The UK is facing one of the deepest economic and social crises in postwar history. Living standards are predicted to fall at the fastest rate since records began in 1956-57 as inflation is expected to surpass 10 per cent. From April to May, more than two million adults went without food for an entire day. Having already suffered one lost decade for living standards, Britain looks likely to endure another.
Meanwhile, even as the memory of Covid-19 recedes, the country still bears the scars of the pandemic. An overburdened NHS and social care system are struggling to meet post-lockdown demands: ambulance waiting times are at a record high (with 11,000 people forced to wait more than three hours before reaching A&E), there are more than half a million adults on waiting lists for social care and one in nine people in England are now on a waiting list for routine surgery.
In education, the pupils who suffered most from school closures during lockdown have been neglected. Two-thirds of British primary headteachers have warned of inadequate “catch-up” funding from the government, while a third have used pupil premium funds – money intended for the most disadvantaged children – to fill gaps in their budgets.
Yet, confronted by this battalion of woes, Westminster politics appears devoid of ideas and solutions. The Queen’s Speech on 10 May merely confirmed that Boris Johnson’s government now has no cause beyond its own survival. Having failed to justify his rhetoric of “levelling up”, the Prime Minister has resorted to populist clichés and reheated Thatcherism: slashing “red tape” (even as Brexit expands it), bashing Brussels, cutting civil service jobs and deporting asylum seekers.
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Mr Johnson is blessed with the largest Conservative parliamentary majority since 1987 but he shows no sign of knowing what to do with it. His government can point to achievements: one of the fastest and most successful Covid-19 vaccine roll-outs in the developed world and the laudable furlough scheme (which helped protect 11.7 million jobs in the depths of lockdown). But these policies have not been translated into a wider vision of the active state or the common good.
Far from supporting the most disadvantaged, Mr Johnson’s government has presided over punitive cuts in benefits and pensions (which rose by just 3.1 per cent despite inflation reaching 7 per cent). The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, insisted that “technical problems” meant some benefits could only be increased once a year. But as Deven Ghelani, who developed Universal Credit, told the New Statesman: “Where there is a will, there is a way. People on legacy benefits could be sent a one-off supplement.” As so often, what is lacking is not funding but political imagination and commitment.
In this arid climate, Labour should be advancing its own vision of national renewal. Yet even before Keir Starmer pledged to resign if he is fined by the police for breaking lockdown rules, the party appeared becalmed. Where is the radicalism and sense of national mission that animated the Attlee, Wilson and Blair governments?
Labour MPs and aides contend that the party should give little away before a general election for fear of unsettling swing voters or gifting a moribund administration new ideas. But unless the party provides an attractive and compelling programme, the risk is that the public will resign themselves to perpetual Conservative rule in England, if not Scotland and Wales.
A contrast with Mr Starmer’s stolid Labour is provided by Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, who, as Andrew Marr writes, is “flaming with energy about the need to rewire the whole country, get rid of the House of Lords, change the voting system and embrace a new economic and tax system based on wealth and land, rather than incomes”. Mr Burnham would use the latter to fund a National Care Service – a Beveridge-style project for this century – and has argued for a Universal Basic Income to boost people’s financial resilience.
For too long, the UK has avoided the transformative change that its economic, social and constitutional dysfunction necessitates. Britain is trapped in a deadly cycle in which the paucity of change – the antiquated House of Lords being a prime example – serves only to confirm its impossibility. As poverty grows in the country, the biggest danger at Westminster is the poverty of ideas.
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This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato