Edward Davies is Policy Director of the Centre for Social Justice.
The Centre for Social Justice exists to put social justice at the heart of British politics. As part of that we regularly hold policy discussions, dinners and briefings with MPs who are as passionate as we are about the issues we cover. Over the last couple of years we have hosted politicians, journalists, academics and others to direct conversations, but as the wider Conservative leadership murmurings have increased, so meetings with people like the Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary have come under the public spotlight.
The straightforward reality is that politicians have an opportunity to transform lives, society and our economy by tackling the root causes of poverty: problems like worklessness, family breakdown, educational failure, debt, and addiction. This is because an approach to social justice which changes the lives of the poorest people, benefits everybody.
When families on the margins find stability, work and independence, more adults and children can thrive, more people become net contributors within society, and demands on the public purse reduce. We all gain.
It is also a priority for the people of the UK. The electorate is clear that social justice should be the priority of any government. It is the core role of politics.
The CSJ seeks a programme for a government that is passionate about self-reliance but believes in the power of an enabling state. We want people to stand on their own feet but see a role for a thriving social sector. We want to protect the principle of a safety net welfare system, but for those who can work, we say that is the best choice for individuals, families, and wider society.
We have witnessed some remarkable improvements in recent decades but over the next few years the Government will have to lead our country through further instability at home and abroad. It is crucial, therefore, that social justice remains a political priority. And there can be no greater priority.
The state of the nation
Though many of the headline figures are historically good, they hide a variation around the country that cannot be ignored. Unemployment is at record lows and our schools are better than ever. But while national employment has reached an all-time high of almost 76 per cent, the figure masks huge regional variation. Similarly, the average wage of the UK hides a reality that only London and the South East sit above the average wage growth, with every other region of the UK lagging behind.
In education, there are more children than ever attending Good or Outstanding rated schools in the UK. But a child living in one of England’s poorest areas is still ten times more likely to go to an Inadequate rated school than a child living in one of its richest areas. Similarly, and in part as a consequence, just 44 per cent of disadvantaged children get a good pass in English and Maths in GCSEs compared to 71 per cent of their better off peers.
We now have the highest rates of family breakdown in Europe, and in one generation the marriage rate has slumped to half its lowest point in recorded history. Drug-related deaths in the UK have never been higher. And their use in prisons has led to a system in which prisoners are no longer even safe, let alone rehabilitated.
Gambling addiction has doubled in a decade, as has rough sleeping, and mental health services are stretched to breaking.
The need for government action is clear and urgent. Positive headline statistics disguise too many lives lived on the margins of society.
What Brexit really means
There is no better illustration of this divided country than Brexit. The story of the referendum was not just one of European policy. The decision to leave the European Union was an unequivocal statement for millions of people who want to change the political, economic, and social status quo. It is a huge mistake to think that the vote simply reflected a desire to leave the EU.
The vote to Leave was in no small part a cry of frustration from millions of people who feel that the powers that be in Westminster no longer know, or even care, how it feels to walk in their shoes.
The lower your income, the more likely you were to vote leave. The less-well educated voters were more likely to back Leave. The majority of those not in work backed Leave. Those living in social housing mostly backed Leave. Those dependent on a state pension largely backed Leave.
In short, the people with little or nothing to lose from quitting the EU – as they saw it – backed Leave. It would be wrong to make too many sweeping statements about the state of the nation based on that one vote. But it would be far worse to ignore a clear message that underpins it.
A mandate for change
In the light of the evidence, and the outcome of that vote, we have a once in a lifetime chance to reshape public policy so that it genuinely helps those who feel they have no stake in society.
When many individuals and communities feel so alienated, the Government must address ways of rebuilding relationships in our families, communities, workplaces and beyond.
This is the core role of government and the philosophy underpinning the CSJ’s priorities.
Here are our 15 priorities for government:
The best start in life:
1. Create a Government focused on supporting families with an Office of Family Policy.
2. More pre-school support for the disadvantaged families.
3. Address the growing scandal of children excluded from mainstream schooling.
4. Have greater ambition for Children in Care and their futures.
5. Tackle health’s determinants to close the 20-year healthy life expectancy gap.
A good job:
6. Confront the regional dynamics that shape the British economy.
7. Invest in Universal Credit and Universal Support.
8. Transform the vocational education offer.
9. Support people with disabilities to thrive in work.
10. Do not be afraid to endorse good businesses.
Protect the people struggling most:
11. Restore control, order, and hope to our prisons.
12. Stop ‘parking’ addicts and work towards abstinent recovery.
13. Homelessness strategies like Housing First must be widely rolled out.
14. Tackle rising violent crime and restore community safety.
15, Address the housing crisis through more truly affordable homes.