At the launch of the paperback edition of my biography of Aneurin Bevan last month, I was asked whether Bevan would recognise modern politics. Sadly, I fear that he would find the challenges of 2016 to be very similar to those that confronted him in the 1930s after he was first elected to Parliament in May 1929.
Only five months after Bevan was elected came the Wall Street Crash, which was followed by the Great Depression: over a decade of deep poverty and high unemployment. As families then were left having to rely on soup kitchens, today hundreds of thousands have had to rely on foodbanks. Today, there is the crisis of youth unemployment, insecure employment with trade union rights denuded and zero-hours contracts writ large, endemic low pay, and totally unacceptable levels of child poverty. According to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2015 Annual Report, 2.3 million children live in poverty, 1.5 million of whom are in working households because “their working parents do not earn enough to secure a basic standard of living.”
Bevan frequently attacked the Conservative-dominated “National Government” of the 1930s on its record on poverty, and in particular, its so-called “Means Test”. Speaking in the House of Commons on 14 November 1932, Bevan said it sought to “drive the unemployed to such a condition of destitution as will make it easier to reduce the standards of life for the working classes of this country.” Introduced in September 1931, the effect of the “Means Test” was to ensure that those who sought to claim unemployment benefit had to use up the income of other family members before claiming what was then called “transitional benefit” – the money available after the 15-week entitlement period under National Insurance had passed. This meant that families had to suffer the indignity of intrusive investigations into their household finances.
Such intrusions are, alas, not only part of history. Family life is still under the government microscope today. For example, if a son or daughter moves away from home to find work, even on a temporary basis, suddenly the room left behind at home can become subject to the bedroom tax. Worse still, the government is willing to defend the bedroom tax into the last ditch in very particular family circumstances, conceding that it is discriminatory in the process.
On 27 January, 2016, the Court of Appeal ruled that the bedroom tax was discriminatory in two cases that had come before it: “For the reasons we have given, we will allow the appeals in both cases on the ground that the admitted discrimination in each case…has not been justified by the Secretary of State [for Work and Pensions].” Those involved in the two cases are Sue and Paul Rutherford, the grandparents of a disabled child needing overnight care; and a woman whose house has had a “panic room” installed to protect her from a violent former partner. This extraordinary “admitted discrimination” was highlighted by Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Owen Smith MP, in his urgent question in Parliament on the issue, but this did not stop the government challenging the decision in the UK Supreme Court. “The capacity for emotional concern for individual life is the most significant quality of a civilized human being.” Aneurin Bevan’s words, written in his only book, In Place of Fear, in 1952, are still relevant today.