Author Archives: Michael Berwick-Gooding and Katharine Pindar

Unwarranted Conservative complacency at PMQs

It was astonishing to hear the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, announcing with pride during his set-to with Labour Leader Keir Starmer at Wednesday’s Prime Minister Questions that “Two million more people have risen from poverty in the years of the Conservative governments.”

Poverty is normally measured relative to near contemporary median income. This is the most commonly used measure. For example the latest figures are for 2020/21 and 13.4 million are in relative poverty, after housing costs (as reported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation), where relative poverty is 60% of median income. Rishi Sunak is using absolute low income which is based on 60% of the median income back in 2010/11, uprated by inflation. This is not a good way to measure poverty as the base year seems arbitrary. In 2010/11 there were 13.1 million people living in poverty using both measurements.

There was a decline in the number living in relative poverty in 2020/21 because of Covid.  Down from 14.5 million and 22% in 2019/20. This was because median income fell due to the work furlough scheme, where the Government paid 80% of the salary of those on furlough because of Covid, and those on Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit received an extra £20 a week.

Poverty in Britain has in fact remained stubbornly high at around 20% of the population during the past decade. When housing costs are taken into account, the estimated number of people in relatively low income households dropped from 13.5 million (22%) to 13.4 million (20%) between 2009/10 and 2020/21.

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What should the Liberal Democrats do now?

We need to be careful with our responses to the government’s economic policy. We had been calling for a freeze of the energy price cap, and wanted it to be at the April level of £1,971. The government has frozen it at £2,500 a year, saying this will cost £31 bn, up to April 2023. They also responded to widespread demand to provide similar support for businesses at the cost of £29 bn for the six months they are providing it.

So we are broadly in favour of these policies, as with the government’s reversal of the National Insurance increase, which costs £16.96 bn over a full year.

Our own policy is to cut VAT by 2.5% for a year, which will cost £18.75 bn more. We have said that this cut would increase economic growth, perhaps in the region of 0.4%.

We have to consider priorities now, and we believe our first aim must be to protect the poor and campaign against a further rise in poverty. We wish to spend about £7.5 bn in a full year restoring the £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit and extending it to all legacy benefits. Unlike the Labour Party we do not support the proposed one pence cut in the basic rate of income tax, since we are still talking about the need actually to increase the rate by a further penny to pay for social care.

In paying for its proposed new taxes, expected to cost about £43 bn more, the new government is contemplating savings in welfare benefits and in local government essential services, all of which we need to resolutely oppose. We should point out that if tax cuts are paid for with public expenditure cuts there can be no increase in economic growth. Our own proposals to spend around £40 bn on capital spending on green growth and growing our regions outside London and the south-east are far more likely to promote economic growth.

The Tory financial mismanagement which is leading to thousands of home-owners now facing the prospect of having to pay hundreds of pounds more in interest payments on their mortgages means that there will be much discontent among the population at large, already struggling with the cost of living increases including the energy costs which were already greater than a year ago. But protecting the poorest may not seem a priority, if people also dwell on the massively increased borrowing costs the government is now incurring to pay for their tax cuts, although defending education, health care and social care spending remains popular, and wage claims because of high inflation often seem not unacceptable.

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More than 57,550 deaths may be linked to austerity

It wasn’t only Covid that killed people before their time. In just the four years after the Coalition between our party and the Conservatives was formed in 2010, the spending squeeze may have caused 57,550 more deaths in England than would have been expected.

Research from the Centre for Health Economics at York University reached this conclusion after studying the cuts in Government expenditure between 2010 and 2015. The research has been reported in the online journal BMJ Open.

The research revealed that real spending on social care and public health rose between 2001-02 and 2009-10, but fell between 2010-11 and 2014-15. This total spending gap attributable to austerity of 15.08% is said to have been likely to have caused 23,662 additional deaths. Meantime real spending on health care rose less between 2010-11 and 2014-15 compared with between 2001-02 and 2009-10 creating a 13.64% spending gap.

The researchers reckoned that a 1% decrease in health care spend would generate 2484 additional deaths, so the loss of 13.64% between 2010/11 and 2014/15 might have caused 33,888 additional deaths. They also figured that a 1% decrease in social care and public health spend would generate 1569 extra deaths. So the ‘loss’ of 15.08% between 2010-11 and 2014-15 might have caused 23,662 additional deaths. Adding these together they calculate a total of 55,550 additional deaths. It is pointed out that their “calculations assume that all health benefits occur contemporaneously with spend, which is unlikely to be the case”.

It also needs to be noted that “primary care and specialised commissioning spending were not included in the measure of overall healthcare spend, because responsibility for these returned to central government in 2013, while data on local spend for these services is not available.” It is likely that the cuts to primary care and specialised commissioning spending and to benefits over the same period would have caused some extra deaths, but the report does not quantify them.

Some of us recognised at the time that austerity was the wrong policy, but now those Liberal Democrats who were in the Coalition government need to recognise the effect their supporting austerity had on the British people.

Does the party need to take action to ensure we never do this again? What can the party do?

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We need to campaign against poverty

The preamble to our constitution, to quote Adrian Sanders in Liberator 400 (April 2020), “starts with the eradication of poverty as the first action point”. Though both leadership candidates stated they wanted to achieve this, our party is not campaigning on it.

It’s not just that children from families receiving benefits need free school meals in the holidays. It is that 100,000 more children were living in poverty in this country in 2018-19 than in the previous year (DWP figures) and that an estimated 4.3 million children are living in poverty today (Social Metrics Commission).

Former homelessness adviser to the government, Dame Louise Casey, in a BBC interview ( warned that the UK faces ‘a period of destitution’ in which families ‘can’t put shoes on’ their children. That’s happening now. A single-parent family living on Universal Credit will find it difficult to find the money to cover the cost of new trainers for two children who have grown out of their old ones, as children do.

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Building a progressive alliance on the basis of the past, and now looking to the future

Clive Lewis, the Labour MP giving the Beveridge lecture to Liberal Democrats last week, admitted that some of his party believe that ‘labourism’ is the only progressive future. Certainly Lib Dems have to accept that Socialists who believe that Liberals will always defend capitalism against the workers will never accept us as a progressive party, and will consider any alliance as a mere tactical ploy. In a mirror image, there are plenty of Liberals who believe that Labour cannot shake off its Far-Left inheritance and will always aim for state control and management, with the soaking of the rich to enforce greater equality.

Yet if a majority of both our parties can focus on policies of social justice, full employment and moderate redistribution within the new challenge of climate change, we can surely begin to work together in more ways than is already happening in the All-Party Parliamentary Groups.

There is, as Clive Lewis said, a “shared tradition of the social liberal and the socialist”, based on “our common values embedded in our collective institutions… (and) our principled commitment to defend the human rights of all.”

For Liberal Democrats, the Thornhill General Election review instructed us that “we must reconnect with the electorate as a whole. We must give a fresh distinctive vision of a liberal Britain in the 21st century with policies that resonate with – and are relevant to – ordinary people.” Indeed, it must be the first requirement for both parties, to discover and strive to meet the needs of the electorate, among which measures of social justice and provision of jobs with fair pay will surely rank high.

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Liberal Democrats and Socialists: can we form a progressive alliance?

Last Thursday Clive Lewis a Labour MP was the first non-Liberal Democrat to give the Social Liberal Forum’s Beveridge lecture (you can access it HERE ) entitled ’21st-century progressive alliances & political re-alignment’. Clive Lewis called for ‘a progressive alliance of the mind’, involving individuals, campaigns and movements. After outlining the great challenges facing us all today, he said that there is a crisis of democracy in our country, with people turning to the wrong solutions such as Brexit and populism.

“Liberalism”, Clive continued, “is a powerful political philosophy with important things to say about individual freedom, democratic politics and the market economy and about how these interact” (time stamp in the video: 23.18). But he said that much conservative and liberal propaganda claims socialists want to snuff out the freedom of selfish individualism and mould it into a perfect collective (27.59), as a kind of Socialist ‘Borg’ (antagonists of Star Trek) wanting to assimilate liberalism. He said this was not true as “Most Socialists want to find ways of allowing more people to benefit from and have a say in the management of the co-operative processes in which they are already engaged in almost every aspect of their lives. That sounds remarkably like freedom and equality to me” (28.38).

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A sixth social “evil”?

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William Beveridge listed five ‘great evils’ (Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness) that he thought should be remedied by British society after World War Two, and they were addressed by the post-war government, in what has become known as a social contract between government and people.

In a February article, we suggested that the modern equivalents of the ‘great evils’ are poverty, poor health, lack of skills and training, homelessness and unemployment. These societal ills were in existence before the current health crisis, and should not be allowed to continue after it.  Just as after World War Two there was a national mood expecting change for the better, so a similar mood seems to be arising now. Must we stick to only five ills, because Beveridge did? Should there be a sixth and if so what should it be?

At their Spring Conference in 2018 the Welsh Liberal Democrats identified loneliness as a sixth evil stating “half a million people in Wales reporting feeling lonely”. In the UK there are over 9 million adults who are either always or often lonely (“Trapped in a Bubble” by the Loneliness Action Group led by the British Red Cross and the Co-op).  Loneliness can make a person feel tired, stressed and anxious so they have difficulties with daily routines, engaging socially with others and can make mental and physical problems worse.

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A new Social Contract – putting flesh on the bones

Nearly 80 years ago the Beveridge report, ‘Social Insurance and Allied Services’ was published. Last year Philip Alston concluded, ‘Key elements of the post-war “Beveridge social contract” are being overturned’. Beveridge wanted to fight five giant evils – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. We need to modernise the language and fight poverty, poor health, lack of skills and training, homelessness and unemployment.

Just as the Labour government of 1945-51 rejected the idea of the deserving and undeserving poor with the passing of the National Assistance Act of 1948, so must the Liberal Democrats. We have taken the first step. Federal Conference Committee accepted as a drafting amendment to the Fairer Shares for All policy passed at Bournemouth last September our suggestion that we reaffirm our policy to “Scrap the sanctions regime and replace with a system of incentives”. We believe that people needing assistance must be treated with respect, and the attitude of respect must begin at the top, in government, as has not been the case under the recent Tory governments. Most people do not wish to be in receipt of benefits, nor to seem to be asking for help by going to the food banks.

The first requirement of government in a new Social Contract should be to ensure that no one in the UK lives in poverty. They must also ensure that everyone has access to the health care they need in a timely manner; everyone has access to the education and training they require throughout their working life to ensure they fulfil their full potential; that everyone who wants a home of their own has one; and that everyone who wants a job has one.

The only legal requirement for the people in a new Social Contract is to keep the laws of the UK. The social element desired is that people show respect to everyone and their rights.

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