This year’s Fabian New Year conference takes place as we watch an increasingly incompetent and deeply damaging Conservative government lurch from crisis to disaster. It reminds me of the Major years, the constant litany of mistake and misjudgement. Nonetheless, Major held grimly on for a full five-year term, before losing to the Labour landslide of 1997. This time, while the sight of another Tory government unable to reverse the tide of its own failures feels all too familiar, we need to be sure to push the Tories out of office much more quickly.
That’s not just because of the terrible news that grabs the headlines – the NHS facing what is now a year-round crisis, the cronyism that sees the utterly unworthy Toby Young offered a public position for which he is wholly unsuitable, the walkout of the entire social mobility commission and the chair of the national infrastructure commission, the ideological stupidity that’s driving us to hard Brexit, with devastatingly harmful effect to our economy and global standing. Equally important for millions of families up and down the country, it’s because of the bread and butter matter of pressure on day-to-day living standards. The consumer prices index (CPI) stands at 2.8 per cent, food inflation is at 4.2 per cent, its highest for four years, the big six energy companies announced price increases of between 8 per cent and 15 per cent, rail fares went up by 3.4 per cent last week – yet wages have risen on average by under 2 per cent. YouGov’s annual ‘state of the nation’ poll showed just 13 per cent of those interviewed thought their household finances would improve in 2018, while almost three times that number – 37 per cent – said they would worsen.
The cocktail of rising prices, freezes and cuts to benefits, and sluggish wages is glum news for many families. An incoming Labour government must urgently address this dire state of affairs with sustainable, practical and progressive solutions. We’ve already made a start with our pledge of free school meals for all families on universal credit and all primary school students. During last summer’s election campaign, a pale imitation of our energy price cap was promised by the Tories – it has yet to be delivered, and falls well short of what Labour committed to. Our own election manifesto included free childcare for all pre-school children, vitally important of course for children’s development, but also to address a major cost faced by working parents. Lifting the public sector pay cap, and our pledge to increase the living wage to at least £10 an hour, would give a further boost to low-paid workers.
All these excellent Labour policies will bring relief to hard-pressed household budgets. The missing piece of the jigsaw that we need to complete is to ensure that our policies are especially effective at reaching the poorest families. The track record of the last Labour governments in reducing child and pensioner poverty is one we can be exceptionally proud of – pensioner poverty halved under Labour, and one million children were lifted out of poverty. Now those gains look certain to go into reverse as Tory austerity hits the poorest the hardest.
It will fall to the next Labour government once again to take steps to end poverty. We know it can be done, we’ve done it before – and the lesson from 1997-2010, and indeed going right back to Clem Atlee’s National Assistance Act, is that pro-poor policy relies on an ambitious, redistributive, enabling social security system as an integral part of our public infrastructure. The system should work to pool and insure against risk, to level the playing field for different household makeup and size, to guarantee that work will always pay, and to ensure that those who can’t work are never left to languish in poverty.
There’s a debate to be had about how to design such a system, and about the relative role of contribution, conditionality and universality. There’s a discussion that needs to take place about how best to meet need in the most cost-effective manner in the context of the wider economy. There is of course always a question of priorities – and there can be no doubt at all about the urgent need first to repair the shocking holes left in the basic safety net by Tory austerity. But I’m delighted that our New Year conference, with sessions on an economy that works for everyone, on transforming the social security system, on rebuilding the housing market, and on the optimum Brexit outcome for our country, offers so many chances to debate the radical and wholesale reshaping of policy that’s needed.
Now more than ever we need bold, practical, joined-up, progressive policy thinking, to give immediate relief to hard-pressed families, and to put in place the infrastructure that sustains a fair and prosperous future. Next Saturday, I look forward to debating the change we need – but I look forward even more to the Labour government that will deliver it.
The Fabian Society New Year conference takes place on Saturday 13 January in London.