These Charts Show Why Brits Are Furious About Austerity
The tide of public opinion has turned against the cost-cutting policies pursued by Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives since they came to power in 2010.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity message attracted young voters in droves at last month’s general election, depriving May of her parliamentary majority. And with the premier promising an additional 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) for Northern Ireland to win the support of the region’s Democratic Unionist Party, Britons are clamoring for her to relax spending restraint. After all, if May can find money for roads in Belfast, why not for teachers in Sunderland or nurses in London?
So after buying into the Tory message in 2015 that the economy is safer in their hands, why do Britons want to call time on austerity now?
Last year’s Brexit vote triggered a decline in the pound. That’s made imports more expensive, pushing inflation upwards to 2.9 percent in May, the fastest pace in four years. When inflation was low, wage restraint — increases for most public-sector employees have been capped at 1 percent per year since 2013 — was just about palatable. Now, key workers including nurses, police officers and firemen are finding that the rise in prices outstrips their wage increases, eroding their spending power.
Wages may not be outstripping inflation, but one thing that consistently does so is house prices. And nowhere more so than in the capital, London. Average house prices have increased by 7 percent a year since 1980, making them less and less affordable to first-time buyers, and it’s now virtually pricing the youngest generation out of the market. In 2014, for example, just 8.9 percent of 16-24-year-olds were homeowners, compared with almost a third in 1981. Parties have tripped over themselves to make pledges on home-building, but that’s no comfort to so-called Generation Rent, many of whom see little prospect of ever owning their own home.
Also feeding into youth disgruntlement is the surging cost of a university education. Tuition was free until 1998, when universities were allowed to charge up to 1,000 pounds. Since then, the cap has been pushed up to 9,250 pounds a year, and students are now leaving college with debt burdens that many will never repay. Corbyn’s pledge to abolish tuition fees helped him get the youth vote out at the general election: Turnout for 18-24 year-olds rose by 16 points, and 62 percent of voters in that age group chose Labour, according to Ipsos-Mori. Voters also showed displeasure at a Tory pledge to scrap free school lunches for infants. It was seen as a stingy policy, and the party has now scrapped the idea.
Nothing gets British voters quite so worked up as the country’s National Health Service. Free at the point of delivery, it’s faced growing pressures in times of austerity, and its overworked nurses have attracted public sympathy amid reports that thousands are quitting the profession. One confronted May in a BBC question and answer session during the election campaign, asking why her pays slips hadn’t changed since 2009. “There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake,” May told her. On Wednesday, Corbyn called for May to raise the pay of NHS staff, saying "hard working nurses have to access food banks in order to survive."
A devastating tower block fire in the wealthy London district of Kensington that left at least 80 people dead exposed public anger at austerity last month, with protesters calling for the ouster of the Tories.
While there’s no proof yet that budget cuts led to the apparent shortcomings in the fireproofing of the tower, it’s given Corbyn ammunition to aim at May. “My suspicion is that many local authorities—strapped for cash after seven years of cuts—have cut back on fire testing and cut back on inspections because they simply have not got the staff to do it anymore,” he told her in Parliament last month.
Similarly, he was able to draw political leverage from the terrorist attacks that have hit the country this year, pointing to the 15-percent drop in police numbers under May’s watch, first as home secretary, and then as premier.
—With assistance from Jill Ward.