Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Reversing two lost decades

The rise of poverty in this country is reversible – but the next Labour government will have to think long-term to stop it happening again, writes Ollie Middleton

Last weekend’s resignation of Alan Milburn as chair of the government’s Social Mobility Commission is yet another blow for the prime minister. Upon resigning, Milburn delivered a damning verdict of the government’s approach to improving social mobility, citing ‘indecision, dysfunctionality and a lack of leadership’ – three words which have become synonymous with Theresa May’s tenure.

Milburn’s resignation was compounded on Monday by the release of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s 2017 United Kingdom poverty report. The report examines trends in the UK over the past 20 years, laying bare the true extent to which poverty has gripped large parts of our country. In particular, poverty among pensioners and children has risen the fastest, with 30 per cent of children and 16 per cent of pensioners now living below the poverty line. In-work poverty now stands at one in eight: 3.7 million people living below the poverty line despite having a job.

In total, 14 million people in the UK are living in poverty: that is more than one in five in the sixth richest country in the world. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation attributes these changes to three key factors, which include reductions in state support for those on low incomes, rising rents and the fact that employment no longer leads to falling poverty levels.

These shocking figures should worry us all and make particularly uncomfortable reading for the Tories who’s record in this area is woeful. Clearly there has never been a more pressing need for a sustained focus on tackling poverty and improving social mobility. However, with the government so deeply divided and the prime minister focused on pursuing an ideological hard Brexit to appease the right of the Conservative party, the picture surely looks set to worsen.

To make matters worse, as Milburn himself rightfully pointed out, the areas where poverty is most endemic – and social mobility at its lowest – disproportionately voted to leave the European Union. With wages now set to be £1,400 a year lower in 2021 and the UK facing two lost decades, these same areas are likely to be most affected by the impacts of a hard Brexit.

With the Tories clearly lacking the ambition and leadership to mount a sustained challenge against the rising tide of poverty, Labour needs to respond with practical solutions of its own.

Jeremy Corbyn’s personal commitment to reducing inequality is undoubtable, but when it comes to providing long-term solutions to reducing poverty, Labour should take inspiration from its own record in power. Between 1997 and 2010, the Labour party made significant strides in reducing the gap between rich and poor, with an estimated 600,000 children and 900,000 pensioners taken out of poverty. This was made possible by a series of policy measures that married improving incomes for the poorest in society with long-term practical solutions to remove social and economic barriers. These included the minimum wage, The Child Poverty Act, the winter fuel allowance, increases in child benefit, the introduction of tax credits and further support for lone-parent families – as well as policies like Sure Start and doubling education funding for every pupil. In 2013, the Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded that the last Labour government oversaw a fall in measures of both relative and absolute poverty.

Labour must combine its focus on reducing inequality with a renewed drive to improve social mobility through opportunity. Like the last Labour government, this means placing focus on early intervention policies and specifically targeting child poverty, making the biggest difference in the long term.

Whilst Labour’s record on reducing poverty should provide inspiration it cannot provide all the solutions to the problems we face today. Instead, we must apply the same values and approach in a renewed modern setting, with an increased emphasis on issues far more prevalent now than in 1997. These include challenges like inequalities of wealth as well as income, the need for a far more ambitious house-building programme, the rapid growth in in-work poverty and the need to better protect poorer communities from the impacts of a hard Brexit.


Ollie Middleton is a former parliamentary candidate and is studying for a masters in public policy. He tweets at @Ollie_Middleton 

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Ollie Middleton

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