THE RECENT REPORT FROM the Institute for Public Policy Research, Prosperity and Justice: A Plan For The New Economy, raises some critical questions about how unjust the UK economy has become and how much scope there is for a radical politics led by the left.
It shows that long after the recession has ended the economy is still failing a vast number of people, with poverty swelling, insecurity on the rise and wages stagnant. The report also indicates how much the policy debate has advanced in the last three years, largely owing to Brexit and the rise of the Labour left - but also to a wider pushback against the economic status quo worldwide.
So how badly are ordinary people being fleeced? For many the economic recovery has been a catastrophe and has underscored the moral failings of British capitalism. The poorest tenth of the UK population haven’t had an increase in their income since 2000, according to the government’s own figures - that’s no economic progress for several million people for the duration of 18 years.
Combining this with the International Financial Statistics data from 1991, it becomes clear the incomes of this group have scarcely grown in real terms since 1979. That’s four decades of stagnation for the very poorest in society.
Given the economy is growing and unemployment is down, you might expect this situation to be improving, both for the poorest tenth and more widely, but these indicators show there is little to be hopeful about. Wages still stagnate, inequality increases and poverty flits between rising and remaining at the same level. As far as Labour’s working class heartlands are concerned we’re living in a poor society.
Three million people are reportedly at risk of under-nourishment. Absolute housing poverty in Britain is now higher than in either 1990 or 1999, with more people living in overcrowded housing than at the turn of the millennium. The number of working families below the poverty line continues to rise.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Britain appears to be undergoing the first sustained rises in both child and pensioner poverty in 20 years. Technology advances, people often work harder and longer, but those gains are rarely felt by much of society.
These are problems embedded in the very structure of the economy, driven by the class divide which runs through society. Though the Commission on Economic Justice, which brought out the report, puts forward solutions to the excesses of our current model, it doesn’t quite recognise the full depth of the problem. Nor does most of it go beyond progressive reform - which is why we shouldn’t see it as a blueprint.
Instead we should look to the tenacity and dynamism of Labour’s worker ownership plans, announced by John McDonnell in the run up to conference, as the first step toward a society where working people can enjoy the fruits of their industry. For the longer term, party members must dare to be even bolder and work to envision what a 21st century democratic socialism could look like.
A serious redistribution of wealth, with collectively-owned housing and far more social ownership of industry is in order, but the details still need to be fleshed out. Party members should look beyond the manifesto and toward a fundamental alternative to our class-riven society.