Opinion

Keir Starmer will continue austerity. That means keeping vulnerable people in 'brutalising poverty'

Beyond each Labour U-turn is a well of suffering and poverty that has no justifiable reason to exist, says trade union case worker Kasmira Kincaid

Labour leader Keir Starmer waits to be introduced on stage before giving a speech to unveil the party's fifth and final mission for government, at Mid Kent College on July 6, 2023 in Gillingham, England. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

There’s a kind of cold you can only feel in the gristle between your finger-bones. A sharp, piercing, paralysing cold. The kind of cold that makes it physically impossible to pick up a pen and write. This was the kind of cold I experienced when I was studying for my A-levels, living on benefits in the early days of Tory austerity, on £56 a week. I was 17 years old. And I was so scared of the energy bills I didn’t dare turn the heating on. Which meant my hands seized up whenever I tried to do my homework, and the tap water burned to the touch.

It’s the kind of cold I doubt Keir Starmer has ever experienced.

At a recent speech at Labour’s Business Conference, Starmer doubled-down on his new-found commitment to austerity, stating: “We cannot and we will not allow public spending needs, however important, to threaten the stability of our finances”. It’s a rhetoric so ubiquitous we no longer question (or really even notice) what it means. A Jenga tower of abstracted buzzwords. But what Starmer is committing to is a continuation of brutalising poverty.

When we talk about the impacts of austerity, there’s a tendency (among both left and right) to get lost in dead metaphors, and in words that should mean something, but don’t. Our eyes glide over terms like “cold” and “hunger” as though they’re abstract concepts to be weighed up against other concepts, like “stability” – whatever on Earth that means anymore.

But hunger is not an abstract concept. When I was living on benefits, I’d often find the money didn’t quite stretch until the end of the week. And so for the last day or two I’d have little, sometimes nothing, to eat. I can still remember the gnawing beneath by ribcage, like a rat strapped to my stomach; the stomach acid spitting up the back of my throat; the sheer impossibility of concentrating on anything. Looking back, I can hardly understand how I got through my A-Levels; let alone how other poor students get through them today.

Shame, too, isn’t an abstract concept. It feels uncomfortable to even write these words. But our journalist class – even when sympathetic – is overwhelmingly drawn from people who haven’t had these experiences. And it’s essential people understand what further austerity would feel like for millions of people across the country. Not a few lost luxuries. not a mere tightening of our belts. But real, visceral suffering.

Our politicians invariably speak of “fiscal responsibility”; of “balancing the budget” and “living within our means”. The Keir Starmer of today – as opposed to the Keir Starmer who was elected to lead the Labour Party in 2020 – is no different. But these words just serve to obscure the obscenity of what is actually being said: that we can’t afford to feed the poor, to house the homeless, and to allow people to live in dignity and comfort.

But the thing is we can. We know we can. We know it when we see government funds used to drop bombs on foreign countries. We know it when we see sweeping tax cuts to the wealthy, and tax evaders let off the hook. And we know it when we walk past empty tower blocks, full of investment properties, while homeless people die on the streets.

It’s a supreme form of gaslighting to suggest otherwise, asking us to deny the evidence of our senses and experiences. Making sure everyone gets what they need is a logistical challenge, for sure. But there is enough to make sure everyone gets what they need.

Coming off-age under austerity was a brutal experience. But over the last ten years things have gotten worse. When I began claiming benefits, it was an administrative oversight that led to me waiting four weeks for an initial payment; now, a five-week delay is baked into the system. The £56 a week I received to live on in 2011 was rough; but similar claimants today get almost £10 less in real terms – which is not to mention those who are locked out of the system completely.

In his polemic Who Killed My Father? the French author Édouard Louis writes about the distance between the ruling class and the policies they inflict on the rest of us: “The ruling class may complain about a left-wing government, they may complain about a right-wing government, but no government ever ruins their digestion, no government ever breaks their backs… for the ruling class politics is a question of aesthetics: a way of seeing themselves, of seeing the world, of constructing a personality. For us it was life or death.”

As a new Labour government comes to feel inevitable, many of us are taking stock of what such a government would mean. Over the last four years, Keir Starmer has U-turned on practically every anti-austerity policy in his 2020 leadership bid: from abolishing universal credit and what he once called “the Tories’ cruel sanctions regime”; to scrapping work capability assessments and the two-child limit on benefits; to re-nationalising key public services.

Today I live a life where few of these policies would directly affect me. Yet I haven’t forgotten what it felt like to be in the firing line for government decisions. The material conditions of people’s lives should be the beginning and end of politics. As we voice our opposition to continued austerity we’d do well to remember that. To remember that beyond each of these U-turns is a well of human suffering that has no justifiable reason to exist.

Kasmira Kincaid is a trade union case worker and former benefits claimant.

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