Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Neglect at the heart of Beveridge

The one ‘missing giant’ from the founding text of the welfare state was how we deal with care in our society, argues our editorial

Tackling inequality is at the very heart of the centre-left and Labour project. It is what has driven our movement since its foundation. Every Labour government has taken on the vested interests and put itself at the disposal of the British people and this goal to decrease inequality.

The Labour government in 1945 was quick to set about implementing William Beveridge’s report on the ‘five giants’ that faced pre- and post-world war two Britain. It fundamentally changed peacetime Britain and the fortunes of working class people in the country. It was not easy, nor perfect, but it was a systematic attempt to build a welfare state for all, in contrast to the ‘ambulance state’ that had gone before.

The Beveridge report’s 75th anniversary is an important progresisve milestone.This edition assesses how well the Beveridge consensus has held, and how to best honour that legacy. Nicholas Timmins believes the NHS – the 1940s response to ‘disease’ – is something Beveridge would recognise and be proud of but marvel at its scale and capacity. Karin Smyth points out how dealing with illnesses has transformed from infections to long-term health problems, which are the new risks of premature death and disability. She is right to point out despite its achievements, ‘health inequalities’ would trouble the one time Liberal member of parliament today. Both Timmins and Kathleen Henehan remark at the determination to tackle ‘ignorance’ and how transformed education is, despite Britain’s inability to sort our non-univeristy tertiary education sector. ‘Squalor’ was making good progress, particularly due to governments in the 1940s and 1960s, finds Karen Buck. However, progress risks reversing completely as ‘council housing is in full retreat’ and the private rented sector see a ‘million properties … present a serious risk to their health and safety‘ to their occupants. ‘Want’ persists, argues Luciana Berger, as food banks become a regrettable fixture of the safety net as benefits are continually cut. The response to ‘idleness’ is more tricky. It is not that people are out of work but that the nature of work is changing, increasingly insecure – whether it is zero hours contracts, forced self employment or the gig economy – and their return in wages is declining as shareholders appropriate the profits of the workers’ labour. In addition, whole areas of the country are devoid of economic purpose since industries have closed and a myriad of lower paying companies replace them. Pat McFadden writes that our response need to be a ‘Marshall plan for the working classes’.

Many inequalities persist today. Some still unresolved from Beveridge’s initial report, some as unforeseen consequences of its implementation, others from Margaret Thatcher’s reorganisation of the British economy and others created by a tough global environment post the 2008 financial crash and a Tory government intent of pursuing dogma over good sense. Each of our authors suggest how this giant frontiers against inequality could be enhanced if this government were minded or when a Labour government is elected.

But it is arguably Beveridge’s ‘missing giant’ that holds back the current welfare state model and our ability to tackle inequality. ‘Neglect’ should have been a giant tackled by Beveridge, and his young researcher – the future prime minister Harold Wilson. The assumption was the care, both of children and elderly parents, would be done for free – invariably by women. The former was left to parents, and the latter was barely a consideration as post retirement life expectancy was a handful of years, not decades. This premise now holds back Britain.

If the United Kingdom had the women’s participation in the workplace a country like Denmark has, then a million more women would be in work – generating an extra £4.5bn in tax receipts. Not only would that more than cover a comprehensive childcare system, there would be an excess returned to the Exchequer to offset many cuts to adult social care. Considering the stalling of productivity – chronicled by Alison McGovern and Peter Kellner in the Progress essay – better childcare might be the best way to facilitate Britain’s low paid to up-skill, move through the labour market and bring home a better return for their family and country. All things the British economy is yearning for and a Tory government is stubbornly refusing to deliver.

Progress chair McGovern has long been arguing that spending on childcare needs recategorising from recurrent spending in a department’s budget to infrastructure spend. Its returns appear so often throughout the economy that this shift is overdue.

If this growing giant is not dealt with there are massive risks for the whole country. Individuals, particularly in old age, risk loneliness and inequalities in very young children will grow and persist as middle class kids are socialised pre-school and working class kids go without. Whole families risk losing all their hard earned assets to a out of control social care system; Matt Dykes explores how a fresh approach could sort out this perennial issue. And women, risk having all the gains compared to their mothers and grandmothers being reversed as they are expected to pick up the slack. Other than in the most modern, care balanced families (and sometimes even then), the reality is ‘the buck stops’ with the women.

Brexit is already crowding out any space for dynamic and holistic policy solutions to perennial problems. A snap general election that backfired now prevents the Tories even trying to sort social care. Last month’s budget shows, as McGovern writes, that under this Tory government the aim is for ‘politics to trump economics and [there is] little about the country, or its people’. While the Tories neglect the domestic needs of the country while they obsess about the various iterations of Brexit and pursuing their deregulation Singapore-style economy for Britain it falls to Labour set out an alternative. Both to stop a hard Brexit and show the British public that inequality can be tackled and a future centre-left Labour government can shape the next 75 years.

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The December 2017 edition of Progress magazine has a Beveridge at 75 focus. Read other articles in the series, including on the other four ‘giants’ and how they fair today, now.

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