One nation? Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Where's the letter from 100 people living in poverty?

The election debate will be dominated by business leaders, bond markets, the Health Service and the public finances. The poor have been written out of the script.

Despite George Osborne’s recent claims, poverty in Britain is growing. Driven by an increasingly fragile jobs market, the rise of insecure work and a more punitive benefits culture, poverty levels have been rising for a generation.  Whatever measure is used, poverty levels are much higher than in the 1970s. They are also close to double the average of other rich countries.

Deprivation levels are higher today than in the late 1990s. Today more households live in a damp home while three times as many cannot afford to heat their home adequately. The numbers who skimp on meals is at a 30 year high. The poorest fifth in Britain are 40% poorer than their counterparts in Germany and 30% poorer than in France.

Britain is an increasingly divided nation. While affluence, comfort and an array of choice is the norm for many sections of society, daily hardship and struggle is the lot of a large and growing cluster of the population.  Close to a third  (more than three out of five them in work) not only lack a range of key, publicly-defined necessities, but suffer multiple, related problems as well, from damaged health, fragile finances and declining work and housing opportunities. On current trends this great divide in living standards is set to worsen over the next five years. Britain is now close to the American model, extreme affluence aside growing and deepening hardship, with the poorest facing a declining prospect of progressing beyond the barest of living standards.  

Growing affluence for most is, remarkably, associated with rising, rather than falling, hardship for a significant and growing minority.  This inverse relationship is being is driven by surging inequality, with the gains from growth over the last thirty bypassing the poorest, colonised instead by the top 1 percent and playing havoc with jobs, pay, housing and life chances for the poorest.

Ministers gloss over the realities of modern life for millions while creating a political culture that is more anti-poor rather than anti-poverty. Despite this, poverty is barely an election issue.  In the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher banned her cabinet and civil servants from using the ‘P` word.  Despite Michael Gove’s call on his party to become ‘warriors against the dispossessed`, the poor are again being written out of the political script.

In 2010, all the parties signed up to the 2010 Child Poverty Act, with its legal obligation to cutting poverty levels by 2020.  Yet in Government the coalition parties have simply ignored the Act and tried to redefine poverty levels downwards while dismissing rising deprivation as self-inflicted.

After the war, economic and social policy was guided by the ‘distribution question’. Yet the once central question of how we divide the cake – dismissed as ‘poisonous’ by one leading pro-market thinker  -  has simply been eliminated from economic thinking.  Today there is plenty of talk about inequality, but neither of the major parties has a clear strategy for closing the gap and reversing the rising poverty tide. Despite Gove’s call, the Conservatives promise a further weakening of Britain’s increasingly patchy safety net. Labour will slow the pace of retrenchment in welfare spending while offering a modest increase in the minimum wage and a bit more tax on the rich. Over the next five years, the existing anti-poor and pro-rich social and economic system is thus set to remain intact, still programmed to steer more and more of the cake to the wealthy few

If we are to reverse the rising poverty tide, we need a new direction, one that steers more of the cake to profits and less to wages, one that ends the culture of entitlement still at work in the City and company boardrooms and that tackles the issue of the over-concentration of private ownership in the UK. This means a much more direct challenge to the entrenched corporate and financial vested interests that continue to dictate large chunks of economic policy, while diminishing wider life chances.  

Poverty and inequality are two of the most urgent issues of the day. Yet, in today’s climate of political inertia, with its bias to the status quo and its fear of radical change, the kind of policies that would make a real difference are not even part of the election debate. Until that inertia is challenged, and the talk turned to action, poverty and inequality will continue to intensify.

Stewart Lansley is the author (with Joanna Mack) of Breadline Britain, The Rise of Mass Poverty, Oneworld.

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Scottish Nationalist ranks

The First Minister is facing pressure to talk less about independence - and bring on new talent in her party.

She so recently seemed all-powerful, licensed to reign for as long as she chose, with the authority to pursue the return of our national sovereignty. We would then have the ability to strike our own deals on our own terms, a smaller, smarter, leaner nation freed from the stifling constraints of partnership with a much larger neighbour. There was, she repeatedly told us, nothing to be afraid of.

Now, suddenly, she is the victim of her own miscalculation: having misread the public mood, having raced too far ahead of moderate opinion, she finds herself at bay. The voters have delivered a public humiliation, while an opposition party until recently lampooned as unelectable is on the march. There is, suddenly, talk of her departure sooner rather than later.

Yes, this is a tough time to be Nicola Sturgeon…

Let’s not overstate it. The position of Scotland’s First Minister is considerably more secure than that of the UK’s Prime Minister. Theresa May wants out as soon as is feasible; Sturgeon, one suspects, will have to be dragged from Bute House. Sturgeon retains enough respect among the public and support among her colleagues to plough on for now. Nevertheless, things are not what they were before the general election and are unlikely ever to return to that happy state.

It’s all because of Scexit, of course. Sturgeon’s unseemly sprint for the indy finishing line left enough Scottish voters feeling… what? Mistreated, taken for granted, rushed, patronised, bullied… so much so that they effectively used June 8 to deliver a second No vote. With the idea of another referendum hanging around like a bad headache, the electorate decided to stage an intervention. In just two years, Sturgeon lost 40 per cent of her Westminster seats and displaced half a million votes. One could almost argue that, by comparison, Theresa May did relatively well.

For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Nationalist ranks. Tommy Sheppard, a former Labour Party official who is now an influential left-wing SNP MP, published an article immediately after the general election calling on the First Minister to ‘park’ a second referendum until the Brexit negotiations are complete. There are others who believe the party should rediscover its talent for the long game: accept the public mood is unlikely to change much before the 2021 devolved elections, at which point, even if the Nats remain the single largest party, Holyrood might find itself with a unionist majority; concentrate on improving the public services, show what might be done with all the powers of an independent nation, and wait patiently until the numbers change.

There are others – not many, but some – who would go further. They believe that Sturgeon should take responsibility for the election result, and should be looking to hand over to a new generation before 2021. The old guard has had its shot and its time: a party with veterans such as Sturgeon, John Swinney and Mike Russell in the key jobs looks too much like it did 20 years ago. Even the new Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, has been on the scene for donkey’s. There are more who believe that the iron grip the First Minister and her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, have on the party is unhealthy – that Murrell should carry the can for the loss of 21 MPs, and that he certainly would have done so if he weren’t married to the boss.

The most likely outcome, given what we know about the First Minister’s nature, is that she will choose something like the Sheppard route: talk less about independence for the next 18 months, see what the Brexit deal looks like, keep an eye on the polls and if they seem favourable go for a referendum in autumn 2019. The question is, can a wearied and increasingly cynical public be won round by then? Will people be willing to pile risk upon risk?

As the hot takes about Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election performance continue to flood in, there has been a lot of attention given to the role played by young Britons. The issues of intergenerational unfairness, prolonged austerity and hard Brexit, coupled with Corbyn’s optimistic campaigning style, saw a sharp rise in turnout among that demographic. Here, Scotland has been ahead of the curve. In the 2014 referendum, the Yes campaign and its can-do spirit of positivity inspired huge enthusiasm among younger Scots. Indeed, only a large and slightly panicked defensive response from over-65s saved the union.

That brush with calamity seems to have been close enough for many people: many of the seats taken from the Nats by the Scottish Tories at the general election were rural, well-to-do and relatively elderly. The modern electorate is a fickle thing, but it remains rational. The Corbynites, amid their plans for total world domination and their ongoing festival of revenge, might bear that in mind.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

0800 7318496