Last Friday a 65-year-old man walked into JobCentre Plus in Llanelli. According to his friends, he had diabetes and had been feeling unwell for some time. But in today’s Britain, being in your mid-sixties with a serious health condition is no reason to take time off. So, the Department of Work and Pensions declared him fit for work. He walked into the office that day to attend his appointment and dropped dead while waiting in line.
This is the country Britain has become. Not overnight but year by year, with each new hole ripped in the social fabric producing another stream of moral obscenity until eventually the tide washes over public consciousness and it is no longer capable of outrage. And why would should it be? Why is the Llanelli case any worse than a six-stone man, reduced to skin-and-bone from pneumonia, being found fit for work — and dying only weeks later? Or a 60-year-old disabled man and a chronically-ill father being driven to suicide by the same assessment? Or someone winning their appeal against being deemed fit for work seven months after they had died?
By July 2017, 5,690 had died within six months of being found fit for work by the Department of Work and Pensions. That same year we discovered that the number of disabled benefit claimants committing suicide had doubled since the scheme’s introduction. People who are suffering extraordinary pain, who are in many cases on their deathbeds, are being ordered by our government to spend their final days squeezing whatever excess value they can from their life — lest anyone be seen to be going easy on “scroungers” or “layabouts.” What kind of a society is that?
It’s the one we live in, unfortunately. And it is far from its only misery. This month food bank usage shot to a record high. 5,000 parcels are now handed out every day — not as hampers, not to supplement diets, but to feed people, often children, who would otherwise go hungry in one of the richest countries in the world. Many of these parcels go to people who work every day, come home and still cannot afford to put a dinner on the table. There are four million of them.
As the political climate has grown colder in this country, people have increasingly bristled at reference to children in poverty, as if bringing up the subject could only be an exercise in fakery intended to pull at the heart strings. But maybe it is time to admit that having more than four million poor children is unconscionable? Or that the fact this amounts to half of the kids in our most deprived areas is obscene? Or that if 130,000 children are homeless again this Christmas, forced to live in temporary accommodation, it will be an indictment on our society?
Even this does not do justice to the scale of hardship that pervades Britain today. Take the proliferation of zero hour contracts, with workers forced to live without any control over their lives, ordered to come and go at the total discretion of a boss who can replace them at the first sign they are not meeting their targets. Or the social care crisis: after £8 billion was cut from council funding for social care since 2010, we now have 1.4 million elderly people in this country unable to carry out basic daily activities like washing, eating, getting dressed or using the toilet.
One party has been in government over the past decade and overseen all of this. Its ministers have read the newspaper articles linked above, and received the research evidencing the damage their austerity policies were doing. They met with grieving families after tragedies, and with campaign groups who told them the personal stories of those suffering. And they did nothing to stop it. They continued cutting until millions of lives lay in ruins. And now they want your vote as a reward for their efforts.
The policies pursued by the Conservative Party since 2010 have lowered the floor of British society — that minimum under which no person should be allowed to fall — so low that grinding poverty is now commonplace. They have created a pit into which millions more could fall. A few months out of work, one runaway debt, one life-changing accident, and anyone who relies on their wages to live could be condemned to these realities.
That situation is a political choice. It is the direct result of policies that prioritise the rich while suffering expands, that allow the unearned income of the well-off to rise by 40% while wages stagnate and services are slashed, that permits the fortunes of millionaires and billionaires to be stuffed with an extra £274 billion while welfare is cut for the poor, the sick, the disabled and children.
But it does not need to be the case. In this election, after so many years of things getting worse, voters can decide to lift the floor. The manifesto announced today by the Labour Party amounts to the most serious effort to tackle Britain’s burning injustices we have seen to date. It doesn’t shy away from these moral outrages but rather calls them by their name and commits, in each case, to radical and serious action to combat them.
On the first day of government, the manifesto says, Labour would scrap the Department of Work and Pensions and replace it with “a Department for Social Security, which will be there to help and support people, not punish and police them.” Universal Credit will also go — but not before an emergency system is put in place to help those who have already fallen victim. The party commits to stopping “the dehumanising Work Capability and PIP Assessments, which repeatedly and falsely find ill or disabled people fit to work” and suspending the benefits sanction regime. And it will redress earlier scandals not even mentioned in this article by ending the bedroom tax, lifting the benefit cap and ending the two-child limit.
Labour’s proposals for Britain’s welfare system would be a transformation, right down to how they are provided. Online-only services, which exclude hundreds of thousands of people and leave others staring into a vacuum when desperately-needed payments are stopped, will be a thing of the past. Instead, Labour promises more staff in a new department, who will be made available to all who need them. And not only will cuts stop for disabled people, but lives will be improved – by increasing supports for children with disabilities to the level of child tax credits and bringing the Carer’s Allowance up to the level of the Jobseeker’s Allowance.
There are bold plans to tackle in-work poverty. Zero hour contracts will be banned and a real living wage of at least £10 per hour introduced, boosting the pay of 7.5 million workers. No more will companies be able to flout employment law or the minimum wage through bogus self-employment because there will be a new single status of ‘worker’ for everyone apart from those genuinely self-employed in business on their own account. If a boss cancels someone’s shift at the last minute, they will now have to pay them – and the same applies to break time during a shift. What’s more, workers will be able to fight for their own rights. Union-busting will be outlawed, the anti-union laws scrapped and proper collective bargaining will be introduced giving all workers meaningful rights to participate in a union.
Labour doesn’t offer mealy-mouthed half measures on homelessness and the housing crisis either. Instead, it promises the largest council house building programme since the 1950s, 100,000 per year by the end of Parliament. And those council houses won’t be targeted only at the poor, they will be part of an attempt to take a substantial portion of everyone’s housing out of the market so that power is shifted from property speculators to ordinary people and runaway prices and rents are kept under control. Developers face ‘use it or lose it’ taxes on land they hoard and right-to-buy, which has decimated the council housing stock and done so much to discourage councils to build more, will end.
The manifesto will be a new dawn for private renters, too. Rent controls will be introduced to cap rent rises with inflation, stronger minimum standards will be enforced on landlords and renters’ unions will receive public funding to stand up for tenants unfairly evicted or penalised. Under Labour, it would be illegal for landlords to exclude people on the basis of receiving benefits or because of their immigration status – and 8,000 new homes will be made available for people with a history of rough sleeping. The Local Housing Allowance will increase and an extra £1 billion per year will be made available for councils to spend on homeless services.
If Labour wins the election on December 12th, meaningful action will finally be taken to deal with pensioner poverty. Personal care will be made free for everyone over 65 and the funding gap in social care will be closed. The WASPI women, whose pensions were cut without so much as proper notification from the government, will be recompensed. Tory plans to raise the pension age will be scrapped and access to pensions will be widened for those on lower income. And a new Pensions’ Commission will be set up to ensure fair rates.
Labour will also take bold steps to restore the National Health Service and ensure all of those who rely on its services can do so with dignity. Under the Tories, the NHS has the longest waiting lists since records began, a 100,000 staff shortage including 40,000 nurses, a £6 billion maintenance backlog and a creeping privatisation agenda that meant 43% of tenders last year went to private companies. Labour will reverse these trends: closing the staff gap, ending privatisation, bringing funding back to sustainable levels with a 4.3% annual increase. It will also introduce free prescription charges, free dental checks, 4,500 more health visitors and school nurses, and make the NHS genuinely holistic by investing an extra £1.6 billion per year in new mental health standards.
The misery stunting the lives of so many millions in this country is not inevitable. Britain has extraordinary wealth, built by the work of the vast majority but hoarded in the fortunes of the very few. It has not always been such an unequal country. Elite CEOs are today paid 130 times as much as their average workers. In the 1980s, it was between 13 and 44 times. No amount of individual genius can ever justify such inequity, especially in a society with so much poverty.
The Tories intend to maintain this chasm — and continue to giveaway almost £100 billion in tax breaks to the richest in our society. Labour, through its manifesto, has demonstrated that it understands the urgency of the injustices we see every day. It intends to use those billions instead to lift the floor in our society to a level that allows every single person to live a life of dignity. When you vote on December 12th, you are deciding whether to say enough is enough.