Too often, the actual effects of past policy decisions are not fully evaluated or even remembered in the public discourse, though doing so would tell us a lot about the wisdom of current decisions. Social Policy in a Cold Climate, the result of a mammoth research programme by the London School of Economics’ Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion, is an attempt to correct this.
The book serves as a social policy reference guide, covering tax and benefits, education, employment policy, housing, and health and social care in the period of Labour government after the financial crash (2007-10), and in the five years of coalition government that followed (2010-15). The contributors are at pains to present a neutral assessment of different governments’ records, lending the book authority and credibility. Their account of the Blair years and the continuation in policy overseen by Gordon Brown does not make entirely comfortable reading for Labour. While child and pensioner poverty were notably reduced while Labour was in power, and the attainment gap between rich and poor children narrowed, inequality at the very top and bottom of the income distribution rose and health outcomes became less equal.
But it is the authors’ assessment of the coalition government’s record that is the most damning. While George Osborne professed in his 2010 budget that those with the broadest shoulders would bear the burden of reducing the deficit, in fact his government’s direct tax and benefit changes, taken as a whole, helped the top half of the population without reducing the deficit. The increase in the income tax allowance alone (a Liberal Democrat manifesto promise) outweighed all savings found through welfare cuts. The only services to survive relatively unscathed were the NHS and schools – universal, and embedded in strong institutions.
Neither was the burden of spending cuts shared equally by geography or age. Local government bore the brunt of government cuts, with budgets cut by an average of 40 per cent, and hitting the spending power of local authorities in the north of England disproportionately. The recession hit the employment prospects, pay and wealth of the young particularly hard: young adults in 2012-13 could expect to earn 18 per cent less than they would have done five years earlier. But it was pensioner benefits that were protected, including a ‘triple lock’ on pensions.
What makes the verdict so damning is that the authors judge the coalition’s policy agenda against its own stated goals. That government publicly committed to fairness in decisions around deficit reduction, protecting those most in need and creating a society with equal opportunities. But in reality the UK saw ‘selective austerity’ between 2010 and 2015, with the weakest in society bearing the greatest burden of deficit reduction.
Objective, thorough analysis of the kind found in this book is important, both for better policymaking and for holding politicians of all political colours to account for their promises and record in government. The editors explicitly aim to inform the public debate, looking ‘behind the claims and counter-claims made through the media’. With the policy agenda of the last government set to continue, their work deserves to be read and consulted widely.
Carys Roberts is a research fellow at IPPR and deputy editor of Juncture. She writes here in a personal capacity
Eds. Ruth Lupton at al
Policy Press | 342pp | £25.99
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