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19 June 2024

Confronting the crisis of the commons

Britain has become a society that denies the most basic obligations we have towards one another.

By Grace Blakeley

After 14 years of Conservative government, what kind of society have we become?

The Tories have presided over the first parliament in modern history in which living standards have fallen. Absolute poverty has risen at the fastest rate in 30 years, and now affects one quarter of children in the UK. Britain’s public services have collapsed into a state of disrepair. In England, 42 per cent of patients are waiting more than four hours in A&E, and in 2023 a shocking 1.5 million patients waited for more than 12 hours.

Adult’s and children’s social care are also in crisis, and both take up an increasing share of local authority budgets, leaving fewer resources available for other local services. Case backlogs are at record highs in the criminal justice system, prisons are overflowing, and schools are struggling to recruit and retain qualified teachers.

But the UK’s economic and political challenges run deeper than rising poverty and the abysmal state of public services. Productivity has grown just 0.4 per cent annually since 2008 – less than half the rate of the 25 wealthiest OECD economies. Economic inactivity due to long-term illness has reached a record high of 7 per cent of the working-age population. Faith in democracy is at all-time lows. Just 9 per cent of people in the UK say they trust politicians to tell the truth, and only 12 per cent say they trust any of the political parties.

Together with intensifying climate catastrophe, these issues amount to a collapse of the commons. The physical and social infrastructure upon which we all rely to live healthy, prosperous lives, and which binds us together as a society, is unravelling. This crisis can be attributed to years of austerity, which has stripped billions of pounds worth of resources out of the public sector. But its origins go further back in political history.

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When Margaret Thatcher announced that there was “no such thing as society” she was paving the way for the privatisation of risk and responsibility that undergirds our current crisis. Where risks such as ill-health, unemployment and homelessness were once socialised, they are now privatised.

If you find yourself out of work, you’ll be plunged into poverty – more than half of people in receipt of Universal Credit can’t afford enough food. Unable to rely on welfare, many recipients must rely on a bank or a payday lender – 2.3 million families have had to take on debt to pay bills during the cost-of-living crisis. And if those debt repayments mean you’re no longer able to afford your rent, you’ll lose the roof over your head – the UK now has by far the highest rate of homelessness in the developed world.

Meanwhile, the rewards of economic growth that were once socialised, are now privatised. Landlords and developers have reaped the gains from rising house prices, driven by the privatisation of the UK’s housing stock. Executives have benefited from the hard work of their employees, with FTSE CEOs paid more in three days than the average person earns in a year. And the cost-of-living crisis produced exorbitant profits for powerful firms – profits that were transferred out of the pockets of stretched consumers and into those of wealthy shareholders.

There is some hope that a new Labour government will fix these problems. Thirty-five per cent of voters say they trust Labour to deal with the cost-of-living crisis, and 43 per cent think Labour would be the best party to handle the crisis in the NHS.

But no one knows exactly how Labour intends to deal with these challenges. Nearly 70 per cent of voters couldn’t name a single Labour policy. 

Labour has tied its own hands when it comes to managing the economy. The party’s fiscal rules commit it to balancing the books over the course of its first five-year term, and the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has pledged not to raise taxes on big businesses or the wealthy. This means that Labour will not be able to repair the commons by increasing public spending. In fact, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has claimed that Labour’s fiscal proposals would require deep cuts to public spending.

There are obvious short-term risks associated with failing to fix the crisis of the commons. The collapse in adult’s and children’s social care creates more pressure on the NHS. A failing health service will lead to greater numbers of people exiting the workforce due to poor mental or physical health. A creaking education system will create an under-skilled workforce, exacerbating the problem of low productivity. The longer-term challenges are even more profound. A society that privatises risk is a society that denies the most basic obligations we have towards one another. It is a society of falling trust, rising anxiety and simmering rage. We only have to look over the English Channel to see where this tide of anger and uncertainty will lead.

This article is part of the series “How to fix a nation

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