Just when you thought Nick Clegg had reached the limits of absurdity, out comes more idiocy. The Guardian today reports that Clegg intends to speak up for what he calls “alarm-clock Britain” – people on low to middle incomes who are anxious about their standard of living. The patronising phrase “alarm clock” Britain is supposed to describe shift workers going to work in the dark – an overtone of Sarkozy’s election phrase about the France that likes to get up early, and surely only a Liberal Democrat wonk would be so lacking in self-awareness as to parrot Sarkozy’s election phrases.
It’s absolute nonsense, of course. The serious political point that Clegg is apparently trying to make is that the Coalition cares about people on middle incomes and he is reported as being concerned that the Lib Dem proposal to raise tax thresholds has been drowned out by noise about cuts.
If that has happened, it is for a very good reason; cuts in services and public sector jobs – will hit those around the average UK household income – about £25,000 – much harder than the tax thresholds will benefit them. Changes in National Insurance contributions will hit those paying the basic rate of tax; the cost of childcare is soaring as nurseries close; VAT and fuel price rises will hit the middle hard. Cuts in front line health and education will mean the end of services like out-of-hours GP surgeries and school breakfast clubs. Millions of middle-income earners work in the public sector, where no job is safe. And proposals to roll back employee rights will reduce the security of low and middle paid workers further.
As so often with Clegg, it’s difficult to know where the ignorance ends and the mendacity starts.
But there’s a longer-term trend here too.
One unintended effect of this may be that an important truth will emerge – that in many ways in the past two decades people on average incomes have got poorer and poorer. Much of that is due to speculation-fuelled increases in house prices and rents, but it also comes from the removal of key public services like free higher education and the fact that essentials like prescriptions and dental care, and public transport, have become hugely more expensive in real terms. Most of all the way in which free-market capitalism has undermined the family – ensuring that in most of Britain it is almost impossible to afford a house without two full-time incomes, in stark contrast to the pre-Thatcher years – will be increasingly apparent.
And it comes the day after the Coalition announces that it will do nothing to rein in the bonuses paid out by banks partly owned by the taxpayer, and bailed out with taxpayers’ money.
It’s the contrast between the ostentatious wealth of the few and the steady impoverishment of the middle that has been a key factor in the rise of the Tea Party movement in America, where claims of economic might mask a growing crisis as millions of middle Americans downshift into poverty. The coalition’s policies mean it will happen here.
Is Clegg prepared to take the consequences?