In 2012 David Cameron declared at the Conservative party conference, 'I'm not here to defend privilege, I'm here to spread it'. The phrase became something of a slogan which captured headlines, if only for a day or two. It's intended purpose seemed to be reassurance - that this set of Tories was not only for the rich - at a time when post election policy had begun to erase the pre election promise of a compassionate Conservatism. Agreeable words, but that's all they were - words. After 5 years of government, we have some actuality to deal with, some reality against which to measure the sincerity of the rhetoric.
So let us look at social justice and inequality in Britain 2015. According to UNICEF more than one in four children in the UK are now living in poverty. By comparison, 18 other countries with similar levels of wealth as the UK reduced child poverty within the same context of global recession. In terms of overall UK poverty, UNICEF found there had been an 'unprecedented increase' in material deprivation during this parliament - material deprivation defined as lacking the finances to pay for living essentials such as heating, rent and food.
Of all the G7 countries - America, Japan, France, Germany, Canada and Italy - the UK is the only country to have seen wealth inequality increase in the last 5 years. In fact there is greater inequality within the UK than in some of the developing countries we trade with. The level of income inequality in the UK today is so high, it would take someone on the minimum wage 342 years to earn the average pay of a FTSE 100 CEO.
In the last 5 years the number of billionaires in Britain has doubled - their combined wealth estimated to exceed £95 billion. During the same period, the ordinary person has experienced a punishing decline in living standards as the prices of everyday goods and essentials have risen at a faster rate then wages for 4 years. In real terms that works out as a £40 per week fall in average earnings since 2010.
The government has boasted about minimum wage rises but the stark reality for many is the minimum wage no longer meets the basic costs of living. It is 21 % lower than the living wage, but even at that higher rate more than 5 million - 22% of the working population - earn less than the 2013 Living Wage.
The government has also boasted about lower unemployment rates, but the figures are due to several factors, and not necessarily positive. More than 200,000 became self-employed between 2011 and 2012, but it would be perverse for the government to take political credit for this, the initiative of ordinary people responding to a deteriorating labour market where opportunities are sparse. The average self-employed person earns 13% less than they did five years ago.
Most significant is the legislation of flexible working practices such as zero hour contracts which have kept people in some form of work, but by definition, jobs that do not offer stable or sufficient incomes. In total, there are around 1.4 million contracts that do not guarantee a minimum number of hours of work. There has been a vast increase in insecure work, and low-paid self-employment. Two-thirds of people who found work last year are paid less than the Living Wage.
This rise in low pay has meant that people have been forced into welfare dependence, not freed from it as Cameron claims. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and New Policy institute estimate that 4,300,000 families in the UK are in work but still need benefits - housing benefit, council tax benefit, working and child tax credits.
A record five million UK workers are now in low paid jobs. If that wasn't bad enough, one in four minimum wage workers have been on that rate for the entire duration of this government, indicating significant barriers to pay progression. Over the last 4 years mobility has gone into an unprecedented reverse, with more mobility going in a downward direction.
As UK workers have suffered a stagnation in wages, UK food prices have risen by 12% during the same period. It is no coincidence that the Trussell Trust has seen a dramatic rise in the use of food banks, 163% over the last 12 months. Police data suggests some people are resorting to crime simply to live, with a rise in the number of first-time offenders arrested for stealing foodstuffs such as milk, cheese and meat.
The British Retail Consortium's 2014 retail crime survey, demonstrated a nine year high in the number of shop thefts. Other figures indicated an increase in acquisitive crime, such as muggings, burglary and shoplifting. Further manifestations of UK poverty are a rise in diet related ill heath. The Faculty of Public Health reported in the past year a 19% rise in people admitted to hospital with malnutrition, and conditions such as rickets becoming increasingly common.
In 2012 George Osborne declared that taxes for the most well-off would be increased, so those with 'the broadest shoulders' took a proportionate amount of pain in this austerity parliament. Yet over these last 5 years, some of the most disadvantaged members of our society have been made to suffer disproportionately - real lives destroyed as incredibly vulnerable people are deprived of the financial support essential in allowing them to live with dignity in the most difficult of circumstances.
People such as Liam Barker, a Middlesbrough teenager, paralysed, on life support since birth, requiring a ventilator to breathe and constant care from his parents, told to attend an interview to prove he couldn't work. His child benefit payments were stopped.
People such as David Clapson who died after his welfare payments were cut. A diabetic. He died because he had no money for electricity and could not keep his insulin at the right temperature. All because he missed a Job Centre appointment. His family won a posthumous appeal against the Department for Work and Pensions.
People such as Mr Shunner, in post-operative intensive care when he received DWP notice ordering him back to work, his financial support cut for nine months, reinstated after he won a tribunal.
People such as Chris Smith, from Leicester ravaged by cancer of the lung, skin and spine. His benefits cut, despite notification of his condition.
These are just a few stories among thousands. People with brain damage, terminal cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's and many other serious conditions have been deemed fit for work and had welfare support withdrawn.
According to Government statistics, 1300 of those put into the 'Work Related Activity Group' - which prepares claimants for future work - died within 6 weeks. And 41% of claimants appealed against work fitness judgements, with 38% having decisions overturned. The cost to the taxpayer of these appeals has been £500 million. The British Medical Association have condemned the government's assessment process. A doctor employed as part of the programme drew attention to widespread misinterpretations of abilities such as mobility and manual dexterity, that were deliberately promulgated through the training programme for assessors. Deliberate, not accidental. This is why the UK government is the first ever to be investigated by the UN over 'grave or systemic violations' of the rights of disabled people
The prologue to this election has been a narrative of disaffection and apathy among the public over a lack of real choices, real differences between the main players. But I don't see that - I see big differences, and very clear choices.
This election will be more than ever one about the type of country we want to live in. Whether we continue with a government that protects and perpetuates privilege, one which crushes aspiration as it drives social mobility into reverse, one which pushes people apart socially and economically, one which targets the disabled and most vulnerable in order to secure tax cuts for huge corporations and the highest earners.
Perhaps the most important question we should ask is, if what we see in Britain today 'is a plan working' - the longest drop in GDP ever, an epidemic of low pay and insecure work, wages trailing price rises for 52 months, increased borrowing of £500 billion and a soaring national debt at £1.4 trillion, food banks keeping people alive, homelessness rising yearly, national insitutions such as the NHS and Royal Mail sold to Conservative party donors and friends, the terminally ill on deathbeds being told they are fit to work - what will Britain look like when the plan is fulfilled?
I don't want to find out. It's time for change.Suggest a correction