By Jacqueline Grima
Photography by Rachael Burns
With the recent rise in poverty and unstable employment conditions and the massive cuts in benefits that have taken place over the past decade, the word ‘austerity’ has become familiar to many. As well as referring to a temporary hardship that we all must endure in order to improve the economy, austerity has also become a major talking point in both political and academic circles. At Manchester Metropolitan University (Manchester Met) this week, an event entitled ‘Austerity: Local and Global’, part of the Humanities in Public festival’s ‘World’ strand, explored the history of austerity measures and their impact on ordinary people.
The event was convened by Manchester Met Reader in Comparative Sociology Dr Susie Jacobs who spoke to Humanity Hallows about her reasons for wanting to examine austerity. She said:
“Austerity and neoliberal policies – ones that cut back state provision while increasing outsourcing and privatisation – frame many aspects of our lives today. This is increasingly the case, so it was important to organise an event that was able to scrutinise and critique austerity policies and also to talk about alternatives.”
Daytime speakers included Steph Pike from the Manchester People’s Assembly, Jon Las Heras from the University of Manchester and PhD student from Cambridge University Sam Strong whose talk was entitled ‘Shameful Subsistence: Encountering the Lived Experiences of Austerity at the Food Bank’. Speaking to Humanity Hallows, Sam said, “Feelings of shame are very common amongst people who use food banks and there are many incidents of people waiting outside for half an hour, for example, before they can pluck up the courage to go in.”
Other daytime speakers included Emma Bimpson from Leeds University, Manchester Met’s Dr John David Jordan, mental health campaigner Brigitte Lechner and Leeds Beckett University PhD student Rowan Sandle whose presentation focussed on the psychological impact of austerity measures particularly on lone mothers. Rowan told Humanity Hallows, “A group called Psychologists against Austerity have explored what they refer to as ‘the ailments of austerity’ and its impact on mental health. It doesn’t affect everyone in the same way.”
After a refreshment break, the first of the evening speakers, Professor Raymond Tallis, was introduced by Doctor Jacobs, who described him as a medical doctor, philosopher and prolific writer who “campaigns tirelessly to stop our health service being privatised.”
Professor Tallis’ presentation was entitled ‘The Dismantling of the NHS from Lord Howe’s Wicked Dream to George Osbourne’s Austerity’. He began by saying, “I’m going to talk about wickedness. We don’t talk about wickedness enough but this is something that is truly wicked, the destruction of what is probably one of the greatest achievements of civilisation in the UK.”
He went on to talk about how, in 1983, Lord Geoffrey Howe launched his so-called dream of ending the free healthcare system in Britain and privatising the NHS. Although the vast majority of the electorate were against the idea, the Conservative party pursued privatisation throughout the 80s and 90s, gradually increasing the presence of the private sector and making GPs fund holders of their own practices. As Professor Tallis said, “The words ‘business plan’ became central to NHS discourse in the 1990s.”
Later, when Labour MP Alan Milburn took the role Health Secretary from 1999 to 2003 and when Conservative Andrew Lansley introduced his Health and Social Care Act in 2012, the gap between the government and the provision of healthcare became increasingly wide.
Professor Tallis went on to say how, through the actions of the current government and Jeremy Hunt, whom he described as “the Secretary of State against Health,” alongside George Osbourne’s 2015 budget, Lord Howe’s dream seems to be nearing fulfilment. He concluded by saying, “For those of you who may be unaware of why privatisation sucks, I’ll give you a quick tutorial. Firstly, it’s disruptive. Secondly, it fragments the health service at a time when we need integration and thirdly, the private sector is only going to look at the aspects of healthcare that make the most profits.”
The second speaker of the evening was Professor Sylvia Chant from the London School of Economics whose presentation was entitled ‘Questioning the Feminisation of Poverty in the Global South and the Wisdom of Feminised Anti-poverty Policy Approaches’. Professor Chant talked about her work in the Gambia, the Philippines and Costa Rica and the seeming misconceptions and unsubstantiated data surrounding women in poverty. At the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, it was claimed that 70% of the world’s poor are female, this figure seeming to be much used in discussions about women without any solid evidence to back it up. As Professor Chant said, “I really did feel that the feminisation of poverty needed further exploration.”
She went on to say how studies of women in poverty, and in particular of Female Headed Households, had a tendency to look solely at income and not take other factors such as land ownership or capital into account. As was admitted at the UN Women’s Conference of 2015, “It is unknown how many of those living in poverty are women and girls.”
The last speaker of the event was Professor Guy Standing from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London whose talk was entitled ‘The Precariat: Why Rentiers Thrive and Work Does Not Pay’. Professor Standing talked about how, in this age of austerity, the country’s social security and income system seems to have broken down irretrievably. One consequence of this is that the gap between the working classes and those in secure jobs with high incomes seems to have widened with low income families, referred to by Professor Standing as the Precariat, feeling increasingly insecure and vulnerable. He said, “If you are up in the elite, you have security. If you are down in the precariat and you’ve got a baby and got debts etc, you have no security at all.”
Professor Standing’s book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class is available from Amazon and other retailers.
For more information about the upcoming events in the Humanities in Public (HiP) ‘World’ strand, see the HiP webpage