This weekend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the British title for the Minister of Finance, George Osborne and the Pension Minister Ian Duncan Smith announced that further austerity measures will be included in the next budget. The announcement was made as thousands of people across the United Kingdom gathered in several cities to protest against government imposed austerity. The new measures will consist in £12bn of welfare cuts per year in order to reduce benefits and public spending, which will add to the £21bn reductions carried out by the previous government. These cuts, the ministers argued, are necessary to bring back “sanity” to a system that has been abused for years and reform a “damaging culture of welfare dependency”.
The new public cuts were announced also at a time where the Department for Work and Pensions has been facing pressure to reveal figures detailing how many people have died after having their benefits sanctioned. The department refused to do so even after the Information Commissioner, the government’s information watchdog, said that there is no reason for the department not to release the information. Additionally, anticipating the release of government figures, charities and independent experts have claimed that child poverty in the UK has risen since 2010. The introduction of benefits cuts is one of the factors identified as determining the increase in the number of families whose income is 60% below UK average (the definition of relative poverty). The Institution for Fiscal Studies calculates that between 2013 and 2014 the number of children living in relative poverty has rose from 2.3 million to 2.6 million. This number, charities argue, will inevitably rise as a consequence of the new austerity measures.
In response to these critics, Osborne has been arguing that the new Conservative government has been elected with the mandate to reduce public spending. In other words, the Conservatives seem to interpret their victory as a green light for “business as usual”. Yet, the voice of the 250.000 people who attended rallies throughout the country last weekend, between 70.000 and 150.000 only in London, draws attention, once again, to an electoral system that does not fully express the views of the population. Throughout the elections time, it was argued that a system favouring the two major parties, Conservative and Labour, is obsolete. The Conservatives won partially thanks to this system (hence it is even more unlikely that they will now change it). Moreover, the Conservatives were able to secure the absolute majority also because of Labour’s failure to present a convincing alternative. Many people in the UK saw “the lesser evil” in the Conservatives, but this does not mean that all of them necessarily agree with the party’s austerity policy. In addition, the voices of those supporting smaller parties like Greens and Ukip are now not represented adequately in the government. As it has been argued previously on this blog, there is a widening gap between the view of the government and of the British population. This is especially visible in Scotland, where the leader of the Scottish National Party and Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon has backed the rally in Glasgow and strongly condemned the austerity measures of the Tory government. This is increasingly true for the rest of the country as well and while the Conservatives should not think that an absolute majority in government means “business as usual” for the next five years, the growing dissatisfaction could be a ticking bomb.