Skinny size me: some women dramatise their inner conflict by shedding weight. Photograph: Ben Stockey
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The anorexic statement

Trust me, notice me, feed me: every female body conveys a message. So, when a woman starves herself, what is she saying?

I knew a woman whose job it was to take anorexics to the swimming pool. She was an occupational therapist: eating disorders were her field. She worked at a nearby clinic and we bumped into one another from time to time.

I found myself curious about her work, or more truthfully about her patients, those singular modern-day martyrs to the cause of their own bodies. Without quite knowing why, as I have grown older I have become more interested in – it could even be said, more respectful of – what might be called the anorexic statement. Perhaps it’s because, as the 45-year-old English mother of two children, my body has little power of provocation or utterance; or rather, that what it’s said or tried to say through the years hasn’t seemed to have added up to all that much. Quite what constitutes the anorexic statement I’m not entirely sure. All the same, it has a great power of disruption. It’s a stray spoke under the wheel of things that otherwise have the capacity to hurtle on headlong: family life, fashion, the destiny of the female body. The statement might be: help me. Or it might simply be: stop.

My therapist acquaintance herself had not been allowed to be picky in life, growing up in a family of brothers on a farm in the Australian outback. She knew how to shoot, drive a tractor, ride a horse bareback. She had left that rough home and come to the UK, where every couple of years for the sake of change she moved job and town – Slough, Birmingham, Chelmsford – though her solitude and her line of work did not alter. She neither sought nor seemed to expect much in the way of pleasure. In the evenings she made a sandwich and read a book in her rented room; her main meal was lunch in the canteen at the clinic, where food was plentiful and cheap. This somewhat joyless attitude to nourishment could come as no surprise, given that she spent her days among females who regarded the ingestion of a teaspoonful of peas as a physical and spiritual crisis. Once a week she led them to the poolside, skeletal and pale, for all the world to see. Even at the swimming pool these curious beings detected the threat of penetration, of the outside coming in. They didn’t want to get in the water, not, apparently, because they felt self-conscious or exposed, but for fear that they might swallow some of it without its calorific content having been established.

The easiest thing that could be said about my acquaintance was that she herself was impenetrable. Her choice of career must have sprung from some initial attraction to or sympathy with the anorexic state, but most often what she appeared to feel for her waifish charges was irritation, even anger. Anger is a common response, it seems, to the anorexic statement. At the very least, returning from a day spent on the receiving end of that statement, my acquaintance was hard put to feel – as they say – good about herself. If the anorexic is someone for whom the relationship between female being and female image must, on pain of death, be resolved, it may be that she denies that resolution to those who cross her path. They become the witnesses of her vulnerability; as such, she is more real than they. Like with the ascetic of old, her self-denial is a form of chastisement, yet the extremity of her appearance is confusing. Being female, it seeks attention, but of an unusual kind. It asks to be mothered – yet what if its aim is indeed to challenge the reality of the mother-figure and overpower it, to triumph over her, to consign her to flesh and steal her image? The anorexic is out to prove how little she needs, how little she can survive on; she is out, in a sense, to discredit her nurturers, while at the same time making a public crisis out of her need for nurture. Such vulnerability and such power: it brings the whole female machinery to a halt. My acquaintance had tales of rudeness and tantrums and sulks, of behaviour more commonly read about in childcare manuals (of the kind whose purpose, we are told, is to “test the boundaries”), even of a degree of personal insult which at the very least, I suppose, mothers aren’t paid to tolerate. She had no children of her own. And so, in an admirable interpretation of the social contract, she recognised she had something in that line to give.

Jenefer Shute offers some riveting descriptions of such interactions, between the anorexic inpatient Josie and her carers, in her novel Life-Size. “In the body,” Josie chillingly muses, “as in art, perfection is attained not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”

Armed with this credo, she can exercise contempt on everyone around her (“They say I’m sick, but what about them, who feast on corpses?”), in what becomes a radical reliving of her primary experiences of nurture. And it needs to be radicalised: this is the moral value of the anorexic statement, that it asks questions not just of mothers or fathers or fashion editors, but of the whole societal basis for the female image. This time around, Josie can speak her mind. She can criticise the people who care for her; she can re-experience the powerlessness of childhood and know it for what it is. So unpleasant is she to the “freckled cow” who nurses her that she finally gets the reprimand she has apparently been asking for:

“Josephine, I must ask you please not to speak to me like that. I’m not your servant.” And then, unable to contain herself: “And would you please look at me when I talk to you? It really gets on my nerves.” Coldly, victoriously, I remain precisely as I am. She really should have more control.

Soon after, however, the 68-pound tyrant, having agreed at last to eat something or be force-fed through a tube, makes a revealing request of her nurse: “I want you to feed me,” she says.

My acquaintance found it hard to muster much interest in herself at the day’s end. She rarely went out or saw people: it was as though her work had bled her of confidence. She sought not public interactions but the determined security of her private boundary. In the evenings she changed into loose clothes, shut herself in her room, shut herself into a book. She wanted to be where no one could demand anything of her, like a depleted mother, except with none of the prestige of motherhood. She never kept company with men, and her female world was wholly predicated on an insidious notion, that certain women are there to give attention and others to receive it. Sometimes it seemed that her patients had indeed stolen her image and left her with nothing to trade, nothing to barter with for some share of the world’s interest. They had stolen her image and left her a mere body that could find no reflection or definition for itself. She went back home for a few weeks on holiday and returned browner, more animated, and heavier. All that meat they went in for, meat roasted over a fire and served at every meal. But more to the point, a world in which food was an entitlement and a human bond.

In her own world food had become a weapon: her evening sandwich and her indifference were a kind of savourless pacifism she exercised against it. She spent her days among people who denied themselves food in order to experience, perhaps, power, whose apparent intention to make themselves invisible made them, in fact, visible, who had discovered that by becoming less they became more. And no­where was this clearer than in the fact that they required her as their witness, for disappearing was no fun unless someone noticed you’d gone. But if anyone was disappearing, if anyone was becoming invisible, it was she.

The question of how she had come to be stranded in this place remains difficult to answer, but its source may lie in the very practicality – the tractors, the horses – she had crossed the world to escape. Denied her own experience of femininity, she had perhaps embarked on a kind of pilgrimage to find and serve these notable victims to the riddling perversity of feminine values. She could help them, sit with them while they wept and shrieked over a teaspoonful of peas, she who had never had the temerity to question or refuse anything she had been given; she who was not important enough, as it were, to be anorexic, for the hieratic significance of the anorexic body depends on it having been ascribed a value in the first place. Had she tried to starve herself on the farm where she grew up, she might simply have died: her protest, in any case, would not have been understood. She had taken photographs of this place, on her recent trip home. In order to capture its isolation, she had photographed it from a distance, recording the miles of surrounding scrubland in a sequence of separate frames that she laid one next to another across the table in a long connecting strip. Amid these featureless wastelands she defied me to locate her home, and though my eyes searched and searched the landscape it was true that I could find no evidence of human habitation. She laughed, with an unmistakable and strangely exhilarated pride, and laid her finger over a low brown shape that crouched amid the boulders and bushes that extended all around it, on and on to the white horizon. It was so small her fingertip covered it. “There it is,” she said.

It may seem superfluous for a 45-year-old mother-of-two to say that she does not exult in the life of the body, but let’s just call it a place to begin. At the very least, as a statement, it raises numerous lines of inquiry. One might be: is it obligatory, or even a moral duty, to take pleasure in one’s own physical being? Leaving aside for a moment the question of what definition of pleasure one could possibly arrive at in this particular hall of mirrors, is the value of the physical quest in any way comparable with that of the artistic, the emotional, the spiritual?

I understand the anorexic’s notion of pleasure far better than the hedonist’s. Sometimes it has seemed to me that the second kind of pleasure is consequent on the first, that the life of sensation can be accessed only from a place of perfect self-discipline, rather as strict religious practices were once believed to constitute the narrow path to heaven. The anorexic, like the ascetic before her, publicly posits the immolation of the flesh as a manifestation of a primary physical discontent she is on her way to escaping: she represents a journey whose starting point is disgust. Body is found to be not only intolerable to but weaker than mind – how, then, can its desires and yearnings be taken seriously? The anorexic statement suggests a second body, one that will be painstakingly encroached on and attained; and hence, a second template for desire. This second body will belong to its owner as the first did not: its desires, therefore, will be experienced as not shameful, but true.

The female form is inherently susceptible to this duality, but the difficulty with the anorexic statement is that once it becomes open to other readings it breaks down. At some point in the journey a line is crossed: the slim body becomes the freakish starved body, and one by one the anorexic’s grounds for superiority are discredited and revoked. She is not beautiful but repellent, not self-disciplined but out of control, not enviable but piteous, and, most disappointing of all, she is publicly courting not freedom and desire but death. Even she may find these things difficult to believe. How to go back, on that journey? How to retrace one’s steps? For in getting where she needed to go the anorexic had to sacrifice the concept of normality. In a manner of speaking she sold her soul. She can never be “normal” about food or flesh again. So, how is she meant to live?

If the anorexic arouses irritation, even anger, it may be this quitting of normality that is to blame, because the female management of normality is a formidable psychical task from which most women don’t feel entitled to walk away. By quitting it she exposes it, she criticises it as a place to live, and moreover she forces each woman who passes her way to choose between denial and recognition of her statement, disgust.

Is it disgusting to be a woman? Menstruation, lactation, childbirth, the sexualisation of the female body – in recognising these things as her destiny, a girl is asked to forget everything that her prepubescent instincts might formerly have suggested to her. In becoming female she must cease to be universal, and relinquish the masculine in herself that permitted her as a child to find the idea of these things disgusting indeed. Likewise that masculine is now embodied for her in men, so the question becomes – do men find women disgusting? The anorexic statement dispenses with that perspective. It returns the woman to the universality of the child, and from that fusion formulates itself: I find myself disgusting.

If it has become a cultural cliché that women want to be thin more than they want to be loved (the three most cherished words these days, so the saying goes, being not “I love you” but “You’ve lost weight”), and moreover that they want to be thin not for men but for one another, the general observer might be tempted to view this as making the case for male innocence (at last!), even male redundancy.

Yet, looked at another way, the male and the preponderance of male values are perhaps more culpable in the incrimination of the female form than ever. An eating disorder epidemic suggests that love and disgust are being jointly marketed, as it were; that wherever the proposition might first have come from, the unacceptability of the female body has been disseminated culturally. Is it possible that disgust has finally got, in the famed male gaze, the upper hand? From whom, after all, has a woman ever wished to hear the words “I love you” but a man?

In Life-Size, Jenefer Shute posits the anorexic state as having two separate sources, one in the female (subjective, mother) and the other in the male (objective, father). Between them they engender in the anorexic subject the confusion between being and image of which one might suppose her to be merely an extreme cultural example. Mother – the female body – is indeed the source of disgust, but it is father – if one can be permitted the leap of seeing father as analogous with male and, indeed, with society – who makes that disgust public and hence catalyses it into shame. Without father, mother might merely have passed her disgust silently on to daughter, where it would have remained as an aspect of her private, interior being. But father brings it to the surface: it is something not just felt but now also seen. These confirmations, in Shute’s narrative, of interior suspicion (am I disgusting?) by outward commentary (yes, you are) are fatal to female self-perception in ways that might seem obvious but are none­theless intractable.

Outside and inside – image and being – are now held to be one: the girl/woman revisits and tests this impossibility by becoming the observer – the male – herself, looking at and remarking on the bodies of other women. Naturally, the discovery that image can be changed is not new: it is and always has been part of becoming a woman, in a sense that, although slenderness has long been a feminine ideal, self-hatred and the compulsion to starve oneself to death have broadly not. The question of disgust returns, accompanied by its shadow, the question of pleasure.

A personal admission: not long ago, in a period of great turmoil, I lost a considerable amount of weight. The first thing to say about this is that I was unaware, inexplicably, that it had happened. That my clothes no longer fitted passed me by: I noticed it only because other people told me so. They appeared shocked: each time I met someone I knew, there it would be, shock, a startled expression on the face. At first, I was startled in turn. They were not seeing who they expected to see; who, then, were they seeing? After a while I got used to it: indeed, I came to expect, almost to require it. A newborn baby needs to be mirrored by another human being in order to grasp that she has an outward surface, that this “self” has an appearance, that her image speaks. Through the shock of others I learned that I, too, had been shocked, that I was no longer the person I once was. My image was speaking, to me as well as to other people, telling me things I did not yet appear to know or realise.

But eventually the question of “normality” returned, as it must in the life of a 45-year-old mother-of-two. Stop, help me, feed me: this may have been my cry, but the truth was there was no one, any more, to answer. There could be no illusion, as an adult; I had left it too late to stage this apotheosis, this defeat of the first body, predicated as it is on the expectation of rescue. I had to draw back from it myself. And this was where the problem arose, because, like the anorexic, I found I could not retrace my steps, could not, as it were, go back to sleep. For years I had lived in my body half-consciously, ignoring it mostly, dismissing its agendas wherever I could, and forever pressing it into the service of mental conceptions that resulted, almost as a by-product, sometimes in its pleasuring and sometimes in its abuse. People were always telling me I should do yoga: this was one of the running jokes I had against my own flesh, for the idea that I would suspend the intellectual adventure of living even for one hour to dwell in the dumb and inarticulate realm of the auto-corporeal was as unappealing as that of spending an evening with someone I disliked. Now, as the weeks passed, instead of shock, my appearance was beginning to elicit milder manifestations of concern. I didn’t know what it meant: had I changed again? Was I no longer fragile and vulnerable? I had no idea. Never before in my life had I dared to be fragile, and all I knew was that I wasn’t ready to leave what I had become. “Have you ever thought of doing yoga?” someone said.

As a teenager I had been tormented by hunger and by an attendant self-disgust, for I saw in other girls a balance, an openness of form, that suggested they had nothing inside of which they need be ashamed. Their bodies were like well-schooled ponies, handsome and obedient, whereas I had a monster inside me whose appeasement was forever disrupting the outward surface of life. It craved so many things it could barely discriminate between them, and so indiscrimination – the failure to distinguish between what mattered and what didn’t, what helped and what didn’t, what it needed and what just happened to be there – became its public nature. It wanted, in fact, what it could get, in the light of what it couldn’t.

How thoroughly the tangible and the in­tangible confused themselves in those years. Creativity, the placement of internal material into space, the rendering tangible, became my weapon against that confusion.

When I left my boarding school – the blue serge uniform and the Cambridgeshire drizzle, the plates of stodge that were so predictable and real, the torturing sense of female possi­bilities that were not – I learned to manage the monster, more or less. Like the first Mrs Rochester it had a locked room of its own, from which it sometimes succeeded in breaking free to rend into shreds my fantasies of femininity, but I had set my mind on higher things. By locking up the monster I was making myself at heart unfree: what did I know of freedom in any case? I was accustomed to fantasy and to the safety – albeit uncomfortable – it supplied, and the notion of an integrated self was the most uncomfortable fantasy of all. In a sense, it was the monster: I could neither kill it nor live with it, and so there it remained, caged, bellowing and banging intermittently through the years, creating perhaps the sense of something amiss in those who came close to me, but caged all the same.

Yoga, understandably enough, was out: nothing could have persuaded me to enter that cage armed only with a sun salute. But my sudden emaciation in middle age did bring me into contact with the monster again, for, amid all the other losses, there in the rubble of the desecrated life, I appeared to see it lying dead at my feet. The Jungian notion of the “middle passage”, in which at mid-life all the templates for self expire or fall away, in which with sufficient destruction one has a chance to return to the blankness of birth, might have explained that death well enough to avoid detection: it simply went up in the fire, the horrible secret, along with everything else. And here, after all, was a chance to be free of my own image, the bind in which my body had held me for all these years, because, while wanting more than anything to be feminine, I had only and ever found my own femininity disgusting. This image, knitted together over time by questions and confirmations (Am I disgusting? Yes, you are), was one I was now prepared to sustain: I was poised to make the anorexic statement, to vanish, to let image and being finally become one.

But of course, no such thing occurs: there is no “letting”, no seamless transposition of the flesh. The anorexic body is held in the grip of will alone; its meaning is far from stable. What it says – notice me, feed me, mother me – is not what it means, for such attentions constitute an agonising test of that will, and also threaten to return the body to the dreaded “normality” it has been such ecstasy to escape.

For the first time since my teenage years I found myself tormented again by hunger: the monster had awoken from its slumber, bigger and more ferocious than ever. The route back to normality being blocked, I have had to devise other ways of getting there, or of seeming to. My occupational therapist acquaintance tells me that many of her patients are women of my age, women who have suddenly tried to slip the noose of their female flesh once its story – menstruation, lactation, childbirth – has been told in all its glory and shame.

When I relate this to my female friends they take it humorously, rolling their eyes and laughing, gallantly owning up – oh yes, they say, we know – to monsters of their own. Most of them haven’t delivered themselves into its jaws quite so thoroughly as I have; their dislike of their own bodies is a kind of low-level irritant, a necessary component of the female environment, but to think about it too much would spoil everyone’s fun.

I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, either, though for now I have spoiled my own. It did seem, for a while, as though the death-state of physical denial might contain the possibility of transcendence, the chance to step out of my self-disgust and make true contact at last: contact of my “real”, my second, self with the outer world. That I felt this had always been denied me, that in the negotiation between being and image all, for me, had been lost, was a stark kind of truth to face up to. Passing other women in the street these days, I seem to hear their bodies speaking. A lot of what they say is unclear to me, or at the very least so foreign that it takes me a moment to translate it. For instance: I accept myself. Or: respect me. The ones I like best are the ones that say, trust me. What I will never be able to hear unequivocally, whether whispered or shrieked, is: desire me. Notice me, feed me, mother me. Passing by the anorexic girl, stepping lightly and silently in the shadows, I hear her message and in a way I salute her for it. Other bodies have other messages, but for this one I have ears.

Rachel Cusk is most recently the author of “Aftermath: on Marriage and Separation” (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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How can Labour refit itself for the modern world?

The events of 2016 were hammer blows for the left. But I still believe we can survive and thrive. Here's how. 

I was born in 1983. I have realised in the last year or two that I have taken for granted the onward march of social progress that I have seen throughout my life.

In part because of my own journey from a council estate in East London to a seat in the House of Commons, and in part because my adolescence took place during an economic boom and the advent of new technology, I had assumed that over time we would all become better off and, as the white wristbands told us, we would ‘Make Poverty History’.

In part, because of where I grew up: in a multicultural community in a global city. I’ve seen great advances in areas like race relations, disability rights and the role of women in our society. As the Labour government changed the law on LGBT equality they also changed hearts and minds and changed my life as a result. As a teenager struggling to reconcile my Christian faith and sexuality I finally began to feel comfortable in my own skin.

Martin Luther King famously said “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice” and I have always believed that to be true.

But the last couple of years have shaken that conviction and I worry for the future of Britain.

In this piece, I want to try and make sense of what is happening to our country and offer some suggestions about what needs to be done.  

This is a time of unprecedented peace and global prosperity, yet also great anxiety and social upheaval.

The benefits of globalisation and economic growth are being unevenly distributed and people are acutely aware of their own relative disadvantage.

Across Europe and the United States of America, people are sending a clear message to their leaders: that they feel left behind, that they feel unheard and that they feel dislocated in a world that is changing around them. There’s something a little ironic about the emergence of a global movement against globalisation, but it’s not hard to understand what’s driving it.

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, the biggest gains have been made by the richest.

Since the 60s and 70s communities whose jobs have been reliant on their strengths in traditional manufacturing have been hollowed out through a combination of labour-saving technology and outsourcing elsewhere.

And young people across advanced economies face the prospect of growing up to be poorer than their parents.

At times of economic upheaval and with pressures on livelihoods, history tells us that people can become fearful and resentful.

In the United Kingdom, we saw that resentment writ large during the EU referendum campaign.

Resentment towards a political establishment that had let them down over many years. Over broken promises on issues like tuition fees, foreign follies like the war in Iraq and the MPs’ expenses scandal, which confirmed in people’s minds their worst suspicions that politicians are only in it for themselves.

Resentment towards the Square Mile, for its role in a financial crisis that left ordinary taxpayers picking up the bill for a mess that wasn’t of their making. 

Resentment towards immigration, because of a belief that foreign labour was taking jobs, undercutting pay and conditions and placing pressure on over-stretched public services.

‘Vote Leave, Take Control’. ‘Make America Great Again’. ‘Au nom du peuple’! The clarion calls of the political movements capitalising on the anxiety of people in the UK, USA and France.

Just this week, Marine Le Pen has declared that “the divide is not between left and right anymore but between patriots and globalists”. She would not be the first fascist in European history to turn an economic crisis into a political opportunity to inspire hatred.

But in identifying globalisation as the enemy within her sights she is striking a powerful chord.

The tragedy is that the Le Pens and the Trumps of this world, who play on people’s fears and society’s worst prejudices for electoral gain, also champion the very policies that will make their voters’ lives worse.

People like me on the centre-left of politics have a fight on our hands. Our job is to appeal to people’s hopes and aspirations by providing real answers to the challenges facing our country.

But for too long we’ve been out of office and out of answers.

Once again, the Labour Party is learning the hard way that winning elections matters and losing has consequences. 

Right now we need a government that will deal with the inequality driving people’s fears and insecurities.

This country has a lot going for it: the world’s sixth largest economy, 12 of the world’s top 100 universities, and third in the global innovation index.

But our country also faces some big economic challenges. We’ve had a decade of near-stagnant wage growth and falling living standards. We are lagging behind our neighbours as far as productivity is concerned, and our consumer spending is driven by credit card debt.

Meanwhile, demographic challenges mean a lower tax base, rising social care costs and even greater questions about how we pay for it: the number of pensioners will rise by a third to 17 million in 2041.

Whether you voted leave or remain in the referendum I think we can all agree that the decision to leave the European Union presents significant challenges for our economy.

We’re leaving the most advanced political and economic alliance in the world. As members of the single market and the customs union, as part of the largest free trade area in the world, we currently have unfettered access to a market of half a billion consumers. Moreover, it facilitates global trade – with more free trade agreements than the USA, China, Canada, Japan, Russia, India or Brazil.

Every single sector of our economy will be affected, in some way, by the deal that our Prime Minister does or doesn’t strike as she negotiates our exit from the European Union.

In the best of times, we would want to make sure that our future relationship with the European Union safeguards jobs and trade so that we could build on our economic strengths so that all our citizens could continue to enjoy rising prosperity and living standards.

But in times like these, where our economic recovery is fragile and where voters delivered a shock to the political establishment in large part due to the economic pain and misery they are experiencing, it is absolutely essential.

But instead, the government has chosen to prioritise concerns about immigration over our national economic interest.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard calls for a ‘real debate on immigration’. They arrive like the seasons.

 Some in my party argue that we must take a tougher line on immigration to match the public mood.

But a ‘real debate’ requires some argument and, so here is mine: immigration is good for our economy and good for our society. Indeed, it becomes more important with an ageing society and a shrinking working age population.

Those who want less immigration must tell us how they intend to pay for public services and pensions and how they plan to grow our economy. Those of us who defend immigration must ensure that British workers receive the skills they need to find work and that we have sensible controls to manage migration.

There are a number of things we could do: provide a proper migration impact fund, to make sure that public services and infrastructure can cope with additional people, introduce better migration controls to deliver the global talent our economy actually needs, and seriously look at the options for a regional work permit system.

What we should not do is relegate the economy to the second division of concerns.

As far as I am concerned, any government that doesn’t make the economy the priority doesn’t deserve the trust of the British people.

But particularly at this moment, the absolute priority has got to be the economy – and not just in general terms, but in addressing the economic inequality that is fuelling people’s fears and anxieties.

We are at the start of a new industrial revolution that will be like globalisation on steroids.

The World Bank estimates that 57 per cent of jobs in OECD nations are susceptible to automation – rising to 69 per cent in India and 77 per cent in China.

In the report that paved the way for the modern welfare state, William Beveridge said that “a revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching” – it was true then and it remains true today.

So just as the Attlee Government built the welfare state from the rubble of the Second World War, so too the Labour Party today should embrace the challenge of reshaping post-Brexit Britain, re-imagining social democracy to meet the big social and economic challenges of this century.  

Beveridge’s five giants of want, squalor, ignorance, disease and idleness have a modern relevance as we seek to eradicate poverty and reduce inequality, build the housing and infrastructure that our people and our economy need, equip people with education and lifelong skills for the 21st century, address the health and social care crisis and consider the future of work in the age of automation.

It’s clear that too many people on the right of politics remain fixated with the idea that government has little role to play in growing our economy and strengthening our society.

Just look at the ineptitude of Sajid Javid as Business Secretary, who banned the use of the words ‘industrial strategy’ in the Business department and planned some holiday time in Australia while the fate of British jobs in the steel industry was being sealed in India.

And even in my own party there are those who suffer with the strange affliction that sees a private sector providing eight in 10 jobs as a ‘necessary evil’, best summed up in that most lazy of soundbites: “public good, private bad”.   

As Attlee argued in his speech to the Labour Party conference in 1946: “It is social democracy which can set us free from the tyranny of economic power and preserve us, too, from the dangers of the absolute power of the state”.

What might a modern Beveridge report say about today’s world? Because his five giants are still very much alive. 

WANT

Beveridge himself might be surprised by the prevalence of UK poverty seventy years on from his original analysis of ‘want’ in our society. Four million children grow up today living in poverty – an average of 9 children in every classroom of 30. A combination of falling incomes, rising costs and welfare cuts has led the Institute for Fiscal Studies to predict a 50 per cent rise in relative child poverty by 2020.

The last time we saw such a sharp rise in child poverty was when I was growing up in the 1980s. But as a constituency MP, I am struck by how different the circumstances of my own upbringing were compared with the children I represent growing up in similar circumstances today.

I grew up in a single parent household on a council estate in Stepney in Tower Hamlets, East London. We didn’t have much. When my mum was able to find work, it was often poorly paid, temporary and casual, which made the support network of family living nearby in Wapping, Stepney Green and Bow essential for childcare – and occasionally raiding my Nan’s food cupboards if we were short. The benefits system put food in the fridge, helped with school uniform costs, fed me at school and kept a roof over my head at home.

I used to think I was unlucky. Not having the latest trainers or games console. Not being able to invite friends around to play because we were too embarrassed that our home wasn’t as nice as some of the kids from better off families. Going without electricity because the meter had run out, and so had the money.    

But then I look at the kids growing up with parents in the same circumstances today. They’re not in a council flat with security of tenure, they’re in unaffordable and shabby private rented accommodation. Or temporary bed and breakfast accommodation. Some of them are commuting to school to west London in the morning, because that’s where they came from before they found themselves homeless and placed by their local authority in Redbridge.

Their parents do a 2-3 hour round trip, twice a day, because their schooling is their only stability in life and they don’t know where they might move next. They’ve been moved away from family and friends – the vital support network that might help mum or dad to get a job that fits around school hours. They’re using foodbanks, because they don’t have enough money to eat.

For me, the state was my security net and my springboard. It meant I didn’t go hungry or homeless and it gave me the education I needed to be where I am today.

There is a tragic irony about the welfare debate in our country: the welfare system lacks public confidence, but it also fails the people who need it. Not just the kids like me, but disabled people who can’t work and face the bureaucracy and indignity of regular inquisitions by amateur pen pushers making judgements against the weight of medical evidence from qualified professionals. The pensioners for whom retirement feels more like a prison sentence than a reward for a life of hard work, because they don’t get the care they need to ensure a good quality of life in their final years. Those in work and in poverty: the worst of all worlds – working hard and having nothing to show for it.

As my colleague Dan Jarvis recently argued, what is most shocking about this state of failure, is that it costs so much. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation puts the cost of poverty to the public purse at £78bn.

I think we need to reimagine the welfare system from first principles.

A welfare system that acts as a safety net: preventing destitution and supporting people into work.

A welfare system that expects you to work: providing meaningful support to help people to reskill, retrain and find employment – and opportunities to give back to society through community action while job-hunting, building friendships, networks and skills in the process.

A welfare system that that works for those who can’t: providing a level of support to disabled people that gives them freedom, dignity and quality of life.

A welfare system that recognises contribution: so that if you’ve paid in, you can access greater government support to help with things like mortgage interest payments if you become unemployed.

A welfare system that makes work pay: so that the combination of in-work benefits, minimum wages and taxation policy will always prevent families from falling below the poverty line.  

Tackling poverty isn’t just a social policy. It’s a crime prevention policy, a health policy and an economic policy.

DISEASE

To tackle disease the original Beveridge Report laid the foundations for the Attlee Government to create the National Health Service. Next year it will be 70 years old. During that time, it has survived under-resourcing and attacks on its universal principles and although the word ‘crisis’ has been used often, to describe today’s NHS as in crisis is something of an understatement:  hospitals are struggling to cope with rising A&E admissions and delays to operations, clinics are overwhelmed, with an ageing workforce and insufficient pipeline of new GPs coming on-board and local authority cuts are compounding social care pressures, leading to avoidable hospital admissions, delayed discharges and poor quality of life for disabled and older people.

That’s why I support the view of my colleagues in Parliament – Labour’s Liz Kendall, the Lib Dems’ Norman Lamb and the Conservatives’ Dr Dan Poulter – that we need an independent commission on the future of health and social care. Labour created the NHS and now we should seek to build a new cross-party consensus around social care.  

IGNORANCE

Education has a powerful role to play, not just in tackling ‘ignorance’, but in tackling poverty and inequality. In addition, unlocking the talent and potential of every citizen is an economic necessity.

In the UK, we must meet that challenge in the context of an ageing society. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Learning Works, the seminal work on widening participation in further education and lifelong learning. Though I remain immensely proud of the educational record of the last Labour government, Helena Kennedy’s observation that “if at first you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed” remains true today.

The United Kingdom lags significantly behind our competitors on basic skills like literacy and numeracy. One in five adults in this country do not have the basic literacy skills that we expect of an 11 year old.

With more of the population expected to work longer, we need to make sure that they can re-skill and retrain. This is urgent. I meet too many constituents now in their fifties and sixties – able to work, unable to find a job, but unable to retire.

A modern Beveridge report would build a further education system that’s simple, easy to understand for learners and employers and joined-up. There needs to be a genuine and sustained commitment to widening participation in higher and degree level apprenticeships – just as the last Labour government led a sustained effort on widening participation in our universities.

We can’t rest on our laurels about the future of our school system, either.

I’m hesitant to propose more piecemeal curriculum reform. Our schools have had enough. Michael Gove was a big advocate of chaos theory in education policy and it certainly did what it said on the tin.

What a modern Beveridge would conclude though, is that a world class education system is about people: high quality leadership and well-trained educators who have freedom to experiment and build professional expertise. The early years of a child’s life remains one of the greatest predictors of their success at the age of 16, which is why greater investment in early years and high quality childcare for the poorest families must be a priority.

When we reach the latter stages of education, careers guidance in this country is abysmal. This is not just an economic issue, but a social justice one: so much of our individual success is reliant on good information, advice and guidance.  We need to start from scratch and make this a national mission involving an army of employers to give young people better advice about planning their futures and making informed choices.

We need to pay more attention to nurturing character and resilience, creativity and critical thinking to turn out young people ready to be good citizens and agile workers. School budget cuts that threaten the performing arts are a risk to this goal.

But it’s not just the arts that matter. Mathematics and science become more important in this century, not less, and our current performance isn’t good enough. We need to rethink pedagogical approaches to these subjects, making computing a fourth core science to prepare our new generation of digital natives to be digital creators; and making financial literacy a key part of the curriculum to tackle our country’s lackadaisical approach to personal debt, savings and pensions.

SQUALOR

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Beveridge’s “squalor” referred to the physical state of the country, and 75 years on we must re-commit to sharing the gains of national wealth across every part of the country.

If we’re to improve productivity and increase our citizens’ life chances, then we must improve national infrastructure and housing.

As IPPR North’s State of the North report in 2015 identified, the government’s pipeline infrastructure projects in London amounted to some £22 billion – one fifth of all UK spending – with just £14 billion allocated across the whole North of England for an area of some 15 million people – twice the size of Scotland.

In transport, £4,300 per commuter is spent in London each year compared to just £710 per commuter in the North generally; down to £580 in the South West and just £480 in the East Midlands. 

Improving regional productivity demands fairer UK investment in infrastructure to enable economic activity, reduce journey times and include the most isolated and deprived communities.

That means supporting the commitment to high speed rail - built by British steel and including Liverpool and the North East as priorities - plus also improving existing inter-city networks especially east-west.

Intra-regional train and bus investment must be priorities, too.

A regional renaissance must be led from within our towns and cities through a real commitment to devolution rather than by trying to pull levers in Westminster and Whitehall.

As a local councillor as well as a Member of Parliament, I know that decisions are made best when they are made closest to the communities they affect.  We need a radical redistribution of power across all of England’s regions with a presumption in favour of ceding power and budgets into the hands of local communities.

That must include the freedom for local authorities to borrow to invest. This week’s Housing White Paper was another missed opportunity to solve the housing crisis. More tinkering. More warm words about speeding up the planning process, getting tough on developers and helping first time buyers. But this crisis is about simple supply and demand. Local authorities have a better track record of balancing their books than their paymasters in the Treasury. It’s time to set them free to invest in a new generation of decent homes to buy and rent.  

IDLENESS

So a modern Beveridge Report would address the modern manifestations of want, ignorance, squalor and disease. That brings me to ‘idleness’ and its modern manifestation: the huge question mark hanging over the future of work.

Voltaire said that “Work saves a man from three great evils: boredom, vice and need”. But what happens in a future where the jobs of men and women are taken by robots?

That sounds like something from science fiction, but it is increasingly science fact. The scale of technological development – not just of processes but of artificial intelligence – is running at a pace that we are struggling to keep up with. As I have mentioned, some estimates suggest that up to two thirds of jobs could be at risk from automation in the decades to come.

Anxiety about the impact of automation on jobs isn’t a new phenomenon.

In 1589 a disappointed William Lee was surprised to learn that Queen Elizabeth I refused to grant a patent for his stocking frame knitting machine because it would, in the words of the Queen, “assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars”.

In the 19th century the Luddite Rebellion saw skilled artisan workers across Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire destroy the machines that threatened their livelihood as textile workers.

And in the 1930s John Maynard Keynes warned of the phenomenon of technological unemployment.

What makes the new industrial revolution – dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution – so different from the past is not simply the scale and pace of technological advancement, but also the scope.

The development of technology and learning algorithms that can perform tasks previously thought to be quintessentially human, like the driverless car, has generated a lively debate about the possibilities and risks of such developments.

We might see output up, prices down, quality and abundance.

But as Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum, has argued “in addition to being a key economic concern, inequality represents the greatest societal concern associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. 

There is no doubt that this new industrial revolution and new age of automated capital will have a significant impact on the labour market.

As Professor Andrew McAfee of M.I.T. has argued, “we’re going to see more and more things that look like science fiction and fewer and fewer things that look like jobs”.

We need to learn from our experience of globalisation. The debate is not about whether we want automation: it’s happening. The question is, will we embrace it, or become victims of it.

We’re a nation of creators, innovators and performers. Breakthroughs in science and technology have enormous potential to improve quality of life for everyone - and to help us better share and protect our increasingly endangered natural environment. But it will create winners and losers.

We’ve got to plan now for the challenges ahead. We need to invest in education and skills to prepare people for the future world of work, put in place social protections for people who lose their jobs and helping them to re-skill and retrain, and support communities affected by the loss of traditional industry, to avoid the intergenerational scarring effect we’ve seen during the decline of traditional manufacturing and heavy industry in mining and steel towns. 

We have to use our international alliances to prevent a race to the bottom, with new global agreements on employment rights and protections, standards and pay. We have to tackling grotesque pay inequality by publishing pay ratios and putting workers’ representatives on company boards.

Most importantly, we need to make sure that Britain is well-placed to reap the benefits of this new industrial revolution by increasing substantially our investment in our science base so that the UK continues to punch above our weight in the world in terms of science and innovation.

We need to lead the world on climate change, too. It is one of the greatest threats to the human race. We’ve got to do more than just our bit at reducing emissions. We’ve got to lead the world in green technology and industries, building a circular economy and developing new technology to reduce energy and resource consumption.

Paying for all this will require some difficult choices, but I think it’s time we slayed some shibboleths in any event. It is already clear that a shrinking tax base and greater concentration of wealth in capital assets makes the debate about how we tax wealth more pressing. This isn’t just a question of how we fund our public services, it is a basic question of fairness.

There are people generating huge amounts of wealth through good luck, rather than hard work: just look at the explosion of house prices, creating a two tier economic model where people will inherit hundreds of thousands – or even millions – without lifting a finger.

It is one of the key drivers behind intergenerational inequality. So we should be developing a new model for taxing wealth, not simply income, worrying less about how we tax the dead and more about how we fund the living, and asking those who haven’t earned their money to hand a bit more of it over to help those who have.

None of this is particularly easy or popular, which is why it’s so easy for politicians to park issues in the box marked ‘too difficult’.

Politics, by its nature, is notoriously short-termist. But if we don’t wrestle with these issues now, we will pay a far greater price later. 

Which brings me right back to the politics of the referendum and the vote in the House of Commons last week.

I know many remain voters would have preferred Labour MPs like me to take to the trenches this week and oppose the triggering article 50 at every twist and turn.

But we have to face the facts: a majority of voters in a majority of constituencies voted to leave the EU.

I wish it wasn’t so. I put plenty of shoe leather into campaigning for a different result and I still believe we would be stronger, safer and better off inside the EU. But imagine for a moment what would have happened the morning after the House of Commons blocked the result of a referendum in which 33.5 million people had voted.

Britain would have been plunged into a constitutional crisis. People would have taken to the streets. Riots would have been a distinct possibility.

Theresa May would have been forced to call a general election in which remain or leave would be the only question.

And the result would not have been the overturning of the referendum result, it would be a very different Parliament committed to the hardest of hard Brexits.

Let me be absolutely clear. I do not doubt the integrity or passion of any of those people ringing MPs pleading with us to vote a different way.

But if people think that overturning a vote at the ballot box by a vote in the parliamentary lobbies would reverse the outcome – I am afraid they are kidding themselves.

This referendum was lost because of a coalition of voters.

Sure, there have always been committed Eurosceptics who wanted out come what may. But the referendum was won thanks to millions of people who simply felt left behind, who felt unheard and who wanted to send a clear message.

These are the people at the sharp end of globalisation: the victims of economic inequality and social injustice.

And those of us who campaigned in areas where people turned out in their droves to vote leave heard the same phrase repeated again and again in response to our argument that Leaving the EU would make them worse off.

They simply replied “things can’t get worse than this”.

Sneering at people who voted Leave, or dismissing them as ignorant is part of the problem.

Across western democracies we are already seeing the consequences of what happens when people abandon their faith in mainstream politics. These are the conditions in which fear and prejudice and hatred thrive.

The only way to change course is to change our country.There is no trick and no shortcut to achieve change.

In politics, firstly, you have to earn the right to be heard. For Labour that means showing that we’ve listened and understood why so many people feel that we’ve left them behind for so long.

Secondly, you have to earn people’s trust, by showing you’ve got the answers to address their worries and anxieties, their hopes and their aspirations for them and their families.

Thirdly, when you’ve gained that trust you have to deliver. It’s not about striking a radical pose, it’s about making a radical change. Not just honouring pledges and listing achievements at party conferences. But by constantly striving to do better and be better. 

All photos: Getty