The 2008 financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures have seen the most sustained decline in household incomes since the 1930s. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, more than 13 million people were living in poverty in 2014, and the 2012 UK Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey reveals that the extent of deprivation has increased dramatically since the last survey in 1999. In this context, Eldin Fahmy examines here the main UK political parties’ policy commitments on poverty.
It is impossible here to provide a full assessment of the scope of policy commitments on poverty partly because poverty is a policy arena with implications across a very broad remit of governmental responsibilities including, for example, health, housing, education, labour markets, and migration. A more comprehensive assessment is provided by the UK Academics Stand against Poverty. This commentary considers the anti-poverty implications of UK political parties’ commitments in relation to fiscal policy and social security policies before going on to summarise some of the key commonalities (and shortcomings) of existing political discourse on poverty in the UK as reflected in party manifestos.
Deficit reduction: the new economic orthodoxy
Fiscal policy could be used as an instrument to promote employment and economic activity rather than as a means to meet essentially arbitrary deficit reduction targets. Parties differ somewhat in overall objectives between eliminating the overall spending deficit (Conservative, LibDem, UKIP) and balancing current expenditure (Labour, SNP). However, all the main parties are committed to deficit reduction without any specific consideration of the social impacts of this objective, nor discussion of the impacts of these policies on economic output and jobs.
The Conservatives have committed to very substantial reductions of £12bn in welfare spending. Since pension spending is excluded from this target and comprises a substantial portion of welfare expenditure this implies a drastic cut in welfare spending for non-pensioners with obvious implications for poverty vulnerability. UKIP has adopted similar objectives to the Conservatives but differ somewhat in their priorities in reducing expenditure on overseas aid and Europe.
Labour’s plans involve ring-fencing of health and education spending (which tend to be pro-poor in their impacts), with a greater emphasis on tax revenues as a means of deficit reduction. This emphasis on tax revenues is shared by the Greens and SNP who propose expenditure increases which assume ambitious targets in terms of economic growth.
Blaming the victims: dependency culture and welfare reform
Social security is a key mechanism for insulating people against collective risks and in effect redistributing risk both across the life course and between social groups. As such, tackling poverty has been a primary objective of social security provision. However, the 2008 economic crisis has resulted in a renewed attack on social security provision and entitlements in the context of an increasingly hostile climate regarding ‘welfare dependency’.
To varying degrees, all the major parties have accommodated, and in some cases actively encouraged, a discourse which “blames the victims” for their circumstances. This is most evident in the Conservatives’ focus on rewarding ‘hard work’ and tackling the dependency culture which is erroneously alleged to have taken root in the UK partly as a result of over-generous welfare provision. Analogously, UKIP identifies concerns over migration as a source of unfairness in the delivery of welfare which requires urgent action.
To some extent, Labour’s approach to welfare reform acknowledges the central thrust of the renewed attack on welfare since 2008 in its emphasis on ‘making work pay’ and valuing contribution as a key criterion in shaping entitlements to social security, though the implications of Labour’s agenda are less draconian. The LibDem position lies somewhere between these.
The bigger picture: a new commitment to eradicating poverty?
However, none of the major parties has fully acknowledged and still less sought to tackle some of the more fundamental considerations shaping vulnerability to poverty in the UK today and the social policy responses needed to tackle this problem. These include:
- An emphasis upon welfare dependency as a driver of poverty. This reflects a wider behavioural explanation of poverty which blames poverty on the perceived failings of the poor themselves and (in more sophisticated accounts) on the system of state support instituted to tackle this problem. This explanation runs counter to the vast body of research evidence accumulated over a period of more than 100 years which documents the structural causes of poverty arising from an iniquitous distribution of wealth and power in society.
- A misplaced faith in the capacity of labour market participation alone as a viable solution to poverty which runs counter to well-established evidence on the nature of poverty vulnerability in the UK. A majority of households experiencing poverty in the UK today are in work; for these households, the reality of low pay, job insecurity and poor working conditions is a depressing and persistent reality. For many others experiencing poverty – including the sick, the disabled, the elderly, children, and carers – paid work simply may not be an appropriate solution.
- A disregard for the fundamental assumptions underpinning the UK’s social welfare system. The post-1945 Beveridgean settlement assumed a continued political commitment to the maintenance of full employment as a policy objective to be implemented on the basis of Keynsian demand management. Since the 1980s this commitment has been abandoned and the welfare system is not well-equipped to address a situation where under-employment, worklessness, and job insecurity are now endemic.
- A lack of recognition for the growth of economic inequality as a driver of vulnerability to poverty. Over the last 25 years economic inequalities in the UK (as in many industrial nations) have widened substantially as the incomes and wealth of the rich have increased at an astonishing rate. It is impossible to tackle the problem of poverty without addressing the over-accumulation of the rich, including through progressive redistribution of wealth. As the philosopher RH Tawney observed in 1913: “what thoughtful rich people call the problem of poverty, thoughtful poor people call with equal justice a problem of riches”
Tackling poverty requires an honest acknowledgement of these facts from political parties before real progress can be made. This involves a move away from vacuous but politically appealing soundbites to a more sober engagement with the voluminous research evidence on poverty which sadly has been increasingly neglected in recent years. It also involves a reassertion of the State’s responsibility to take the lead in the fight against poverty – something which has been progressively eroded in the UK over the last 35 years.
About the Author
Dr Eldin Fahmy is Senior Lecturer in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol and Head of the Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice.
The views expressed here are personal views and do not reflect the views of the funders of our research.