Anyone hoping for a helping hand from Rishi Sunak in this week’s Spring Statement can only have been sorely disappointed. The upshot of Sunak’s mini-Budget, according to the Resolution Foundation, is that an extra 1.3 million people—including half a million children—will be plunged into poverty this year. The poorest quarter of households are set to see their income fall by six percent on average in 2022-23, with typical working-age household incomes expected to decline by four percent.
Millions of people have been left wondering how they’re going to make ends meet over the coming months. With energy industry regulator Ofgem—it hardly seems fitting to call it a ‘watchdog’ at this point—poised to raise its energy price cap by £693 to £1,971 a year from 1 April, the poorest households in the country have been left teetering on the precipice of financial disaster. Many others, meanwhile, will find it increasingly difficult simply to keep their heads above water; a further energy bill hike is also likely in the autumn.
To make matters even worse, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has prompted a sharp increase in wheat prices—an increase that will now inevitably be passed on to ordinary consumers. The price of household staples including bread, beer, and pasta looks set to rise—Russia and Ukraine between them account for about a third of global wheat exports—while fertiliser prices have also smashed through previous records as supplies are disrupted by the war and other factors.
The government’s apparent lack of urgency in helping working people deal with the impending crisis, while not exactly out of character for the Tories, is striking nonetheless. In fact, this is worse than mere inaction—Sunak has chosen to allow the poorest people in the country to bear the brunt of the rising cost of living, while insulating the more affluent. Even much of the paltry support that is being provided to help tide struggling households over, it has been pointed out, will be clawed back by the government further along the line.
Predictably, the government proclaims its powerlessness in the face of international crises. Ministers have been quick to point to the war in Ukraine, implying that working people in Britain should shoulder the burden to help those in Ukraine faced with the Russian invasion and its consequences. But this has been debunked by Martin Lewis, who—making an obvious point that Keir Starmer’s Labour is apparently unwilling to—has noted, quite rightly, that the government is cynically hiding behind Ukrainians to excuse its own inaction.
It is, of course, extremely easy for people who haven’t the slightest understanding of what sacrifice means to demand it of people far less cosseted than themselves. Rishi Sunak—himself a former investment banker, naturally—has spent his entire life in the lap of luxury, as his profile in Tatler (where else?) makes clear. We are informed that the Sunak family’s yearly garden party at their £1.5 million North Yorkshire country pile is ‘a county highlight; where uniformed staff loft around serving ice cold champagne and canapés’.
Evidently, the ‘cost of living crisis’ is bearing down much harder on some people than on others. But to even talk of a cost of living crisis misses the point. For millions of working-class people in Britain, struggling to scrape by has been the norm for years, yet the political class has been allowed to normalise the needless poverty and hardship that blight this country. Take food banks: their very existence ought to be a source of deep shame for politicians, but instead they’re used as backdrops for reputation-laundering photo ops.
With every new crisis that comes along, it’s always the working class that’s browbeaten and bullied into making sacrifices. We heard much of this same rhetoric in the years immediately following the 2008 financial crash, when the costs of that crash were—as usual—offloaded immediately onto the backs of ordinary workers. For all the hot air about shared sacrifice, the only real sacrifices were made by working-class people, in the form of prolonged wage repression and spiteful, swingeing cuts to social security benefits for the very poorest.
The burden of Covid, too, was disproportionately shouldered by those least able to bear it—both in Britain and, moreover, in the Global South. Existing inequalities were exacerbated by the pandemic; the poorer you were, the harder it was likely to hit you. While the ultra-rich, as ever, were quick not to let another crisis go to waste—the world’s ten richest men doubled their wealth—ninety-nine percent of people worldwide saw their income fall. Even the measly £20 weekly uplift to Universal Credit was swiftly withdrawn as soon as circumstances allowed.
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that Boris Johnson and his cabinet of multimillionaires—along with the energy bosses who currently stand to make a fortune out of others’ misfortune—are trying to pull much the same trick again. But to have these people, privileged and pampered as they are, insist that working people shoulder the burden once more is an obscenity. Working-class people have made more than enough sacrifices already. It’s time that, for once, the bill was laid at the door of those who can amply afford it.