Author Archives: Katharine Pindar

Tell the young: look to the Lib Dems not Labour for progressive politics

The Labour Party appears now to be following a Tory-light policy. Keir Starmer has ditched the £28 bn pledge to follow Green policies, regardless of the needs of young people to be able to consider their many years to come of living with climate change with some hope. And of their immediate extreme needs, for decent and affordable housing, it is the Young Liberals who strengthened the Lib Dem housing policy passed at Bournemouth last September (F31, ‘Tackling the housing crisis’) with a demand for thousands more social dwellings to be built.

On taxation, the two main parties seem to be converging, despite the Tories’ greater inclination (not fulfilled) to cut taxes. Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chancellor, will keep to modest projected spending, obeying the same fiscal rules as the Government. The Tories have stolen the Labour proposed taxing of Non-Doms policy to help find funds for the NHS, and the Labour response is only to close the policy’s loopholes, such as not allowing a half-year pause before taxation begins. What other measures can Ms Reeves take? She plans to tackle tax avoidance, apparently, by greatly adding to the numbers of HMRC staff to investigate it. Since 56% of the tax avoidance is supposed to be from small businesses, the owners of such businesses must fear where her demands will light. Her aim is to cut the tax gap by £5bn by the end of the next parliament by that means. She has no policies for major gains from taxation despite the vast needs of our country today.

The one major objective to which both parties are adhering, to avoid adding to the National Debt through extra borrowing and increased taxation, is a questionable one. The required growth of GDP, set back by the limitations of Brexit, can only come from major investment, with government backing for example businesses utilising new technology, and greater promotion of industries increasing wind, tidal and solar power.

It is our party which is up to the job. In our councils up and down the country, Liberal Democrats are grappling with the problems caused by the deficiencies of funding for the hospitals, local government services, the pay of carers and of teachers, and for house building. The policies passed at our conferences demand better provision to meet the many national needs of our run-down country, and we are not afraid to demand the taxes necessary to pay for them.

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Polly, the Liberal Democrats are on the case already

In the Guardian on Tuesday (February 27) Polly Toynbee wrote a powerful Opinion piece entitled (in the print version), ‘The Tories have miscalculated: Britons do care about poverty’. Quoting the Institute for Public Policy Research’s figures, that despite the increase in the local housing allowance from April, more than 800,000 renting households receiving housing benefit will still have to fund the gap between their rent and their benefit, Polly also cites a new Action for Children report finding that many families are falling below the breadline, even when both parents work full-time on the minimum wage.

‘The gap between what universal credit provides and what a family needs to survive is growing by the month’, she reports, with Citizens Advice apparently counting 5 million people trapped ‘on a negative budget’, with incomes that will never cover their bills, and 2.35 million going hungry. This ‘national emergency’, so named by the Child Poverty Action Group, has escalated sharply in the last two years.

It was in the York Spring Conference last year that our party passed motion F12, ‘Towards a Fairer Society’. This was based on the policy paper 150 of the same name, drawn up by a party policy working group in the previous winter. The motion states that Conference welcomes the paper’s proposals to ‘End deep poverty, including a radical overhaul of the welfare system, so no family ever has to use a food bank in Britain, by

  1. Taking immediate steps to repair the safety net, including restoring the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, introducing emergency grants (not loans) and stopping deducting debt repayments at unaffordable rates and
  2. Following this up in the longer term with fundamental reforms to the welfare system’.

Conference then decided to introduce a Guaranteed Basic Income by increasing Universal Credit to the level required to end deep poverty within a decade and removing sanctions. It was already party policy to remove the benefit cap.

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Poverty in the UK is deepening – how should Lib Dems respond?

Poverty in the UK is deepening.

We knew this, we can see it all around us in the rise of expanded food banks, the active community charities, the special price reductions on basic supermarket foods and the increase of homelessness. But now Joseph Rowntree Foundation in its annual report on poverty levels reveals the grim facts.

More than one in five people in the UK, 22%. 14.4 million, are living in poverty, having less than 60% of the UK average for the type of household they are in after adjusting for housing costs. And 6 million of them were in very deep poverty at the last count, having less than 40% of the UK average – a category that has increased by 1.5m over the past two decades.

The report says:

A couple with two children under 14 living in very deep poverty would need an additional £12,800 a year – more than double their household income – to get out of poverty.

Of the 14.4 million people living in poverty, 8.1 million were working age adults, 4.2 million were children, and 2.1 million were pensioners. Around three in every ten children in the UK live in poverty, and the proportion rose between 20/21 and 21/22, as did overall poverty. The report says that poverty rates across the different groups has returned to around their pre-Pandemic levels.

Of the different groups affected, informal carers were much more likely that those households with no caring responsibilities to be living in poverty: 28% compared with 20%. In 2021/2 nearly one in ten adults, 4.8 million people, were informal carers.

Around two-thirds of working age adults in poverty lived in a household where someone was in work, evidently unable to get out of poverty through employment.

Among the worst affected groups were Pakistani and Bangladeshi households, around half of whom were living in poverty, compared with 19% of households headed by someone of white ethnicity.

After recording these grave findings, the Report says:

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Make it known – we are a party of CAN-DO and Care

Liberal Democrats care about our country’s problems. We have solutions for them. And we know how to pay for them.

A new Labour Government coming this year? They are going to need our help. And what they failed to address in their manifesto; we will need to persuade them to fix.

Some of our country’s worst problems were brought home to me in a Guardian front-page story last Friday.  It was reporting on a survey from MDDUS, a medical defence organisation, of 1671 doctors from the four home nations. The survey found that 65% of doctors overall, including nearly four in five GPs, had been experiencing ‘moral distress’ because of the situations they had encountered in their NHS work. The leader of the BMA, Professor Philip Banfield said, “There’s barely a doctor at work in the NHS today who doesn’t see or experience this distress on a daily basis.” It is because the NHS is “impossibly overstretched”, with its thousands of vacancies for doctors and has a quarter fewer doctors per head of population than Germany. “In practice”, he continues, “that means we can almost never give the standard of care we would want, only ever the care we can manage.” This causes doctors the ‘moral distress’ described, and affects their own mental health.

The research shows that doctors are aware of how the cost of living crisis is damaging many patients’ health, with the long waits for treatment, and the facts of poverty or bad housing making people ill.

Backing this analysis up – as covered in the same Guardian edition – Citizens Advice has reported record numbers of people needing homeless services, food banks and energy bill support this past year. They referred more people to food banks and other charities between January and November this year – 208,000, more than in the whole of 2022 – and helped record numbers of people unable to top up their energy prepayment meters, together with record numbers of homeless people – 41,554 of them in 2023, up by 17% from the number in 2022.

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Our party has nothing to lose by being bold now

It has seemed as if our party leaders may have been hanging back from committing the party to radical policies which we hold, such as the pledge to build 380,000 new houses, reasserted at the Bournemouth Conference after a Young Liberal amendment, and the policy passed at the Spring York Conference to tackle poverty in general and end deep poverty within ten years through the establishment of Guaranteed Basic Income.

Lack of commitment by the leadership to promote these policies, together with the announcement of ending our policy to add 1p on income tax to pay for investment in the NHS and social care, seem to suggest a fear of putting forward radical policies which will cost large amounts of taxation to implement.

The Labour Party seems to be holding back similarly on costly proposals, but it is understandable that they would fear Tory equating of them with the expensive policies of the former leader Jeremy Corbyn if they promote them, while pointing out that British citizens are already highly taxed. We have no such need to be silent.

The electorate is unlikely to be making any such comparison with our policies, which have been found to be properly costed in our previous Manifestos. People may instead well be disappointed not to have, both a clearer idea of Liberal Democrat policies, and especially, knowledge of those which sound most relevant to them.

Where our policies may coincide with Labour’s, moreover, perhaps they are borrowing our ideas: Sir Keir Starmer is now announcing a policy to build several New Towns, while Liberal Democrats already have a policy to build ten!  There are areas in which our policies may sensibly dovetail with theirs – possibly in the areas of NHS funding and development, where new plans are so much needed.

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It’s time for Liberal Democrats to fight for the worst-off in our country

Are we not already doing so? You may think so. The Pre-Manifesto motion passed at Bournemouth, F23 For a Fair Deal, demands in lines 93-94, ‘Repair the broken benefits social net and set a target of ending deep poverty within a decade.’

But the Media reporting the Conference didn’t attend to that part of the motion. And the Labour Party which we should surely be aiming to influence will remain unaware – unless we shout about that policy, which centres on our pledge at York to bring in a Guaranteed Basic Income and begin tackling poverty and ending the need for food banks within a decade. None of which will be known until we shout about it.

Meantime, the Tories are rampant in readiness actually to attack the poor. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, was quoted in Saturday’s Times as intending measures which would penalise the poorest. He said that the government was looking to overhaul the benefits system, which he described as “incredibly damaging to the economy and individuals.” He claimed that 100,000 people a year were moving off work into benefits “without any obligation to look for work”. That is patently untrue, because people claiming Universal Credit will be obliged to seek work to obtain the benefits if they are of working age and not unable to work for health reasons.

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Surviving not living?

It was shocking to hear Prime Minister Rishi Sunak say again at Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesday, as he said before, that there are fewer people living in poverty in this country today thanks to Conservative governments. He will not face the fact that poverty is actually worsening for millions of people in the UK.

Last week an independent cross-party group called the Poverty Strategy Commission reported that six million low-income families are ‘surviving not living’, forced to endure unacceptable levels of poverty. The report, an interim one A New Framework for Tackling Poverty, states in its Foreword that:

Poverty in the UK is too high, and the experiences of many people in poverty are now getting worse.

In the Executive summary it continues,

Despite significant action from governments of all colours, particularly over the last three decades, the overall rate of poverty in the UK has remained stubbornly high, (with) a third of children in poverty, and 7% of the population in deep poverty.

It adds,

Deep poverty has become more prevalent.

They write,

… a social contract does not currently actually exist in the UK. However, broad principles of an implicit social contract can be inferred from existing government policy choices.

They also state that benefits are set at a level that are insufficient for those who rely on them to avoid poverty.

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A distinctly Liberal viewpoint

Did our Leader Ed Davey in Conference, and can we as members on the doorsteps, explain a distinctly Liberal point of view?

Ed told us we should say that we stand for a fair deal, and are decent politicians who care about you. We perhaps confirmed that at Conference with the passage particularly of the F24 motion, A Fairer, Greener, More Caring Society, which was built on the Themes policy paper.

Liberalism is certainly not populism, but we Lib Dems do incline to believe that a large proportion of the British public share our moderate, centrist views, together with our belief that the State is needed to enable all citizens to have the chance of secure, healthy and fulfilling lives. We don’t believe in the centralised over-powerful State sought by Socialism, nor the small-state attitude of Conservatism.

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“Invest in people and their communities”

This is the call of the Health Foundation charity in its final report this month from a long-running enquiry into the impact of COVID-19. Calling on the Government to address the root causes of poor health, the report makes clear that the investment required into people and communities will involve jobs, housing, and education, plus action to ‘level up’ health.

In the report, they say;

The pandemic has revealed stark differences in the health of the working age population – those younger than 65 in the poorest 10% of areas in England were almost four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those in the wealthiest. Recovery needs to prioritise creating opportunities for good health – a vital asset needed to ‘level up’ and rebuild the UK recovery.

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Can we follow up the by-election by ‘showing steel’?

Leading Tory commentator and former MP Matthew Parris commented in his last Saturday’s Times column on our party’s appeal in the by-election to people he sees as decent, middle-of-the road Conservatives who have a ‘distaste’ for Boris Johnson. However, he complained that our party avoids hard choices, “wobbles off the highway into the ditch of localism, neighbourhood grumbles, government intervention and ‘whatever your gripe is (its) ours too”.

He even rudely accuses us of having “a big yellow streak” beyond our orange bird, and says that to have a fighting chance at the next election we will need to “learn to show steel, to say no to someone, something, anything …”

The choices of Mr Parris, who voted Lib Dem at the last election but only, he says, out of ‘repulsion’ at the alternatives, are not those of Centre-Left Liberal Democrats, but I suggest he makes good points. We do tend to assume that with our excellent principles and good policies, Middle England only needs to know about them to support them. Yet even to the educated middle-classes we can easily appear ‘Labour-lite’ or else too Conservative-friendly offending adherents of either big party, or else so indefinite that supporting the Greens who appear definitely right for these times is an easier choice for the politically homeless. The old slogan of being anti-Brexit and pro-Europe isn’t sufficient now.

Where do we stand on free trade, people could ask us? We can’t give the clear-cut answer which our nineteenth-century forbears could. So what can we be definite about?

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The Pause: hardest part to deal with

These weeks after the Super Thursday’s elections can be difficult to handle, whether you were elated by success, deflated by lack of it, or partly arriving where you want to be. Our mostly steady-as-you-go results are challenging but can also feel rather trying, both locally and nationally.

Locally, we have to get on dutifully with Liberal Democrat President Mark Pack’s blog post: ‘9 things you must do to wrap things up properly after an election’. But the questions arise straight away and require hard thinking: How can we build from victory? How can we rise from defeat? Or, if it’s No Change, how to motivate the troops and keep activity going?

This can feel exhausting. Thoughts arise of taking a holiday now instead, or at least organising some trips to see family or friends shut off from us for so long by the Pandemic.  But yet we can’t shut out the plight of our Covid-ridden country because the victims are right here.

The latest for whom our concern is needed may be people in our neighbourhood renting their homes. Half a million private-sector renters were behind with their rent, Citizens Advice reported in January, and debt charity StepChange estimates that 150,000 tenants are in danger of eviction, yet the Government’s freeze on evictions is due to stop at the end of this month. That is a problem clearly requiring urgent campaigning and probable local supportive action.

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Which kind of equality do the Lib Dems value most?

Considering here just everyone living in Britain, all of whom Liberal Democrats value, what kind of equality should we seek for them? And what matters most for public policy?

Equality of treatment in health and social care, I suppose we expect and the nation demands, not just our party. So far there is no disagreement. But equality of educational opportunity for all children and young people? We haven’t got that in our country, far from it. For Liberal Democrats to campaign for it when we aren’t prepared to reduce the privileges of the private schools perhaps limits our efforts, but we will surely try to help.

Do we seek equality of income for all? Hardly. Or of wealth ownership? Scarcely. But we do want nobody to live in poverty. 

Then, how about equal freedom for everyone to have satisfying lives? Yes, certainly. Equal freedom to ensure our children have good lives? Yes, surely. However, both those last two aspects of equality depend on freedom, which to me is the greatest good.

Well, equality is a Liberal Democrat value as well as freedom. We as a party wanted everyone to have the equal provision of a basic citizens’ income when we passed the UBI motion at the last Conference. However, is it not possible, if that is the only income-related equality we seek, that the nation might in achieving it become more unequal? Because there could be large swathes of the working-age population in future subsisting on the basic income, whether out of necessity or to relish the freedom it represents. Perhaps we will stop trying to help everyone who wants a job to find one. Perhaps we will stop bothering about them not having a home of their own, rented or privately owned? Well, no, you will say, of course we want everyone to have a secure and affordable home – equality in that. So housing benefit must continue.

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United we stand. How Lib Dems can help keep us all united.

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To claim that ‘we’ are united when a majority of Scots are now apparently favouring independence seems controversial. But 85% of the UK population is English, and even the minority populations do seem to share a certain unity.

Compare our national spirit with that of Americans today. The new US President has to restore unity in a country where 74 million people voted for his populist predecessor who was prepared to tear up democracy there. Also compare it with the bitter divisions we remember too well in our own country in 2019 – families and friends divided, parties split, Brexiteers forcing through the increasingly doubtful will of the people who wanted to leave, and Remainers failing to find a consensus to fight Brexit.

Instead, in the past eleven months we have been united, forced together by pretty universal anxiety. Everyone has had a single united first aim, to save our hospitals and defeat Covid 19. Political dissent has been minor, opposition parties only criticising the late and contradictory responses of the government, plus the failures of the test-and-trace rollout and the confused messaging over school-teaching and exams. There has certainly been some harsh criticism, and a demand for enquiry by our own Leader, but there is a joint will in the country to defeat this plague and resume as normal a life as possible as soon as we can.

What is this normal life we want? No strong movement has emerged to urge change from what we accept as normal life. Change has been gradual. Much on-line shopping and working from home are likely to continue, with consequent modifications to home and work communities. As a national community we have stayed together, most people keeping the rules as they keep changing, with only minor questioning of the restriction of civil liberties and how far Parliament is endorsing the rules, while government ministers claim always to follow the science and trot out the scientists to prove it. There seems to be a national consensus at least that the hospitals must be protected and that the schools must be open as much as possible.

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The time is now for planning Beveridge-2

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Post-Covid and after the delivery of Brexit, our country needs radical reforms of the kind Sir William Beveridge proposed for the end of the Second World War. He wanted a comprehensive programme of reforms, to cover the social injustice and unfairness he saw around him. The reforms should result in alleviating poverty, limiting disease, stopping homelessness, improving education and providing jobs for everyone who needed them.

These are the areas in which radical reform is needed again today. The social contract that existed between government and people in the post-war world has broken down and requires renewing. The Liberal Democrats as the heirs of the Liberal Beveridge are uniquely well placed to demand a new Beveridge-type reform plan.

A business motion has now been sent to the Conference Committee for possible debate at our March Conference. Entitled Beveridge-2 Plan within a Social Contract, it calls for the party to pursue a campaign for a Beveridge-type Plan of radical reforms. The Plan should seek solutions for all the social ills which afflict our country and which have worsened so much recently. It must focus on relieving the growing poverty and restoring full employment, on providing integrated and sufficient health and social care, on ensuring that there are enough homes including social housing available at affordable cost, and on remedying the growing deficiencies of education for all children.

The motion proposes a radical way forward to create the Plan. It requires the party to immediately establish a Commission, to consider urgently how our policies may be grouped and developed to constitute the new Plan, asking progressive politicians and academics to contribute to it. The Commission would then report to Conference next autumn on how the work is developing, with a recommendation that the Policy Committee develop a Consultation paper on the Plan for the Spring Conference next year.

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Build Back Fairer: the new mantra for now

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This title is about health equity issues, however, not building better houses. Professor Sir Michael Marmot, author of the Marmot Review – Health Equity in England Ten Years On which was published in February this year, has led a follow-up study called Build Back Fairer: The Covid-19 Marmot Review.

The new report highlights how inequalities in social-economic conditions before the pandemic contributed to the high and unequal death toll from Covid-19.

The enduring social and economic inequalities in society mean that the health of the public was threatened before and during the pandemic and will be after. Just as we needed better management of the nation’s health during the pandemic, so we need national attention to the causes of health inequalities.

Professor Marmot is as unflattering here about the present state of affairs as he was in his ten-year report. He writes, “Poor management of the pandemic was of a piece with England’s health improvement falling behind that with other rich countries in the decade since 2010”. That, he recalled, was for several reasons including that “the quality of governance and political culture did not give priority to the conditions for good health”, that there was increasing inequality in economic and social conditions, a rise in poverty among families with children, plus a policy of austerity and consequent cuts to funding of public services.

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Our party can seize on the spirit of the times

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Liberalism’s answer to populism, I believe, is to give people what they really want, not what the forked tongues of populism tell them they want. Hopefully in the USA a majority has now chosen a President to give them what they really want.

But here in Britain we still have a populist Prime Minister with his inadequate government. There is still Lockdown, winter weather and seasonal colds and ‘flu yet to come – and the looming problems of Brexit, with or without a last-minute trade deal, before most of us can expect to share in a new vaccine.

There is some comfort in the government’s U-turn on providing vouchers for free school meals in each holiday, and in the continuation of the furlough scheme till March. We have been surprised at seeing a Tory government abandon their previous obsession with running down the Deficit, instead increasing it vastly, to save jobs and livelihoods and retain some spending power in the economy.

Yet this coming winter is likely to be a hard one, with many working-age people poorer if they have been on furlough, and especially if they have been made unemployed and are struggling to find a new job or restart their self-employment business. What will the government do then?

We know the Tory instinct will be to put up taxes – not to affect the wealthiest much, naturally, but to ask most people to contribute more. And among them, the millions of people now on welfare benefits will be expected to tighten their belts and ask no more than they can get now, inadequate as that is to prevent people falling into poverty.

However, the tide is turning. The British Social Attitudes Survey new annual report shows that the hardening of views on social security of the last few years has started to go into reverse. Their survey reveals attitudes have changed and this year more members of the public agree with the statement, ‘benefits are too low and cause hardship’ than last year. And fewer believe that ‘benefits are too high and discourage work’. This survey was conducted between July and October last year, so its findings are likely to be even more affirmed this year, when since March the number of people receiving Universal Credit has doubled to six million.

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Education prospects worsen for UK children in poverty

As most children go back to school this week, fears that disadvantaged children will have fallen behind in their schoolwork in the months of COVID lockdown seem confirmed by interviews conducted with more than 3000 teachers and heads at about 2000 schools in England and Wales by the National Foundation for Educational Research. Their study, reported yesterday, found that, while the average learning lost was reckoned to be about three months for all pupils, teachers expect that more than half of pupils in schools in the most deprived areas have lost four months or more.

But the educational outlook was sadly worsening anyway for around four million children who now, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation are living in poverty in the UK ( A new report has found worsening educational inequality already, stating that “there is disturbing new evidence that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has stopped closing for the first time in five years.” This report, from the Education Policy Institute (, finds that disadvantaged pupils in England are 18.1 months of learning in English and Maths behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs. This is the same gap as five years ago, and the gap at primary school increased for the first time since 2007.

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How the Social Contract idea can serve both our party and the country

It is easy to be high-minded about the Social Contract idea, which may be why it is not yet universally known or accepted. Yes, it is a vision of addressing the main social ills of this country, campaigning to have them put right. And yes, it gains legitimacy by assuming the mantle of William Beveridge, the Liberal who produced a great Reform plan during the Second World War, including a demand that ‘five giant evils’ of the time should be destroyed by following his plans.

What could be more appropriate for the Liberal Democrats to campaign on, than a plan developed during the current world crisis, to tackle the huge social ills which are modern equivalents of those which Beveridge saw? It can also meet the present mood in the country for major beneficial change, which is comparable to that felt by the British people suffering in that devastating War

To demand a new post-COVID Social Contract, the equivalent of the post-War Social Contract is not just poetic; it is practical and far-reaching. Just as in Beveridge’s time, the social ills here today existed before the present crisis, and are likely to worsen as the immediate remedial measures come to an end.

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Liberal Democrats can lead the way in planning for the future

On a lunchtime edition for Radio 4 Professor Peter Hennessy, the well-known historian of contemporary British history, recommended taking up the ideas of the Liberal Sir William Beveridge. In 1942 Beveridge wrote of ‘five giant evils’ that must be combatted through the reforms he sought which resulted after the Second World War in the Modern Welfare State and the National Health Service.

There are five evils in our society today that need fighting, said Professor Hennessy, listing what he believes they are, to make the changes necessary after the current health crisis. His ideas were then discussed in the programme, the World at One, by Kenneth Clarke and Alastair Darling. The two well-known retired politicians, from the Conservative and Labour parties respectively, agreed on the principle and several of the five suggested ills, adding modifications of their own.

Perhaps Peter Hennessy had been reading Liberal Democrat Voice. Five great ills of today, matching the Beveridge evils, have been extensively discussed in articles this year. They have placed them in the context of the need for a new Social Contract since the Beveridge-inspired reforms after the Second World War were seen as a social contract between government and people.

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Our society has failed to protect the poorest and most disadvantaged of our citizens. This has to be stopped now.

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In the most expensive care homes, recent TV footage showed, both staff and residents have been protected from the virus, and nobody died. But in the run-of-the-mill homes shown, as our party leaders have been protesting, staff have not had the personal protective equipment they needed. With old people returning from hospital to their care homes, and care workers coming in and out without adequate PPE, what chance was there of the weakest being saved? We all know now the awful figures of mortality from the care homes.

Meantime the Office for National Statistics has shown that deaths from the virus are highest in the poorest areas of the country – where life expectancy had stalled anyway, as the recent Marmot Review recorded. (See my article here)

In crowded houses and flats, cooped up together with no gardens, housebound for weeks except for essential shopping, what chance have poor families had for healthy exercise and keeping separate from their neighbours? If they escape the virus – and the least healthy among them will be fortunate to do so – their children are falling behind with little chance for school work in the crowded family space, and mental ill-health is growing with the strain.

Now that people are urged to go back to work, it is the poorest and ethnic-minority people who are crowding on to the buses, trams and trains. The cleaners and handyworkers will be going back to the rich houses, while anyone on zero-hours contracts will struggle on as they have been doing, so that quiet deaths continue among maintenance workers and security guards.

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Philip Alston and Transformational Change

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Eighteen months ago Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, visited Britain for a fortnight, and travelled round all four countries to meet officials and ordinary people and community organisations. After also studying all the documents that had been published on the state of poverty here, he issued a Statement. This document still makes very sad reading. It shows up serious societal problems which the political absorption on Brexit last year and on the health crisis this year have distracted from, and which a progressive party such as ours must surely address.

He wrote in his Introduction:

It seems patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty. This is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes to see the immense growth in foodbanks… the people sleeping rough in the streets, the growth in homelessness, the sense of deep despair that leads even the Government to appoint a Minister for suicide prevention and civil society to report in depth an unheard of level of loneliness and isolation. And local authorities, especially in England, which perform vital roles in providing a real social safety net have been gutted by a series of government policies.

Describing people he had talked to dependent on foodbanks and charities, some homeless and sleeping on friends’ couches, young people who feel gangs are their only way out of destitution, and people with disabilities told to go back to work against their doctors’ orders, he also remarks on “tremendous resilience, strength and generosity” shown by neighbours, councils and charities in support.

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Advancing society’s wellbeing after the health crisis

What kind of transformational changes can we propose to deal with our society’s ills, after the health crisis?

First of all, a change of attitude is needed. We should demand that our government accept that its duty and purpose is to serve our whole national community and restore its total wellbeing. There should be no more specially privileged groups, whether hedge-fund or Union party donors and no more disadvantaged groups mainly told to fend for themselves. In the post-Brexit Britain of national sovereignty, the government must remember that everyone has a right to share this sovereignty and so all are equally entitled to have a chance of a good life. There should be a new understood Social Contract between government and people: that each government expecting and getting the co-operation of citizens in times of national crisis should commit to serve and care for them perpetually – in sickness and in health.

Among the foremost of the great ills of our society is the poverty of 14 million people, including many children. Liberals believe that to live in poverty is to live without freedom, and poverty may now hang over many more, with the loss of jobs and businesses during the health crisis. The Tory government’s mantra that people must work to get out of poverty rings even more hollowly now.

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How the health crisis could help advance our society’s wellbeing

Everyone can recall the bitter divisions in our society last year. Families were split about Brexit; friends chose which friends to talk to, there was rage and blame ringing across the airwaves and on social media, while In the House of Commons, the MPs tried and tried again without success to reach agreement on whether, when or how to leave the EU.

But this spring the bitterness is gone. That isn’t because of general weary resignation that Brexit is settled. It’s because in facing the pandemic disease to which we are all susceptible millions of us are pulling together in facing up to it. We have surrendered civil liberties, altered our lifestyles, closed businesses, foregone sociable pleasures and knuckled down to hard work or to the new challenge of staying mostly at home. Nobody is pleased about it, but we are generally united in our feelings about its inevitability. Where will this newfound unity, which is so reminiscent of what we understand happened in the two World Wars, take us next?

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Should Left-leaning Liberal Democrats back the policies of Keir Starmer’s Labour Party

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In January Sir Keir Starmer, then a candidate for Labour’s leadership, wrote an article in the Guardian about his motivations and values. There was much in what he revealed there likely to appeal to Liberal Democrats of a centre-left persuasion.

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“Society has stopped improving”

That is the bleak message of Professor Sir Michael Marmot in his major new report on health inequality. Entitled ‘Health Equity in England: the Marmot Review 10 Years On’, it assesses lack of progress in the last decade, since his review in 2010 entitled ‘Fair Society, Healthy Lives’.

He writes:

Since 2010 life expectancy has stalled: this has not happened since at least 1900. If health has stopped improving it is a sign that society has stopped improving.

This damage to health has been largely unnecessary.

Health is closely linked to the conditions in which people are born, live, work and age, and inequities in power, money and resources.

He repeats the well-understood expectation that, “The more deprived the area, the shorter the life expectancy”, but finds that inequalities in life expectancy have increased. “Among women in the most deprived areas, life expectancy fell between 2010/12 and 2016-18.” For both men and women, he continues, the largest decreases in life expectancy were seen in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods in the North-East, and the largest increases in the least deprived 10% of neighbourhoods in London.

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A vision for us based on fairness: towards a new Social Contract

Liberal Democrats stand for fairness. “We exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society”, as the Preamble to our Constitution begins, and fairness is our continuing thought.

For there is little fairness apparent in our unequal society, with 14 million people in poverty, including close to 40% of our children predicted to be living in poverty by next year, as reported by UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty Philip Alston last May. Where are these people? They are in every nation and region, in cities, towns and rural areas, wherever there are food banks, wherever there are people with …

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Here is what counts – our country needs the Liberal Democrats

Change will come and change will go, but the Liberal Democrats just keep going. Hopefully, usually forward!

We have been successful enough this year to attract both alarm and attempted derision from our rivals. Now we are being blamed for the defeat of the anti-Johnson alliance of smaller parties. Yet our leader did make us a force to be reckoned with in the Election by leading the anti-Brexit drive with the strong unique policy of possible Revoke.

However, in the over-confidence Jo showed in suggesting she could be prime minister she fired a rocket which, like the November 5 ones, shot up with a thousand stars – and then was extinguished. She lit the touch-paper herself and suffered the burn from it. But thousands of her colleagues in our party are still standing, and a few made it to the House of Commons.

So what? – disillusioned voters may say to us. You are irrelevant again – and more distrusted because it seemed by adopting the Revoke policy you threw away your one concession to Leave voters, that you would give them a chance for reconsideration in another referendum. You can apparently be as tricky as the biggest parties, voters may say, especially when the voting record of your departing leader in the Coalition is considered.

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The Lib Dems’ two aims in this election

Liberal Democrats should have two main aims in this Election. The first should be to convince a majority of the electorate that to remain in the EU is right for our country, and that no form of Brexit is acceptable. The second must be to point out why this diseased Tory government needs to go, to be replaced with a government where Jo Swinson and our party have major influence which can address the causes of the Brexit vote.

Focusing on the European Union, we need to make the point much neglected in recent debates: the absolute value the EU gives our country, in the past, now, and, if we succeed, in the future.

This is the greatest alliance of peace-loving nations that the world has seen. It has kept the peace in Europe and promoted its prosperity since its foundation. It has protected the freedom and rights of its citizens, promoted good employment and environmental standards, fostered the economic growth of member states, furthered international co-operation for refugees and migrants, developed scientific advances, and shown how democracy and freedom can co-exist with order and security, through shared institutions and respected legal systems.

Britain led by Brexiteers has been prepared to disregard all this, including the benefits of the single market which makes the EU our largest economic partner. Currently we are valued by countries such as Japan as a means of access to the whole EU.  Once we are no longer in the single market the benefit for international companies of moving production to the UK will be lost. The Brexiteers claim that FTAs with individual countries will generate the same amount of trade and UK production as will be lost by leaving, yet the EU has already made 67 free trade agreements which we share.

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Are the Tories still born to rule?

It would seem so at the moment. We are in an unprecedented, astonishing political crisis, where an alliance of Opposition politicians is trying to stop our Prime Minister from ruining the country by permitting a No Deal Brexit, if no deal can be reached with the EU by October 19.

How can this be? How is it that a man who has already committed an illegal act involving the Queen without accepting that he was wrong, who is universally known for unscrupulous behaviour in pursuit of personal ambition, is permitted to continue in the highest position in the land? His word is so distrusted that Opposition politicians are obliged to try to find additional safeguards to ensure that he keeps to the law. Truth is a stranger to Boris Johnson, yet his Cabinet obeys the directions of himself and his disreputable chief adviser, and his party conference feted him as expected. Unelected by any democratic means, without a majority, having cast out a score of more moderate Tory MPs, he still looks forward to winning a General Election in the near future, since his party is well ahead of Labour in the polls, How can this be?

It has surely more to do than the apparent fact that the country wants Brexit settled now. The Labour Party also wants it settled, and also supports Brexit, albeit after a revised deal is reached. Why does the country, Brexit-riven, not put Labour first now? 

So the question arises: maybe there is still deference in England towards people who appear to assume a right to rule? 

Long after the end of our Empire, perhaps there is still a grudging acceptance that men educated at Eton and Oxbridge, who have old-boy networks linking them to top people in the legal profession, to directors of top companies, financiers and media moguls, who mix easily with successful entertainers and sportsmen and other influential public figures – that maybe they do genuinely have the right to run the country.  Top Tories are a privileged elite, but with their self-confidence and their connections, their directorships and financial heft, who can deny their assumed right to hold power?

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It’s worse than you think

The other main British parties don’t care enough. Do we?

About the plight of ordinary working families with insufficient income to keep bread on the table. The distress of troubled teenagers unable to find a quick response to mental health problems. The struggle to make ends meet for single mothers with more than two children. The worry of people with disabilities facing proving again their need for Personal Independence Payments. The hopelessness of people losing their homes because of delays in Universal Credit payments. The alienation of young people who can’t see a future beyond gang culture and drugs. And the despair of people in dead-end ill-paid jobs or ill and alone at home who can’t see any prospect of their life ever getting better.

There are all these people struggling in Britain today, yet we have a Conservative government indifferent to them. Indifferent to what people have gone through with the austerity of the last few years, to the rising poverty levels, and to the expectation that the standard of living for ordinary people will worsen if Brexit happens, with or without a deal.

Professor Alston, the UN Rapporteur of extreme poverty, put his finger on it in his Statement, after his 11-day fact-finding tour of Britain last November.

In the Introduction, after describing in devastating detail the situation he had found here, he wrote, “It is the underlying values and the ethos shaping the design and implementation of specific measures that have generated the greatest problems. The government has made no secret of its determination to change the value system to focus more on individual responsibility, to place major limits on government support, and to pursue a single-minded focus on getting people into employment at all costs. Many aspects of this program are legitimate matters for political contestation, but it is the mentality that has informed many of the reforms that has brought the most misery and wrought the most harm to the fabric of British society. British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach.”

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