Austerity doesn’t just damage public services, it destroys faith in the future

Britain can’t afford the tax cuts announced in the budget


As the dust settles on the budget, it’s time to reflect on the real task facing anyone trying to govern Britain.

The tax cuts announced are paid for with big spending cuts to come: unprotected departments (like councils and prisons) face 13% (£19bn) cuts by 2028-29. Most people think delivering them is impossible, because they’ve seen the state of public services. But let’s focus on why they would also be terrible for our democracy and politics.

Two Resolution Foundation research projects from the past two years had real warnings on this front. The first, involving focus groups across Yorkshire from Leeds to Hull, spelled out that people saw lots to love in their different places but they also saw the impact of austerity every day, in ubiquitous potholes or neglected town centres. They knew their councils had faced cuts, but still took these as signs that political leaders couldn’t be trusted to grip the basics, let alone improve things.

Last summer, we spent two weekends talking to people in Greater Manchester and Birmingham about how these great cities could have a more prosperous future. The economics of jobs, transport and housing came up. But what also came through was that living with crumbling public services had undermined their trust in the state’s capabilities to effect change for the better. This isn’t a small problem. Change requires citizens to imagine a better future, so they can embrace the disruption involved in getting there.

This warning is consistent with wider research, looking across 166 elections post-1980. It finds that austerity measures tend to reduce voter turnout but also to boost votes for non-mainstream parties.

The task facing Britain today? Not just rebuilding public services, but rebuilding faith that politics can make any difference. That tomorrow can be better than today.

This article originally appeared in The Obersver