A volunteers sorts through donations of food at the Hammersmith and Fulham food bank run by the Trussell Trust. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Leader: The wealth and poverty of our nation

Social ills that were thought to have been eradicated by modern capitalism are returning. But none of this is inevitable. 

By at least one measure, the United Kingdom has never been better off. GDP is 3.4 per cent above its pre-recession peak, owing to statistical revisions and a year in which the economy grew faster than that of any other G7 country. But rarely has the disparity between the wealth of the nation and the wealth of its citizens been greater.

Social ills that were thought to have been eradicated by modern capitalism are recrudescing. The number of people reliant on food banks to avoid hunger has reached more than a million. There are 60,940 households living in temporary accommodation because of homelessness. And, for the first time, the number of working families living in poverty has outstripped the number of workless and retired ones doing so.

In a 1933 radio debate on the austerity that followed the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes declared: “Look after unemployment and the Budget will look after itself.” By this, the great economist meant that the government would be wiser to stimulate job creation – and reap the tax receipts that result – than to cut spending in an attempt to reduce debt. Unemployment fell faster in 2014 than any major forecaster expected (from 7.6 per cent to 6.0 per cent) and employment rose to a near-record level of 73 per cent. But the Budget has not looked after itself. The deficit so far this financial year is 6 per cent higher than in 2013-14. Borrowing has failed to fall because work is no longer a guarantee of an adequate standard of living and, therefore, of rising tax revenues.

Rather than the mass unemployment of the 1930s, the UK today faces a crisis of mass underemployment. There are over 1.3 million people working part-time because they cannot find full-time work, with many of the 4.52 million classified as self-employed also lacking the hours they need. In his 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren”, Keynes sought to counter the pessimism of the time by predicting that rising living standards and technological advancements would enable individuals to devote ever less time to their labour. “For the first time since his creation,” he wrote, “man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

Many are indeed working the short hours that Keynes prophesied but are never free from “pressing economic cares”. Others can meet their needs only by working longer than almost any of their western counterparts. Too many have time for leisure but no money for it, while others have money but no time.

These are some of the defining economic problems confronting Britain. For George Osborne, however, it is the deficit that demands attention above all. The Chancellor has made it his mission, if the Conservatives win the general election, to achieve an overall Budget surplus by the end of the next parliament. He has pledged to do so without further tax rises, including on the wealthiest, a commitment that entails what the Institute for Fiscal Studies has described as “colossal” cuts to public spending. Reductions of this size would shrink the state to its lowest level as a share of GDP since the 1930s, resulting in a profound shift in its duties and responsibilities. The safety net for the poorest would be eroded as welfare benefits were frozen in real terms, offering those on low incomes no protection against inflation. Britain would become a less just and an even more unequal society.

However, there is nothing inevitable about this path. The deficit can be reduced over time through a combination of judicious spending cuts, progressive tax rises and economic growth. Rather than ideologically pursuing a Budget surplus, the state should borrow to invest in pro-growth areas that support lasting prosperity, such as infrastructure, skills, job creation and childcare. It should focus on prevention rather than cure, by switching spending from housing benefit to housebuilding and by incentivising the use of the living wage, rather than subsidising poverty wages. If the short-term costs are higher, so are the long-term savings. To end the avoidable misery of poverty and to create the conditions for human flourishing, Britain must follow this alternative path.

We wish all our readers the very best for 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage