Monday, 21 November 2016

Drive people to despair and they do desperate things

Many of those US blue-collar workers, the natural constituency of the Democratic Party, who voted for Trump were driven by anger and frustration. Many find that even holding down two or three jobs, they still can’t make ends meet. Feeling let down by the system as it is, and feeling that the leaders they previously trusted are simply part of that same system, they turned to a more radical alternative.

In Britain, seven million people are now in precarious employment. They are in jobs in which they have no guaranteed hours, but they still have to make themselves available, with no assurance that they will be given anything to do or any pay for doing it. Others are given workloads that are all but impossible to clear, or require multiple hours of unpaid overtime to finish. It’s become easy and the norm for companies that hit any kind of financial problem to shed staff, so executives who have failed to achieve their own, often deeply unrealistic targets, can make others take the fall for their poor decisions.

We haven’t yet had a Trump in Britain. What we have had, however, is nearly seven years of government by the Conservative Party, alone (now) or as the dominant partner in a coalition (up to 2015). In its early days, it liked to claim that “we’re all in this together”. Now, under new management, the government claims to want to assist the “just about managing” or “JAMs”, the very people driven to desperation in the States, the ones who have to swim with all their strength to keep their noses just below water.

A new study shows, however, that without a major change of course, life for the JAMs is likely to get harder to the tune of £2500 a year less income by 2020. For all the pledges, desperation is set to increase for the already desperate.

If that kind of despair gave us Trump in the States, it’s likely to have as damaging an effect in Britain too. Or in France, where Le Pen lies in wait, or the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders is the likely beneficiary, or in a host of other countries where the far right is building a head of steam.

As American voters will discover over the next four years, the sad truth is that the leaders who come up with the simple answers – “get out of the European Union”, “drain the swamp”, “build a wall” – only make matters far worse for the very group that puts them in power.

What’s the alternative?

It has to be a leadership as radical and inspiring as Trump’s, but genuinely committed and not merely committed in words, to addressing the problems of those who are suffering such hardship today – and far worse hardship tomorrow. Unfortunately, in most countries those who should be providing that kind of leadership seem, like Hillary Clinton, to be tied to the system that creates the problem and unable to inspire confidence in those they ought to be representing.

The Democrats in the US are facing a particularly toxic Republican in the White House, whose party controls both Houses of Congress and will entrench a majority that shares its views in the Supreme Court.

The Socialist Party in France has led a failed government and is now expected to go down to comprehensive defeat in elections next year.

In Britain, the unions inflicted on the Labour Party a leader, Ed Miliband, who was likeable and intelligent, but could never convince voters that he could be Prime Minister. Now a majority of Labour’s membership has elected Jeremy Corbyn, not once but twice. He too seems likeable and intelligent; he certainly has a radical message but seems not to be getting it through to anything like sufficient numbers: Labour is languishing ten to fourteen points behind the Conservative Party, far too wide a margin to be attributed to the simple and now notorious inability of polling organisations to achieve accuracy.

Homelessness, on the rise in Britain, as is the use of food banks
Worse off by £2500 a year, by 2020. That represents around 10% of the median income in Britain today. A drop of that scale will drive up homelessness, hunger and disease among people who are already struggling. That is the price being paid by those least able to pay any price at all.

And it’s the price of Labour’s failure to win traction in the electorate. It underlines the urgency of addressing that problem today. For a lot of people, not just in Britain but across the developed world, tomorrow may be far worse.

As the election of Trump demonstrates.

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