Friday, 10 July 2015

Do they know George Osborne has taken away their Child Tax Credits?

Hanley on a grey Wednesday afternoon that seems more like November than July. I'm standing outside the Potteries Centre with a small group of protesters holding placards and the unseasonably grim weather seems fitting for the day George Osborne became the first Conservative chancellor to deliver a budget for almost twenty years.

It was a budget that saw him hand out a number of sweeties including a promised rise in the minimum wage, renamed a 'living wage' to steal Labour's economic clothes, to £9 by 2020, along with a large spoonful of bitter medicine in the shape of further benefits cuts.

This is the budget that capped benefits payments at a maximum of £20,000 a year for families living outside London and £26,000 for those in the capital, far less than it sounds in real terms. The chancellor also announced drastic cuts to Child Tax Credits and the removal of Child Benefit for a third child.

George gave and George took away, as one of the protesters put it, what dose he expect people to do with their inconvenient third child, send it back to the shop? Within a day the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) had said that even with the rise in the minimum wage the budget would leave many families significantly out of pocket.

On the day of the protest things don't get off to a good start, there is a minor squabble with the delegation from the Socialist Party that sees their stall removed from the proximity of ours, leaving them free to sit apart in politically pure solitude being ignored by everyone else. In the wider scheme of things it isn't even a storm in a teacup, but it is hard to see how a movement that seeks to fight austerity can do so effectively if its members are distracted by fighting amongst themselves.

I walk around the good natured if not overly large crowd milling around the People's Assembly stall. As I do so Dave Muller, a young man wearing a Green Party badge says the budget and the rise in the minimum wage is a 'joke' since it does little to close the gap between the highest and lowest earners. Another young Green says he finds it 'baffling' that the Tories spent the election saying raising the minimum wage would be economically disastrous and yet were now touting it as one of their flagship policies.

Someone starts to bang on a saucepan with a wooden spoon setting up the percussive beat of dissent that by the end of the afternoon will have turned into something like a samba. A woman standing smoking a roll-up at the edge of the protest points at some shoppers rushing past Boots laden with bags and says loudly 'Do they know that George Osborne has taken away their Child Tax Credits?' The shoppers do that very British thing of pretending that nothing it happening, but walking a bit faster anyway.

A man in a wheelchair tells me that his partner is seriously ill with cancer but has still been classed as fit for work by the DWP, adding that 'if you saw that on Monty Python you'd laugh.' In real life nobody's laughing; but a lot of people are suffering, since 2010 government austerity policies and the stress of coping with an overly adversarial benefits system has been implicated in thousands of deaths.

As he takes a leaflet a man leaning on a stick talks about the dole being constantly 'on his back' even though he's doing all he can to find work, the pressure they're being put under is, he says, 'killing people.'

Taking to a megaphone Jason Hill of the People's Assembly Against Austerity says they are here to 'protest against cuts for which there is no need at all', he goes on to say that the fight against austerity is an 'ideological' one. It is indeed, one that puts an understanding of the welfare state as the Labour Party of 1945 saw it and 1980's style free market economics; a fight for the sort of future many people say they want and the one they fear they might get.

Quite where the Labour Party of 2015 any beyond stands in this fight isn't clear, they spent the five years up to the election failing to convince the public they had anything coherent to say about the economy or austerity. One minute they were fighting the corner of families struggling with the cost of living and the next amidst a frenzy of back peddling they were promising to adhere to Tory spending plans.

There are a couple of young Labour supporters present, one holds a sketch pad with 'THIS IS A CLASS WAR!' written on it in black marker pen, the other wears a 'Jeremy4leader' t-shirt and is ostentatiously holding a copy of Labour Left review. Its a nice idea to think that the Labour Party might elect Jeremy Corbyn as its next leader and return to something recognisably like socialist values, but it won't happen.

If there were the slightest risk of his even coming close to wining someone, somehow, would throw a spanner into the works or find a skeleton in his closet. Don't believe me? Read 'A Very British Coup', it's a book that will change your mind.

On the day the protest made its point with good humour, that awkward spat with the socialists aside, and the public seemed to engage. At least the ones who took leaflets or stopped to talk did, unfortunately more people rushed past oblivious.

That, as much as their give-aways and political manoeuvring is what David Cameron and his wily chancellor are relying on. Our political system is based on most of the people being indifferent most of the time, one day soon though if the IFS is right they might just find that George Osborne has taken with one hand benefits that help them keep their heads above water and given with the other a rise in the minimum wage that sounds impressive but still leaves them significantly out of pocket.

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