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  • Lawrence Bailey

We can’t afford austerity any longer

Ever wondered whatever happened to the UK budget deficit? No, me neither - until recently that is.

Just to explain, a budget deficit happens when what the government spends is more than it collects in tax revenues. This means a build-up of public sector debt.

I won’t bore you with all the figures and trends but the headline is that while the amount of borrowing has been falling, it currently stands at £45 billion and is forecast to increase to £58 billion next year.

In other words, any ‘savings’ gained from cutting back public spending in the last few years will be wiped out. But let’s face it, austerity is entirely incidental to tackling the deficit.

The successive wave of cuts we’ve suffered for nearly a decade haven’t been about “living within our means”. The aim is to roll back the public sector resurgence that happened under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

It’s not all some abstract economic concept either; austerity has real-life implications that touch all of us.

Health spending went up by an average of £5 billion a year from 1997 to 2010. Since then the increase has been halved. The effect of this dominates the headlines every day.

UK defence spending has dropped by a third since 2010. On top of that, when the nation was still reeling over last year’s terrorist attacks, the Home Office fessed up to a drop of 19,000 in police numbers for England and Wales.

Local authorities, public services and agencies has been systematically starved of resources as a matter of national policy.

That’s why you see weeds growing out of kerbstones. That’s why we have potholes. That’s why we have foodbanks. That’s why ambulances can’t make target times and A&E units are in crisis.

The last few years has seen negligible wage growth, stealthy state privatisation and a boom in the so-called the gig economy.

If you watched a recent party political broadcast in which a soft-focus prime minister promised great things for Wales (but not a tidal lagoon) you probably came away with the impression that there’s no alternative to continued purse-tightening.

The funny thing though is that I’ve been reading about how Portugal abandoned austerity a couple of years ago, following a change of government. They ditched the planned programme of cutbacks and massively boosted public spending instead.

Since then they’ve seen modest but sustained economic growth plus jumps in corporate investment and tax income. And guess what; their national deficit has more than halved.

It’s become clever to describe the process of cutting back on services as “working smarter”. I’m starting to think however that the smart move is to not only recognise that austerity is a scam but keep saying it as loudly as possible.

This coming Saturday morning will see an event in Swansea’s Castle Square where a number of speakers will be doing just that. I may just go along myself.

As someone once said, change comes from the top but it begins at the base – and the truth is that we can’t afford austerity any longer.

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