Comment: Downton Abbey government means downturn misery for most

Unite represents 1.5 million workers
Unite represents 1.5 million workers

By Len McCluskey

Andrew Mitchell is no laughing matter. 'Thrasher's' ungracious rant may appear to be the stuff of a Downtown Abbey box set, but his outburst, dripping with elitism, let the cat out of the bag about a government packed with Old Etonians and millionaires. 

This is not just a government that disparages public service; this is a government out of touch, with little appreciation, care or understanding of the experiences and aspirations of ordinary, decent people. 

It explains a great deal of the last twenty eight months where the ‘plebs’ have been hammered by a government intent on making the poorest pay for a crisis made by Mitchell’s chums in the city. 


The chief whip’s dyspeptic outburst occurred at the end of a day bookended by a posh lunch at one end (plaice with crab, followed by prawns) and a late dinner at the other. So what was stressful to make him boil over like this and let the mask slip? 

You could be forgiven for thinking that his outburst points to a yearning among ministers for the days when the `betters’ commanded the world from their drawing rooms, and where us 'lesser mortals' rarely got above stairs. From the start of Mitchell’s tirade, the message of 'know your place' was stark.

One of the first acts of the 23 millionaires who now govern was to end the tradition of inviting the Downing St police team to summer and Christmas parties, which is at odds with David Cameron’s professed admiration of the Downing Street police who guard him and his family so well in this vulnerable setting off Whitehall.

If the posh elite kept to their historical role as the quasi-comic figures of escapist dramas and not running the country, we would all be better off.  We certainly would not be staring into the business end of a double-dip recession.

For while all eyes were on Mr Mitchell’s bad manners and terrible temper, yet another report revealed that the UK was sliding further into debt. With millions unemployed, and hundreds of thousands more under-employed in part-time work, growth ripped out of the public sector and fear contaminating the private sector, this government has, through economic illiteracy,  conjured up the storm that is battering our country.

Yet what is all this misery for? It now looks very likely that later this year the chancellor will be forced to stand before the nation and admit that he will miss his deficit reduction target.  Worse still, the UK is set to eclipse even the Greek economy as the poorest performer in the EU.

As CNBC reported this week:

'Bad news for U.K. politicians clinging to the notion that the nation’s AAA debt rating indicates a clean bill of financial health. Morgan Stanley expects the British budget shortfall to earn the dubious distinction as Europe’s largest in 2013-14, surpassing even the deficit in troubled Greece.'

How can it be that the seventh richest nation on the planet be brought to this pass? This country now has one in seven children going without a hot meal daily. 

According to the BBC, police officers in Islington have started to issue food vouchers to combat the rise in children stealing bread to feed their families. 

We are presiding over a growth not in banking, but in food banks where the poor, now including the working poor in their ranks, queuing up for help to meet the most basic of needs.

Unite's own research shows that, while £13 billion was shared as spoils by the banking elite this year, working people are borrowing £327 a month just to survive. 

This figure– more than a week’s wages for most - is not for holidays, posh lunches or fripperies.  It is to meet the essential mortgage payments, to pay for fuel and fares, to buy food and to get by.

Yet there is worse on the way. Nearly 90% of the cuts are still to happen. These will be cuts to the support needed to combat the less than living wages too many employers in this country pay. 

It will mean cuts to the housing support millions depend on to keep a roof over their heads.  It will set this country on a path to poverty.

In two years, this government has taken us back to Victorian times, ripping huge holes in our welfare system through which the most vulnerable drop.  It will take us further towards a Downtown Abbey, haves and have nots, society.

Hurting those most at need is a class decision. It comes of never understanding what it is to be trapped in poverty.  It comes of never knowing insecurity at work, of the ever-present struggle to make ends meet.  And it is at its nastiest when the wealthy seek to engage the rest of us in blaming the needy for their own predicament, to depict them as feckless scroungers. 

And it is an act of class war to assault the social architecture – the welfare state, the NHS, the principle of equality on education, accessible justice, decent housing – that our forebears fought for, built and that we, the people of this country, have paid for through our taxes and have kept dear for generations because we know that these are what underpin a fairer, better Britain.

Andrew Mitchell ill-temperedly exposed that if you were not that bothered about class as an issue before, you should be now. 

The stranglehold of rigid hierarchy clearly exists in the minds of those who, sadly, hold the reins of power at present. Mitchell has done an unintentional service in unmasking the hollowness of the "We are all in this together" mantra. 

Len McCluskey is the Unite general secretary.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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