Locked into poverty: Britain’s political choice

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights has been in Britain. He described a country in which ‘areas of immense wealth’ exist uncomfortably alongside areas of acute deprivation, characterized by cash-strapped and overstretched public services, rough sleepers and food banks, where millions of children are ‘locked into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping’. His report pulled few punches. A fifth of the British population – 14 million people – live in poverty, with 1.5 million destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. By 2022, child poverty rates are projected to be as high as 40 per cent. ‘For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace,’ he wrote, ‘but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one’. Worst of all, and most importantly, he pointed out that all of this was a political choice, the result of ‘mean-spirited, often callous policies’ about which the British government remains ‘determinedly in a state of denial’.

The reality described by Philip Alston will, I suspect, be familiar to most people living in Britain. Food banks are now commonplace, as are families who rely on them. The Trussell Trust, Britain’s biggest food bank network, handed out 1.2 million food parcels to families and individuals in need in 2016-17. The Independent Food Aid Network estimates that there are more that 2,000 food banks in operation around the UK. Homelessness has also increased significantly since 2010, according to the National Audit Office (NAO), with a 60 per cent rise in the number of homeless families (including 120,540 children), driven, the NAO said, by government welfare reforms. The shocking rise in the number of rough sleepers is evident in every town and city in the country. Work is no longer a sure-fire route out of poverty. Some 60 per cent of people in poverty in Britain are in working families, often struggling with debt and poor housing, sometimes doing multiple jobs to make ends meet. It is a similar story for many of those living just above the poverty line, juggling low-paid, low-quality and insecure work, combining long hours with demanding family commitments and living in impoverished neighbourhoods where hope is in short supply. All of this – the poverty, the job insecurity, the homelessness, the stress and hardship of low-paid work, and, perhaps most of all, the absence of hope of things getting any better – are feeding Britain’s growing mental health crisis, not to mention the slow-down in life expectancy the UK is experiencing. These are all signs of a society in crisis.

Professor Alston’s analysis of the causes of this crisis are similarly hard-hitting. ‘Austerity’, he argues, has been driven not by a commitment to economic reform (the ‘living within our means’ mantra) but rather ‘a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering’, a ‘revolutionary change in both the system for delivering minimum levels of fairness and social justice to the British people, and especially in the values underpinning it’. ‘Key elements of the post-war Beveridge social contract are being overturned,’ he continues. ‘In the process, some good outcomes have certainly been achieved, but great misery has also been inflicted unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalized, and on millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty’. Local authorities, especially in England, ‘have been gutted by a series of government policies’, effectively halving their funding and preventing them from playing their vital role as a ‘social safety net’. Libraries, meanwhile, ‘have closed in record numbers, community and youth centers have been shrunk and underfunded, public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centers have been sold off.’ The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately on the poor, women, ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people with disabilities, the same groups likely to be hit hardest by Brexit.

In his conversations with ministers, Professor Alston encountered a combination of ignorance, disbelief and indifference, a refusal to accept that in-work poverty exists and an unwillingness even to engage with the issues in a serious way. He will not, therefore, have been surprised by the reactions of the Prime Minister’s office, which said that Mrs May ‘strongly disagreed’ with the findings, or the Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, who declared the report to be ‘political’ and couched in ‘inappropriate’ language. These reactions were predictable, perhaps inevitable from a government which has carefully spun a number of myths about itself, notably the myth that austerity has been unavoidable, a necessary measure justified by the need to save the country from bankruptcy in the wake of the previous (Labour) government’s overspending on schools, hospitals and social care. This narrative has a powerful hold on the public’s imagination in Britain, where a substantial proportion of the electorate believes that decent schools for all and a well-funded health service are unaffordable, despite the very obvious examples to the contrary offered by neighbouring northern European countries. Professor Alston challenges this narrative, arguing that the reforms were neither necessary nor, in purely economic terms, effective. While billions have been taken from the benefits system since 2010, they have been offset by the costs created elsewhere as underfunded hospitals, mental health centres, local authorities and police forces attempt to deal with the problems created. ‘Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so,’ Professor Alston writes in the conclusion of his report. ‘Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.’ Little wonder the government would rather attack the language and political nature of the report than deal with its substance.

The findings of the UN envoy represent a wake-up call and should prompt urgent action and a substantive change of direction from the government. Sadly, this seems unlikely from a government that is so in thrall to the fantasy narrative it has created that it is prepared to legislate against problems it knows do not exist, while allowing real problems such as poverty, probably the biggest challenge we now face as a society, to fester, unchecked. Nevertheless, the report represents an opportunity to take stock of where we have come to and to consider whether we really want to continue along this road. It can be read as a sort of draft manifesto for positive change in Britain. Alongside the misery of child poverty, the calamity of homelessness and the personal tragedy of women forced to sell sex for money or shelter, Professor Alston also recognised ‘tremendous resilience, strength, and generosity, with neighbors supporting one another, councils seeking creative solutions, and charities stepping in to fill holes in government services’. These are all things on which we can build, but I fear it will be to little avail if we are unable to create a different political narrative for Britain, one in which voters are not blinded by a false choice between austerity and bankruptcy. This is hugely difficult in a country increasingly divided by class, political perspective and geography, but it is essential that we find ways of talking to one another across these divides, of developing a meaningful consensus based on shared values. We need to decide who we want to be.

Poverty and inequality make these conversations difficult. Part of the reason poverty is so little reported is that it is simply not a factor in the lives of most leading journalists, who are drawn increasingly from backgrounds of privilege. Unsurprisingly, millions of people in Britain now feel wholly unrepresented by the media, their voices unheard, their views – or a caricature of them – routinely attacked or ridiculed. They feel acutely the ‘disconnect’ Professor Alston refers to between their own lived experience and the rhetoric of government ministers. As economically and socially damaging as Brexit is likely to be, it may also be an opportunity to reassess. We surely do not want to go further down the line of cutting back on public services, welfare, workers’ rights and conditions, in order to fund further tax cuts for the wealthy. This option is on the table and is, as I write, a strong possibility, but it would be a disaster on an unprecedented scale, a bonfire of Beveridge and the welfare state and a shredding of the social contract that has been weakened by stealth by successive governments. We need to find ways to mend this fabric, restoring the role of local authorities in fostering community and connection, reversing the appalling loss of important public spaces such as libraries, community centres and adult education centres and creating opportunities for people to access education that is not narrowly about training for a job. We need to revive education for democracy, for public value, citizenship and a good society. The government has been fond of telling us it will not pass on the legacy of debt to future generations. Instead, it seems set to pass on something immeasurably worse, an impoverished and divided society, shorn of its values and compassion, in which privilege is hoarded and poverty is a life sentence. It is about choice. I hope Britain makes the right one.

Advertisements

A plan for Britain after Brexit: In search of a better politics

A general election which has been in some respects something of a foregone conclusion has, nevertheless, produced a campaign which has been both dynamic and interesting but also, from the perspective of genuinely progressive politics, profoundly depressing. It has shown just how very bitter the political divisions in UK society have become and highlighted how puerile, ill-informed and wholly unedifying our political culture now is.

Genuine open and informed, cross-party discussion about the real challenges the country faces and the real options available to us in terms of policy interventions now seems pretty much beyond us. Frankness is in vanishingly short supply and there is a lack of credibility at the core of both main parties’ policy platforms, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out. The Labour Party, while offering a costed and pretty well thought-out manifesto, has, nevertheless, been over-optimistic about the revenue its reforms will bring in and has done too little to bring the whole country with it. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have been arrogant enough to leave costings out of the equation altogether, campaigning on an extraordinarily thin base which has nevertheless wobbled and shifted throughout a thoroughly awful and ineptly run campaign. Nor have they been frank about the impact of the continuation of the politics of austerity which has already seen public investment fall below levels necessary to maintain decent education and health services and will see these services cut more and more over the course of the next parliament. Not only are such cuts unnecessary, they run directly counter to international trends.

The most likely outcome now seems to be an increased Tory majority but a significantly smaller one than expected when May opportunistically called the election, citing national interest but thinking only of party. Labour may do better than expected but have not, I suspect, made serious inroads into the core vote of other parties nor have they established the sort of progressive alliance that could do serious damage to the prospects of a Conservative majority. Corbyn has impressed many people during the campaign, struck by his sincerity and commitment, but for many others, the traditional Tory and some UKIP voters, he remains seriously toxic, and, ill-founded and irrelevant as they may be, the ‘press the red button/terrorist sympathizer/magic money tree’ guff hits home with a lot of people.

May, on the other hand, has seen her star plummet, deservedly so, with her failure to rebuke Trump over his moronic rubbishing of London Mayor Sadiq Khan the latest example of her weak leadership and lack of moral substance. Her campaign has offered little in the way of constructive policy thinking (her own flagship policy of increasing the number of grammar schools is a socially regressive measure her own minsters find difficult to defend) and has seen a party with no plan for Brexit (beyond being prepared to entertain an option worse that a bad deal) present itself as the party with a plan for Brexit, while a PM whose leadership has been characterised by lack of backbone and a willingness to bend to the will of power has staked most of her hopes on being recognised as a strong and stable leader.

Labour, nevertheless, have run a decent campaign which has tapped into grassroots support, mostly in places where Labour is already strong, though I suspect it has made little impression in strongly Conservative seats where the weak messaging on tactical voting makes it unlikely we will see much change. Jeremy Corbyn is likely to hold onto most existing Labour seats which may be perceived as a success in some quarters but will disappoint many caught up in the apparent groundswell in support for the Labour leader. If, as is highly likely, Labour lose the election, they will need a leader capable of unifying the party and reaching out to all parts of the country if they are to contest the next election with a hope of winning. However, it seems likely Corbyn will limp on, for the time being at least.

Despite the likely failure of his campaign to land many blows on a governing party which, at the end of the day, is offering little more than the managed decline of Britain’s place and reputation in the world, Corbyn may, nevertheless, come to be seen as having created a worthwhile legacy, leaving something that a new leader can build on. For one thing, he has put the chronic underfunding of UK public services under the spotlight. And while his proposals for increases in top-end tax have prompted the worst sort of dog-whistle reactions in the increasingly rabid and right-wing British press, they have also allowed commentators and institutions such as the IFS to highlight how modest these proposals actually are by international standards. Corbyn’s plans, if implemented, would still place the UK some way behind the likes of Germany and France in the tax-and-spend league tables, as the IFS acknowledges. They certainly would not require the services of a ‘magic money tree’; nor, fairly obviously, would they ‘bankrupt the country’ (it is an indictment of our media that the previous Labour government is still widely – and wrongly – regarded as having wrecked the country’s economy through excessive borrowing). Whether they would lead a few corporations to consider leaving the UK is another question. I suspect, by and large, not, given the absence of substantially better terms in comparable countries.

Corbyn has also, quite properly, resisted attempts to put Brexit at centre stage of the election debate. He is surely right to put wider social and economic issues first. Our ‘plan for Brexit’ should be shaped by the vision we have for the sort of country we want to belong to; not the other way around. He has also adopted a measured thoughtful approach to discussion, which other leaders can learn from. I hope it can provide a basis for a more intelligent, all-embracing national debate about the kind of country we want to be. We are in severe danger of giving a huge mandate to a leader who is about to enter Brexit negotiations without having set forth a clear vision of the kind of Britain she wants to emerge post-Brexit. And, make no mistake, the kind of Britain we become will be strongly influenced by the outcome of these negotiations.

There is an opportunity here to launch a different kind of politics, with progressive parties taking a genuine lead in shaping genuinely national debate. With casual and unforgiveable recklessness, the Conservative party has taken the country to a place no serious commentator thought was in its interests. It now approaches crucial negotiations apparently misty-eyed at some vague right-wing fantasy of what we could become if only we turned our back on our most important trading partners and threw ourselves largely at the mercy of an infantile US president who is likely to name the NHS as the price for any prospective trade deal. It’s down to parties on the left of politics to ensure there is meaningful inclusive debate about where we want to go and who we want to be. We need, above all, to have a sensible debate about what public services we want and how we pay for them and we need that debate to be informed by an understanding of what things costs and what other, comparable nations are prepared to pay and to tax. This will be difficult. The level of debate is low and the noise from those who would rather this discussion did not take place will be huge. But it has to happen. Just as Labour forged its ‘Plan for Britain’ amid the rubble of World War II, we need a new ‘Plan for Brexit’ which is just as far-reaching, just as ambitious and expansive, just as full of hope and purpose. Like its predecessor it should tackle crucial issues to do with infrastructure, education, productivity, fairness, equality, health and social security, and it should aim to be inclusive. It has to carry people with it.

For my part, I have already voted (by post) for Labour and Mr Corbyn. My vote will hopefully contribute to re-electing a Labour MP in a constituency which has changed hands between Tory and Labour over the years (though it has been in Labour’s hands since 1997). I hope that, around the country, other people who favour a politics that is progressive rather than reactionary will also vote for the party with the best chance of unseating a Conservative candidate. I do believe that another, better politics is possible and I think a Labour government, or a progressive coalition of some sort, offers by far the best chance. Without it, I fear the government will continue to destroy yet more of the UK’s hard-won social infrastructure, systematically ruining the life chances of most of our children (those whose parents can’t afford to send them to private school or to have them coached through the 11-plus) and further cutting funding to the already cash-starved NHS, as a prelude to its eventual privatization. I fear the outcome of Brexit will be an isolated, impoverished, less environmentally secure UK, a friend to crooks, tax cheats and tyrants, eaten up by self-loathing and tantalized by the fantasy, backwards-looking politics of the right: the country that took back control but didn’t have a clue what to do with it. And I fear that the dwindling supply of foreign skills and expertise will not be met by a thoughtful and well-funded reinvigoration of our own education and skills system. The UK is now very much an outlier in its commitment to austerity.

Nevertheless, for all of this, I will turn my television on at 10pm on Thursday night hopeful of a result no serious commentator is predicting. In all likelihood, I will be disappointed, as will millions of others. It is going to hurt. But it is important people remain hopeful, even if they have to work hard to find a reason to. That is the challenge now, to nurture those increasingly elusive ‘resources of hope’, as Raymond Williams termed them; to use them to build something better. We must not allow the meagre politics of division and desperation, or the clamour of those who want us to talk and think about anything other than the things that really matter, to win out.

 

 

We are on the brink of a new era, if only…

So, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has called a snap general election. The result of the election, as things stand, is likely to be a substantially increased majority for the Conservative Party, a significantly strengthened hand for the PM, a greater likelihood of ‘hard’ Brexit from the EU and the single market, and the further erosion of popular support for the Labour Party, the future of which now looks bleak indeed.

It saddens me enormously to have to acknowledge this, as a lifelong Labour supporter and sometime member; but we need to be realistic about the challenges we face if we are to begin to address them. I voted for Jeremy Corbyn when he first stood for leadership of the Labour Party. I knew little about him at the time but he easily outshone the other candidates at hustings and promised a change of tone and direction that I welcomed. I hoped for a unified party and a leader capable of creating a shadow cabinet with a place for everyone, and I took Corbyn’s promise to deliver this seriously (in fact, it was this that finally led me to prefer Corbyn to Yvette Cooper, the candidate I favoured initially but whose campaign was poor). Unhappily, for all his apparent decency and concern for issues I too believe in, he has not been able or willing to deliver this.

By appointing John McDonnell as his shadow chancellor, Corbyn gave an immediate indication that a genuinely unified party was not a part of his agenda at all. He must have been aware that this is precisely how this appointment would be read by other MPs. In making it, he in one stroke undid the good work he had done in promising an open, all-embracing style of party leadership. So much for straight-talking politics. I accept that Corbyn and the party have not been helped by the antics of some rebel Labour MPs, but Corbyn too has done little to build bridges between wings of the party, while many of his supporters seem bent on splitting it, ousting many excellent and hard-working MPs in the process. Perhaps Corbyn too is more concerned with changing the Labour Party than with changing the way the country is run. He now faces a general election at the head of a bitterly divided party, with an exceedingly thin-looking shadow cabinet and what is effectively a shadow cabinet in waiting sat behind him on the back benches.

Even accepting that Corbyn’s heart is in the right place and that he has some decent policy ideas capable of winning popular support, it has become patently clear that he lacks not only the requisite management and leadership skills to run and carry with him a major political party but also the high-level intellectual skills to challenge government policy, as demonstrated by his faltering and often embarrassing performances at PMQs. Many of the attacks on Corbyn have been unfair and are plainly politically motivated but I think his supporters are deluding themselves if they believe his woes are entirely of the media’s making. There is now a firmly entrenched public perception that Corbyn is unelectable. This impression, one that is, frankly, unlikely to be turned around in the space of a few weeks, is down partly to media bias but also, and undeniably, to his own words, actions and performance. It is, I regret to say, likely to prove fatal, unless Corbyn can demonstrate that he is capable of fronting a wider coalition of views and expertise. Frustrated at Corbyn’s inability to organize a creditable opposition to what, in my view, is the most deceiving, cynical, reckless and bitterly divided government in living memory, I allowed my membership of the party to lapse last year. It gives me no pleasure at all to say this, knowing how deeply divisive this issue is among Labour members, including some of my closest friends and family. Even now, there is a part of me that is desperate to be convinced by Jeremy Corbyn and his team.

If things look bleak for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, they look bleaker still for the country. Like most followers of progressive causes, I am used to disappointment, but the double blow of the 2015 Conservative general election outcome and the Brexit vote has been pretty hard to take. The pain is particularly acute since the government, and the coalition before it, have pursued – and continue to pursue – policies which will make the majority of people poorer, increase inequality, diminish opportunity and undermine democracy. The current Prime Minister, like her predecessor, happily puts party political considerations above the stability and security of the country. She is a shallow, unsympathetic and deliberately divisive leader whose flagship policy – the resurgence of grammar schools – is evidentially groundless and morally indefensible. She is taking us backwards to a society in which the circumstances of a child’s birth determine their life outcomes and employers are free to exploit the unlucky second tier of our education system, untroubled by the hard-won workplace legislation May and her ilk dismiss as ‘red tape’. Far from sharing Theresa May’s sense of a country ‘coming together’, I see one bitterly divided by covert class war, I see people passionate for change but unable to channel their passion and I see people desperately throwing blame where it does not belong.

At home, in the UK, many believe they have made a bold and brave choice, taking back control – and, in their view, sovereignty – from invisible bureaucrats, freeing up Great Britain to become truly great again. They see those who disagree with them as a threat to the democratic mandate they believe they have won, as ‘saboteurs’ who should be ‘crushed’, perhaps, to use the Daily Mail’s words. Viewed from Europe, where I am part of an international workforce drawn from some 28 countries around the world, the perception is rather different. For the most part, the people I meet like and respect the British; they are smart enough to know that we are more than a few moronic football supporters chanting Sun headlines in a Madrid bar. They are not angry or upset about Brexit, and they don’t want to punish us for it; though they are aware of the spread of vacuous nationalistic jingoism and irresponsible anti-immigration rhetoric that helped produce it (in many cases, of course, they are familiar with this from their own countries). I would say that, by and large, the most common response is perplexity about a decision which will see the UK lose much and gain little. There is a general perception that we have voted to leave with little understanding either of what we are leaving or of where we are going. And, for the most part, people feel pretty sad about it.

So, where do we go from here? The past few months have, for me, been the most depressing and least hopeful in my own political lifetime, but change is always possible, and, as ever, the options are wider than people are encouraged to believe. It is not too late for Corbyn to reach out to the wider party, which he must do be effective as a leader. He needs to be the kind of leader who is not afraid to trust the expertise of others in his party, to disperse power and responsibility and be genuinely prepared to open up key positions to people with whom he disagrees. In terms of policy, Labour should try to put clear water between it and the Tories on Brexit. It should make clear it is the party of soft Brexit, actively engaging with European partners as part of a single market and highlighting the very significant benefits of free movement. It’s agenda here should be clear, offering a genuine alternative to all those who feel alienated by the hardening of government rhetoric – but it must also try to widen the debate. The Government and the media are keen to make the general election a re-run of the EU referendum. Labour needs to show that there are bigger issues at stake and that this is a vote on the kind of Britain we want to see: closed, narrow-minded and belligerent, a low-wage haven for unscrupulous employers and tax evaders or open, caring, cooperative, democratic, careful about the friends we keep and keen to be an active partner and good, progressive example in Europe, even if we no longer have a seat at the EU table.

Progressive voters will need to think tactically and progressive parties, Labour included, will need to work together if change is to be more than a possibility. They need a common plan. The one contingency the Conservative Party probably won’t have planned for is a genuinely coordinated, well-planned coalition of progressives, with Labour at its heart, reaching out as well as in, engaging across the party and beyond it, and demonstrating genuine unity of purpose in creating a Britain that is worth living in, whether it is part of the EU or not. If this doesn’t happen, I fear bleak and difficult times lie ahead.