The Blog

Should We Re-elect the Worst British Government for 75 Years?

I am not a partisan man. Although I was once, many years ago, a member of the Liberal Democrats, I have since tried to help make the world a better place through practical action, research and communication. Six years ago I set up The Centre for Welfare Reform to encourage innovation and new thinking about the welfare state.

When the Coalition Government was formed I did not know what to expect, and I kept an open mind. However, five years on, I am confident that this has been the worst British Government in 75 years, and astonishingly it may even be re-elected. No Government in this period has done more harm to social justice or to the basic fabric of our society. Yet much of the harm they've done has been so cleverly targeted that many don't seem to notice.

The welfare state has five pillars - each one has been badly eroded:

1. Income Security

Never before have we seen such a severe attack on the incomes of the poorest. The Institute of Fiscal Studies calculated that the poorest 10% of families had lost more than any other group - a cut of 9% of an already low post-tax income of less than £100 per week. The UK is now the most unequal country in Western Europe. One million people had to use food banks in the last year; many deaths in winter seem likely to have been caused by people being unable to heat their own homes.

But this direct theft from the poor has been made worse by a whole range of shameful policies. The Nanny State has been transformed into a Wicked Stepmother who now imposes sanctions, work programmes, workfare, and harmful assessments on ordinary people - all underpinned by vicious rhetoric and stigma.

2. Healthcare

The NHS has consistently scored as one of the best healthcare systems in the world, whereas the American system is one of the worst - yet every change in our system brings us closer to the American model. Privatisation of healthcare is growing fast and money is going, not into our communities, but into profit-making companies.

Bureaucracy and regulation do not promote innovation or improve healthcare - professionals and communities do. And they do it - not to make money - but to do a better job and to make the world a better place. Common-sense has left the building - instead we have a system that nobody understands and which believes the worst of everyone in it.

3. Disability Support

Disabled people have been the target of a vast range of different cuts, yet despite this the Government pretends that it cannot calculate the impact of its own policies on disabled people. In reality the cuts facing people with the most severe disabilities are at least 6 times greater than the cuts faced by the average person.

One of the deepest cuts has been to social care. 500,000 fewer people now get social care - that's a cut of 30% in just four years. People have lost support and income as means-testing for social care has increased. The plan to close the Independent Living Fund rubs further salt into an open wound.

4. Education

While funding for school-age education has remained largely stable, the cuts in education have been seen in the rapid rise in student debt and the decline in adult education across the country. It is extraordinary that a country whose economic problems are debt and inefficiency should try to borrow its way to a better education for all.

And inside schools what has changed? It is the same old dogma - tests, targets, league tables and market mechanisms. Does anybody really believe that this works? The country with the best education system in Europe - Finland - does precisely the opposite and has no equivalent to OFSTED to bully schools and teachers. Schools are not the locally controlled and inclusive communities they should be - they are merely outposts of Whitehall.

5. Housing

Rough sleeping has increased by 37% with many more people living in hostels or in over-crowded accommodation. This is the natural consequence of a crazy housing policy where increasing house prices and rents, lower housing benefit and the bedroom tax combine to make housing increasingly unaffordable. This is the denial of a basic human right.

Yet house price inflation seems to be a Government objective. The artificially low interest rate has acted as an enormous hidden subsidy to the better off - providing £100 billion to the richest 20% over the last five years. This policy is particularly revealing, for it demonstrates that political success is highly dependent - not on making Britain better - but on making some Britons feel better off than others.

This links to the fundamental imbalance in our economy. We live increasingly on debt because we have given banks the right to produce the money that we need to fuel our economy. But banks only create money by creating debt and by lending to those who are already better off. Ultimately we will need a revolution in our thinking about economics - a new kind of Democratic Keynesianism.

We all pay the price for these bad policies. But too often we don't notice. We don't notice the damaging impact on families as incomes are cut and poverty increases. We don't notice the decline in our local community life. We don't notice the decline in citizenship and engagement with social and political life. Quiet desperation takes hold of the lives of many; but we just get on with it. After all - what else can we do?

Despite its obvious moral failings there is something fascinating about this Government. Somehow they have worked out how to exploit the worst in our natures - our prejudices, our false assumptions and our fears. We have submitted to all the cuts, all the unfairness and all the craziness - because it somehow seems inevitable, even necessary.

There is nothing necessary about austerity. It is unjust, bad economics and deeply confused. As an Englishman I find it hard to believe that the country I love will choose to repeat this. Increasingly I find myself agreeing with Russell Brand and the thesis of his great film The Emperor's New Clothes. Whatever happens at this election we owe it to ourselves and to each other to find new forms of collective action and to make sure - things must change.

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