The UK’s budget was announced on Wednesday, with bad news for those on low wages or benefits. A whopping £12 billion in cuts to social security are planned over the next few years, and reductions in Child Tax and Working Tax Credits will come into effect shortly, along with cuts in education, training loans and grants. A national “living wage” of £9 an hour was the silver lining–but, alas, will not be implemented until 2020.
Despite a heavily enforced ban on protesting outside parliament, myself and hundreds of others assembled for the “Austerity Kills” demonstration, organized by the People’s Assembly Against Austerity. As someone who relies on Working Tax Credits to top up my income as a freelance journalist, my rage was certainly quite personal this time. My friend Drew Galdron joined me. He suffers from severe anxiety and is on disability benefits. Very ironically, his only work is the occasional stint as a Boris Johnson impersonator. Mr. Johnson (the Conservative mayor of London) is not, for obvious reasons, one of his favorite people.
“I’m attending this march in order to give a voice to people with disabilities, who have otherwise been marginalized and attacked by this government,” Drew sighed. “Hate crimes against people with disabilities have risen to unbelievable levels ever since Cameron became Prime Minister. The fact is that he doesn’t care about people with disabilities. He expects many of them to make their own way, without support. And he’s happy to make children, affected by disability and illness just as much as his own son Ivan was, have their best means of support taken away. He took such things for granted as he was wealthy enough to not even need them.”
Drew is, however, pleased to see people getting out there and complaining about the situation. “The same rhetoric gets bandied about a lot on social media: that apparently Britain is being hit with austerity, its lower classes made to suffer, and we’re all just taking it lying down,” he insisted animatedly. “But if you look at the pictures, and you see how protestors blocked the roads, and wanted to get their message across, you’ve gotta ask yourself–does this look like we’re just sitting down to tea and scones?”
Kelly-Anne Freeman is, like me, also self-employed. I found her amongst the “Goths Against Austerity” contingent, also jokily referred to as the “Blacker Than Black Bloc”.
“I’m a self-employed tarot reader–my income is not high and even with [Working Tax Credit] I struggle sometimes,” she explained. “I stand to lose around £650 from the money I’m trying to live on next year, so I don’t know how I’ll manage.”
Kelly-Anne is seeking new employment, although she has been unsuccessful. She would like to train as a counselor, but as education funding has been slashed, and she can’t afford to pay for a course, it seems a distant possibility.
“Effectively, though I’m willing to work, willing to train and take on a better paid job, I can’t.”
Protest organizer Sam Fairbairn found himself threatened with arrest simply for publicizing the demonstration. Police and local authority officers have been allowed to stop protests outside parliament since the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act in 2012.
“Since when have people not been able to protest against what their government is doing?” he exclaimed in the Guardian. “If you go down the route of thinking, now they’ve got a slim majority in parliament it means they face no opposition, that’s a very dangerous situation. Protest has always formed an important part of democracy in Britain. Austerity hasn’t been working. It didn’t lead to a recovery–last year the deficit actually rose. We don’t think austerity is going to help, it runs the risk of forcing us back into recession, and it’s only going to hurt the poorest in society.”
Protesters arranged themselves on their backs and released scores of black helium balloons as part of a “die-in” (Austerity Kills, being the message) in the middle of Parliament Square. And across the road, Conservative Members of Parliament spent their soon-to-be-increased wages at the taxpayer-subsidized bar, no doubt celebrating the havoc they’ve caused for the poorest and most vulnerable members of British society.