Whitehaven News column – 22nd May 2014

The rotten fruit of austerity
Published in 1939, and set during the Great Depression, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ chronicles the plight of the Joad family as they bear the brunt of economic hardship, industrial and social change and a banking collapse.
The book is particularly relevant today – not just because of the social change it details, but because of the individual, personally dehumanising effects of this on those people most badly affected by these changes. These brutalised victims live in fear and ignorance, powerless and isolated, they begin to turn upon each other…
In the end, salvation arrives with the awareness that they are part of a group, that collectively they might be able to achieve change, and that only by working together will they improve their condition.
I’ve been reminded of this nationally and locally for some time now. Last week’s revelations in this newspaper that Copeland Borough Council staff have been ritually abused by members of the public for the effects of the coalition government’s policies upon their lives and the lives of their families – not the Council’s policies – brought this home again.
In my advice surgeries I am seeing a surge in people forced into penury by the government’s bedroom tax and people who genuinely cannot work being classified as being fit for work whilst others painfully tell me off friends taking their own lives in part as a result of these indiscriminate changes in policy. These are the rotten fruits of austerity.
Nationally, we appear to be in the grip of a collective breakdown. Scottish independence is being fought for fiercely. UKIP – undoubtedly a party that has racists, homophobes and misogynists within its ranks – wants to rip us out of the single biggest economic market in the world. Locally, the Council has been legally obliged to spend money it doesn’t have (your money) in holding a referendum for a directly elected mayor. Locally and nationally, the theme is the same: fear, anger and anxiety is driving people apart, forcing separation in many forms. These feelings march under the banner of ‘change’ and despite not knowing what this represents a ‘change’ from or a ‘change’ to, some will be captivated by it all the same.
As a Member of Parliament, I am totally separate from town, borough and county councils in Cumbria; but if anyone seriously believes that the effects of austerity are the result of the policies and actions of local government then they are deluding themselves.
As painful as these times are; our best days are ahead of us in Copeland. It’s a long game, but the results are just beginning to be seen of the plan we’ve been working on for years; a new hospital, investments in Whitehaven town centre, new nuclear developments and new school projects. Austerity has acted as an anchor on our ambitions, but we will emerge from it.
Whatever the outcome of Thursday’s elections, austerity will still be here. It’s your choice, but the costs associated with a directly elected mayor are likely to further damage local efforts to deal with the austerity being imposed by 10 Downing St. 

But when the dust settles, one incontestable fact will remain: we can only succeed by working together. 

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