Break up Britain? It’s time the coalition took a different path

Ed Jacobs gives a moving analysis of the fragmentation of UK society caused by growing inequality as a result of government economic and social policy.

In his recent speech to Progress, shadow culture, media and sport secretary Ivan Lewis, warned that at the last election, voters “saw Labour as the party of the north”. Putting aside arguments over the political direction of the Labour party, Lewis’s remarks go to the heart of something far deeper – namely that as a country we are becoming politically more fragmented.

One only has to look at the results of last week’s elections to see Labour picking up seats and consolidating its position in the North and Wales, the Conservatives doing likewise in the south and vast areas of Scotland being turned SNP yellow.

And in Northern Ireland, the party system continues to be one of a fragmentation between many different parties, forming a mandatory coalition.

But why such fragmentation? While the reasons are numerous, at its core are economic policies, being pursued by the government which, for all their warm words, are serving  to increase the gap between rich and poor, countering George Osborne’s myth that we’re somehow all in it together.

Take for example the Sunday Times Rich List published recently, showing that the 1,000 richest people in the UK are on average 18 per cent richer than a year ago. This comes at a time when more than one in five of the UK population is struggling to make ends meet.

This hardship is likely to be exacerbated still further, with the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, predicting that inflation will increase this year to five per cent.

But it is not just that the rich are getting richer. Coalition policy, however honourable their intentions might be, is making the poor even poorer. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), much quoted by the chancellor whilst in opposition, warned before Christmas of the impact the government’s financial and economic policies were having on levels of poverty.

Robert Joyce, a research economist and an author of the IFS report, argued:

“Among all children and working-age individuals, we forecast a rise in relative poverty of about 800,000 and a rise in absolute poverty of about 900,000 between 2010–11 and 2013–14. We find that the coalition government’s measures act to increase poverty among these groups slightly in 2012–13, and more clearly in 2013–14.

“Meeting the legally-binding child poverty targets in 2020 would require the biggest fall in relative child poverty after 2013–14 since at least 1961.”

In his report card on the first year of the coalition, Imran Hussain, head of policy for the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAGconcludes:

“The government is failing children in its first year. Despite the coalition agreement’s commitment to meet the legally binding target to end child poverty by 2020, children will see their material wellbeing get worse.

“Much of this is down to the £18 billion of benefit cuts that will soon start biting, including a three-year freeze on child benefit, housing and disability benefit cuts, and cuts to maternity and health in pregnancy grants.”

Take the issue of housing as well, so crucial to the life chances of individuals. Cuts announced in last year’s spending review to the social housing budget, cuts of 50 per cent, will serve only to hit hardest those who need such help and support the most.

This comes on top of figures showing rents in the private sector continuing to rise, average deposits for a new house hitting £25,000, and a recent survey for Crisis prompting the organisation’s chief executive, Lesley Morphy, to warn:

“Many of the front-line housing professionals we surveyed expect the government’s proposed cut to result in a rise in street homelessness. Up to 88,000 people are at risk of losing their homes due to this ill-conceived proposal.

“People aged 25-34 will be forced to move out of their homes into shared accommodation that is often unsuitable for their needs or which doesn’t exist.”

When the SNP won its majority in last week’s elections, all the talk was of the break-up of the United Kingdom as a result of political developments north of the border. But as government cuts begin to bite, impacting disproportionately on those most in need, it is the coalition’s economic and financial strategy which is dividing and fragmenting the country.

The bitterness and anger felt by so many in need at the sight of those at the very top continuing to haul in their wealth cannot be good for the cohesion of our society.

If Nick Clegg is to prove that his new desire for “muscular liberalism” within the coalition is more than just words then action is needed and needed now, to avoid us becoming a country of the “haves and have nots”. Echoing through the ears of politicians of all sides should be the words of Hubert Humphrey, Vice President to Lyndon Johnson, who said:

“The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

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