According to research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, people born in the 1960’s and 70’s will retire poorer than their parents, having earned a lower wage, with no savings, in a home they don’t own, and with a smaller private pension. After unpicking the fabric of the Post War Welfare State that brought unbroken social progress for decades, the UK is reaping the whirlwind.
The Children of the 60’s and 70’s
The findings from the Institute for Fiscal Studies conclude that those born in the 60’s and 70’s ‘are facing a triple whammy of meagre pay rises, inadequate pensions and soaring property prices’. All of which means that they will have less financial security in their old age, than their parents or those born in the decades before them.
There is a very simple reason for that.
Rather than extending the benefits, rights and freedoms won by UK citizens in the post WWII period, subsequent generations sold them away instead.
The rights to unionise, bargain for pay and conditions collectively, and withdraw labour through strike – this cooperative approach to holding corporate power to account brought workers rising wages, reduced hours, the concept of work life balance, the weekend, health and safety in the workplace, and an end to the slave labour conditions working people endured through the 18th, 19th and early 20th century.
Successive governments of Heath, Thatcher, Major, Blair and Cameron have pitched their war against the unions as if the unions were something other than working people – while simultaneously creating conditions for Unions to become bloated, bureaucratic policers of dissent among working people.
Between 1980 and 1993, there were six Acts of Parliament to curtail collective power through unions. These included:
1) Outlawing Secondary Action or ‘sympathy strikes’ – meaning workers could not lawfully strike in solidarity with an abuse of workers’ rights elsewhere in the economy.
2) Ballots and Notifications – The Trade Union Act 1884 required Unions to hold a ballot and notify the government of the results ahead of any industrial actions. In 1993, it was made mandatory that these ballots be postal. Furthermore then Unions were then compelled to provide 7 days notice ahead of strike actions. All this served to raise the cost and bureaucracy of unionising. It also put an end to workers being able to surprise employers and government alike with flying pickets, and other unannounced industrial actions. It also placed the Union executive in ultimate charge of the process, whereas before workers could create pressure for a strike from the bottom up.
3) Injunctions – Employers were granted powers to apply for High Court injunctions to prevent industrial actions where the legality is in doubt. This was made all the easier by the 1993 Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act, which added a new level of complicated procedural compliance was made obligatory. Prior to this legislation, debate about the legality of a strike was based on substance – the trade dispute itself. Since this reform, corporate lawyers have been able to gain or threaten injunctions against Unions not on the basis of merit, but by utilizing the kafka-esque complexities of notifications, reporting and subconditions of subclauses.
The list continues far in excess of these few examples. The Unions were neutered. In 1970, employers lost 10 million days of labour through industrial action. In 2012, in the midst of consistent real terms wage cuts, reduced pensions, extended working hours, reduced job security and other impacts on working people – just 250,000 days were lost to industrial action. This is nowhere near the kind of impact that holds corporate, and corporatized state power in check. As a result, at a time when the UK has the fastest growing economy in the West, we also have the fastest falling wages.
The Great Council House Sell Off
The UK developed its social housing policy as part of the post war move to social democracy in the 1940’s. Prior to this, the masses were subject to exorbitant rents of private landlords that consumed the bulk of their wages, while often living in unsanitary, defunct housing. This experience convinced people that shared, public ownership of housing was essential to ensure decent, affordable homes for all.
The post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee built more than a million homes between 1945 and 1951, with 80% of them being council homes with subsidised rents. This created an abundance of good homes, with rents kept at around a quarter of private sector rates.
But by the 1979 election, the promise of home ownership was more enticing to the beneficiaries of those council homes, than protecting themselves and their families from the ravages of the private sector. Enter Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with the ‘The Right to Buy’ Scheme – the plan to turn the working class into the new property class by allowing the purchase (at discount) of council houses. This policy was a manifest failure.
Thatcher supporters act as if the Right to Buy scheme transformed the class system in the UK and created some sort of egalitarian revolution in home ownership. In reality, home ownership is just 9% higher in the UK today than in 1979. More than a third of ex council houses now sit in the property portfolios of wealthy landlords. In fact, the son of Thatcher’s Housing Minister at the time the ‘Right to Buy Scheme’ was launched became the proud owner of no less than forty ex council houses.
Meanwhile, there are five million people on waiting lists for social housing in the UK in 2013, while the UK continues to build 100,000 homes a year less than it needs to in order to meet requirements. With council housing waiting lists and mortgages ever further out of reach, everyone else is a hostage to the private rental market dominated by landlords. The result has been astronomical rises in rents, which rose 37% in just three years up to 2012, and reached their highest on record this September in Wales, the West Midlands, the East Midlands, the north-west, Yorkshire and the Humber, London and the south-east.
In summary, the dismantling of post war social housing policy has left the UK with a housing shortage crisis, once more surrendered citizens to private landlords, and home ownership is little more than a pipe dream to those caught in the middle, unable to balance their domestic budgets.
Kiss Goodbye to Financial Security in Old Age
The rise in life expectancy as a result of post war social progress should be a cause for celebration. The economy, as a servant of society and not a master, should be adjusted to accommodate evolving demographics. Instead, an increasing elderly population is seen as a problem; a burden on public services, welfare state and younger taxpayers. This is absurd. It is only a problem if we remain shackled to an economic idea that views people as profit making utilities, who should shuffle off the mortal coil as quickly as possible after their use by date has expired.
Instead of seeing pensioners as ourselves in just a few short decades, many have been convinced that they are an unserviceable burden. The results have been sobering.
In the UK today over 90% of all care home provision (up from 61% in 1990) to elderly people is in the independent/private sector after the public sector was encouraged to outsource provision in an effort to cut costs. The same period has seen an astronomical rise is the cost of care home places.
Today, the average cost of a single room in a care home has risen to over £27,000 a year. This is higher than the average UK annual wage (£26,000) and more than double the average annual pension income of £13,208. In fact since 2011, care home costs have risen at twice the rate of inflation, whilst standards of care have slipped.
This has meant elderly people who had paid for their homes in the hopes of leaving an asset for their families, have had to sell their homes simply to have their most basic care needs met for the final years of their lives. It is estimated that 40,000 elderly people a year are selling their homes for just this purpose, in aims to cover the average £100,000 care home costs to cover the final years of their lives. Whilst the coalition plan to implement a £75,000 cap in the contributions a person makes to their care home costs, a) they have stalled the policy until after the next election and b) it won’t include accommodation costs, which are the bulk of the issue. This is no help at all.
One might expect that for these breathtaking sums we might have the finest care home in the world. Yet, last year, the regulatory body for the UKs care homes The Care Quality Commission (CQC) published a damning report that showed that more than half of all elderly and people with disabilities in care homes were being denied basic care.
What Kind of Future do we Want?
Where those generations of the early 20th century bequeathed a welfare state including an NHS, a free state education for every child up to the age of 18, sickness and unemployment benefits, pensions, and high quality, low cost social housing – what will we leave behind?
A society in which people are working longer, for lower wages, to receive a lower pension, having endured a cost of living which did not permit sufficient surpluses to create savings, only to die racking up exorbitant debts in a substandard care home….while those who could and should be caring for them are caught up in the same hamster wheel.
This is the future we are creating, with every choice to submit and tolerate, rather than object and oppose.
Those who say that we cannot or will not win this struggle, do an enormous injustice to the generations who brought us social democracy in the first place. They faced excruciating circumstances and overcame them through persistence and solidarity. This is all that is missing today…and it is not some gene that today’s generations are sadly lacking. It is forgotten and needs to be relearned. We need to do so, and fast. While many remain largely oblivious, their futures are being written for them, and it’s a future far from the promise of that post war promise that brought us so much, so fast, that we forgot we earned it.
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