The Production of Social Inequality and Social Insecurity: Uncovering the Class Politics of ‘Austerity’

Gerry Mooney, The Open University in Scotland

A year has elapsed since the September 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, a referendum which many have claimed has led to far reaching change in Scotland, not least in the political landscape of contemporary Scotland. Alongside change, however is continuity and this is all so evident in that Scotland continues to be a society characterised by widespread and deepening problems of poverty, and the persistence of and indeed rising inequalities income and wealth. One important aspect of the 2014 Independence Referendum was that the voting outcomes reflected the uneven economic, social and political geography of Scotland, demolishing in an instance the idea that Scotland is some kind of homogenous or unified national community. There was a strong correlation between where people lived and their tendency to vote YES or NO to Independence. The evidence shows that the YES vote was highest in the most disadvantaged areas of Scotland. Further, across all local authorities there was also a marked relationship between areas of deprivation/affluence and the likelihood of voting YES or NO respectively.

Part of the explanation for this will surely lie in the fact that, contrary to claims that the campaign for Independence reflected a rise in Scottish nationalism, the entire ‘indy ref’ debate in no small part revolved around contrasting visions of social welfare and social justice and, in turn, around the issues of ‘austerity’ and welfare ‘reform’. It was clear that many of the 1.6m voting YES, as well as a sizeable number of NO voters, believed that change was necessary – that there were alternatives to austerity and to UK government approaches to welfare – either with independence or continuing membership of the UK union.

The notion of austerity has become one of the most used terms in recent times. It has been deployed in political and media narratives as a shorthand way of referring to the period of economic and financial crisis that engulfs much of the UK today. That ‘we’ live in an ‘age of austerity’ was the message of David Cameron, prior to becoming PM in May 2010. The term is increasingly used as a descriptor; almost as a technical, neutral and value-free way of describing UK Government policies. At a superficial level this may be helpful but it contributes little to our understanding of the drivers of austerity, its key outcomes and, importantly, the beneficiaries of austerity measures. In many respects it may actually detract from our understanding of the underlying political project that characterises austerity – and that there are winners – as well as millions of losers – as a result of the political choice that austerity programmes represent.

Readers of this short piece (as well as others in this collection) will surely be aware of the rising number of people in Scotland who are forced to rely on food banks, on support from charities, third sector and faith organisations, in order to survive. Across Scotland this daily struggle for survival is made all the more difficult by a range of welfare ‘reform’ measures that both reflect and reproduce a much harsher and more punitive approach to those experiencing poverty. Increasing numbers of people are being subject to various welfare ‘sanctions’ for seemingly breeching new benefit regulations. In turn this directly creates economic hardship. But more generally, Scottish society today is characterised by growing problems of food poverty and of fuel poverty. Yet even acknowledging this fails to really capture the enormity of the widespread problems of insecurity, risk and precariousness of different kinds which are impacting on many of the most disadvantaged sections of society.

The growing number of people who are in paid work but classed as poor or are in need of welfare support, the so-called ‘working poor’, reflects the increasing economic precariousness and insecurity that shape the daily lives of a growing proportion of the population. While this is rarely made explicit, the widening and deepening of social insecurities and precarity is exactly related to the impact of austerity in the workplace – as much as in relation to so-called welfare ‘reforms’.

Cutting wages, in work and out of work benefits, pensions and the social wage more generally, that is in the provision of public services, is also about restoring conditions for profit and wealth accumulation. This amounts to little more than the transfer of wealth and power into ever fewer hands – the consolidation and advancement of the economic and political interests of the already rich and affluent. In this way ‘austerity’ is understood as a class-based strategy that works to consolidate and promote the interests of the already affluent and wealthy, against those of workers and the most disadvantaged sections of society.

This signals a more critical understanding of ‘austerity’ which interprets it as a deliberate programme of regressive redistribution: the large-scale redistribution of income from the bottom to the top of society, while making the most disadvantaged carry the brunt of the costs of the ongoing economic and fiscal crisis. Austerity programmes are dismantling not only welfare benefits and services, but also the mechanisms and structures which work to reduce inequality and enhance equity. In this respect it represents little more than an assault, a class-based and political assault, on the foundations of the post-1945 welfare state and the idea, enshrined in the post-1945 social contract, that the state has a vital role to play in reducing inequalities and supporting the most vulnerable by providing benefits and services.

How we approach the issue of austerity, as with poverty, is absolutely central to how it is understood and these shape any policies that follow. Poverty is no accident and neither is austerity: they are not inevitable but represent clear political choices to increase the accumulation of wealth and capital by the rich at the expense of those in the most precarious and disadvantaged social positions. Scotland is a wealthy country. A report published by Oxfam Scotland[i] in October 2015 highlights that the four richest families in the country are worth £1b more than the poorest 20% of the population, accounting for some £6.1b. Other recent research[ii] demonstrates that the ratio between the highest paid ten percent and the lowest paid ten percent of the population is now at its highest level since the mid-1970s, and the difference between the incomes of the top and bottom one percent is now over twenty times – and is increasing.

As the gap between rich and poor reaches unparalleled levels, it is incumbent on all of us who are concerned to tackle poverty to push for an anti-poverty strategy that empowers the poorest to gain greater income and provides greater bargaining power for workers in the labour market. Only through such measures can poverty be effectively addressed. This means increasing the ability of trade unions and workers to force employers to divert higher shares of profits to wages against the share going to dividends and ever higher managerial salaries. Work can only be a route out of poverty if workers have the power to bargain for decent wages and better conditions of employment. Past and current assaults on trade unionism and collective bargaining mark the political determination of successive UK Governments to increase the share that goes to profit and dividends, that is to the already wealthy and privileged. Such an approach lays bare the class politics and the class interests that underpin ‘austerity’ today.

[i] CPAG Scotland, Scottish Parliament must do more to ‘Even it up’. October 8 2015

[ii] Bell D and Eiser D., (2015), ‘Inequality in Scotland: trends, drivers and implications for the independence debate’, Stirling University Management School Working Paper, p.8 and figure 9.

Dr Gerry Mooney is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Criminology, Faculty of Social Sciences, The Open University in Scotland. He is co-editor of Poverty in Scotland 2014: The Independence Referendum and Beyond (Child Poverty Action Group, 2014). This is available on OpenLearn @

Among other projects, he is currently working on Poverty in Scotland 2016: Principles and Tools and Targets Towards Transformation, to be published by CPAG in February 2016)

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