note, the UK is party to other human rights conventions, not just the European Convention. These conventions place obligations on the UK to ensure the right to food, the right to housing, the right to health, the right to an income, the right to a fair trial. If the UK was to pull out of it, through scrapping the Human Rights Act, it would still have those obligations to adhere too. Conservative ideology fails to see this. Those obligations are not only similar to the European Convention, but are actually broader. The austerity ideology, as well as being terrible for the economy, directly hits at these obligations, impacting on the enjoyment of human rights of the most vulnerable in society.
Also, Russia is a party to the European Convention. The UK will have less legitimacy when talking about human rights than Russia. Think about that.
I have focused on cuts to welfare, employment and justice because these are three of the fundamental areas a government should focus on to ensure that vulnerable people are well protected and not left behind. They ensure that people have food in their mouths, ensure they are not exploited by employers and ensure that they have recourse to accountability mechanisms when they are wronged. An ideological belief that the good times will return through these policies, leads to calls for people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, despite not having boots. A better policy, would, at the very least, seek to provide boots.