If the economy needs sacrifices, it will be the workers who will be thrown to the wolves | Nick Cohen

OWe’re back in the thieving world of Fred “the Shred” Goodwin and Northern Rock. The only difference from 2008 is that instead of the state expecting ordinary people to bail out failing banks, it expects them to take pay cuts to protect the bonuses of bosses. The war on inflation in the 2020s, like the war on financial collapse in the 2020s, must be fought by those least able to fight it.

Nowhere in the speeches of the Prime Minister, Chancellor or Governor of the Bank of England is there a hint that a national emergency demands equal sacrifice. They don’t repeat David Cameron’s line that “we’re all in this together”. As millions crumble, all they say is that it is their patriotic duty to protect the privileged by sinking deeper. Or, as a writer picked in the Victorian era explained to The telegraph of the day readers last week, rewards for the rich are “natural and inevitable”, but workers’ “clamor” for wage increases is “nothing but shameful opportunism”.

The hopes of working-class voters that Brexit would raise wages by removing competition from EU workers have proven false. Unemployment is at its lowest in 50 years. Employers are desperate to fill vacancies. Despite the most favorable circumstances, the average salary rose only 4.2% between January and March, far behind inflation, which is now at 9% and rising. However, averages hide as much as they reveal, and the Resolution Foundation has found that premiums in the financial services industry operate at an “incandescent” rate of 30% per year. It’s still not fast enough for the City, which is pushing the government to remove all limits on the rewards they can hand out. Meanwhile, in the boardroom, CEO compensation packages are 63 times the salary of their average (median) worker, nearly double the 2021 ratio.

The manifest injustice explains why the government was surprised that its old airs about militant workers holding the country to ransom no longer played with the public. The Tories have yet to realize there is no good argument against BT staff threatening to strike to keep their salaries as the chief executive pocketed a 32% raise and shareholders received £700 million in dividends.

The prime minister breaking his own lockdown rules isn’t the only reason for the anger in the air. Inflation makes the formerly poor desperate, the formerly poor, and everyone aware of the inequalities around them. Yet as anger mounts, the government has lost the ability to speak to the public. He doesn’t even go through the motions with insincere pleas for the top of society to lead by example or for the wealthy to show the same restraint they expect the lower orders to endure.

A political movement that can no longer articulate the necessary insincerities of public life is a dying movement. The inability of conservatives to pretend they care about the injustice that the economic crisis brings reveals how the “red toryism” of the 2010s is in agony.

Rhetorically, part of the center right responded to the collapse of the neoliberal order in the crash of 2008 with as much urgency as the center left. Dominic Cummings said voters’ deep-seated hostility to ‘money picking’ elites, with ‘cups on PAYE’ paying to bail them out, was the reason pundits who have warned leaving the EU would be a disaster economic were not believed. – even though they were telling the truth. Theresa May’s adviser Nick Timothy spoke of a country trapped in markets that only worked for special interests. May’s denunciation of “citizens of nowhere” was not aimed at migrants, as her critics claimed, but at international elites. Boris Johnson won an election on a promise to level regions, reach out to those left behind and create a high-wage economy.

I’m sure readers on the left will say that the Conservative Party just lied to gain power. They can designate the chancellors who controlled economic policy. Rishi Sunak, like Philip Hammond before him, is a Thatcherite. George Osborne was a fiscal extremist who implemented cuts deeper than any daring attempt by Margaret Thatcher. However, I don’t see how you can argue that a party that took Britain out of the European single market is pro-business. Demographic shifts have transformed the conservatives from a neoliberal party into a post-capitalist pensioner party, which makes money by making deals with right-wing plutocrats and stays in power by responding to the needs and prejudices of its core over 65s (whose pensions, you I must have noticed, he was damn sure were rising in line with inflation).

In government, Cummings attempted to redistribute wealth and allow for high labor mobility by allowing mass housing construction. But a revolt by elderly homeowners in safe Tory seats stalled it. Perhaps we can then go further than cheaply mocking lying politicians and saying that the Tories are incapable of solving the UK’s problems. But even this sweeping statement understates the nation’s malaise.

Previous crises have led politicians to propose solutions. The admirable new story of Phil Tinline, The death of consensus: 100 years of British political nightmares, shows how Labor responded to the poverty of the 1930s by planning a welfare state and putting their plans into action in government in the 1940s. It shifts to the conservative right responding to the strikes and inflation of the 1930s 1970s by designing the anti-union laws and the commodification of the 1980s.

Emptiness characterizes the crisis of the 2020s. There are no solutions offered other than making the rest of society pay to maintain the incomes of its retired and wealthy supporters, in the case of the conservatives, and the imaginary worlds of the nationalists. Scotland and Brexit, which only impoverish the United Kingdom. As for Labour, I have no idea how it intends to put its ideas into practice or even what ideas it has.

The absence of achievable plans for the future is what gives our crisis its frightening quality and why I suspect today’s anger will turn to despair.

Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist

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