Frank Young is Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Conservative Prime Ministers were waging “an all-out assault on poverty”, or standing on the steps of Downing Street making solemn promises to make “social reform” the top priority for government.
These were Conservative Prime Ministers. This wasn’t just rhetorical flourish – the sort of thing a politician might say to give the impression of being a caring sort of person there was real focus on tackling poverty in the depths of Whitehall. It is little known outside of the civil service, but had David Cameron stayed in office for one week more in 2016, he would have announced his ‘life chances strategy’ – a plan to tackle poverty which was on the grid, ready to be rolled out. Turn back the clock to the start of a decade, and the Coalition Government introduced a framework for tackling persistent poverty. It’s still there if you do a Google search.
Recent polling conducted by Survation on behalf of the Centre for Social Justice unmasks the true scale of the poverty precipice that we’re looking over as 2020 comes to an end. This work, quizzing over a thousand households on the lowest incomes found that more than one in three are afraid of losing their job in coming months; nearly as many have been unable to pay a bill, one in five are going hungry and one in six fear being made homeless. A quarter of these families have less than £350 saved up when crisis hits. This is the sort of analysis that should get ministers scrambling for a proper plan to tackle poverty.
Support for the Conservative Party from low income voters appears to be ebbing away. Labour now enjoys twice as much support among this group than the Conservative Party. In 2019 the Labour still had a lead, but the gap was much smaller. The low-income households we polled make up one in six voters, more than enough to swing the seats that decide elections.
Only three in ten low income voters think the Conservative Party is concerned about supporting people on low incomes, against over a half who said the same thing about the Labour Party. In crude political terms, the path to victory in 2024 requires a poverty plan. There’s no realistic chance of ‘levelling up’ if we don’t address the social impact of disadvantage alongside economic revival. If we can have an ‘industrial strategy’ – then we can surely have a social equivalent too.
The true reality of poverty will be hard to escape as we recover from the Covid-19 epidemic and a plan of action is needed now more than at any point in recent history. Last week, we discovered that Government mandarins were circulating secret Armageddon documents, detailing the true impact of lockdown and coronavirus related restrictions on British business.
It shouldn’t surprise us that such a document exists, or the detail into which it delves. It is the job of government and the role of Parliament to extract it from ministers for full public scrutiny. What should surprise us is that there is no social equivalent. Where is the detailed analysis of the social impact of closing down the economy (and the answer is not in recent Government documents cribbed from the Office for National Statistics)?
It’s always easy to criticise and turn politics into Christmas panto. When it was needed, the Chancellor stepped in quickly with bags full of borrowed cash to prevent an unemployment catastrophe and extra cash for welfare claims. His furlough plans came with a Rishi Sunak logo but, once support is lifted, we will need to think about a long term solution to match the short term reaction. This means more than simply transferring money through welfare cheques.
A grand plan needs go back to the ‘root causes’ of poverty much loved of previous Conservative Prime Ministers. That means putting a focus on reducing family breakdown and dysfunction, recovery from addiction, ensuring unemployment doesn’t drift into long term worklessness and ensuring our education system helps children growing up in poor households escape poverty in adulthood.
There’s no reason why the Conservative Party can’t scoop up plenty of support in parts of the country where money is tight, and the need for the state to step in the greatest. Immunisation with a vaccine is only part of the job in 2021. The lesson of the last year is poorer communities are much more vulnerable to the next virus or health emergency. If we can plan for the economy to take off when the virus is behind us, we should plan to reduce poverty too. There is nothing socially just about a bankrupt country, but it takes more than a roaring economy to really push down on people living in miserable conditions.