UK Moving Backwards: Half a Century of Social Progress Reversed in Last Decade

C100According 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.

Union Busting

 C102(an example of media vilification of union leaders past)

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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15 thoughts on “UK Moving Backwards: Half a Century of Social Progress Reversed in Last Decade

  1. Pingback: UK Moving Backwards: Half a Century of Social Progress Reversed in Last Decade | Stop Making Sense

  2. we must make list of demands to be taken on by labour party and pushed through, and reverse other oppressive , fasict laws, or just droped altogether . lets makea list and send it to the gov, if they don’t we will vote them out

  3. The trouble is those of us born in the 60’s and 70’s were infected in the 80’s with the tory “I’m all right jack – lets make a fast buck and enjoy ourselves” virus introduced to the masses by the greed led thatcher. Some of us managed to shake off this virus but many didn’t and many of those unfortunates are now roaming the corridors of power reeking havoc on us all.

    Now we have a generation infected by the “apathay” bug which manifests itself in adoration of celebrity. This virus dumbs down the infected souls and leaves them blinded to the real truths about what is being done to their society by an elite unelected few.

    Now people are almost powerless, the unions have been declawed, Labour are failing its followers and our society is moving backwards in time. Yes there are movements to raise awareness of injustices but they are fragmented. Yes there are groups trying to provide us with an alternative to the 3 main parties but it will take time for them to reach critical mass with enough followers to elect them to the positions of power they need to be in (just look how long it has taken the Green party to make any headway as a political power!).

    Today, if we have any hope of recovering from the harm done by the corporate owned government, we need to come together and unite behind one banner. So many people are unhappy with both Labour and the Unions they are turning their backs. They are looking for alternatives and finding little more than movements in their infancy, little more than local community action groups. They have very little political clout, very little reach beyond the confines of those already in agreement with them. Yes unions may be less powerful, and Labour may be missing the point at times, but we don’t have the benefit or luxury of time to start from scratch. The future of many of us in our society hangs in the balance and if it means choosing the lesser of two evils for socialism to regain power then so be it. Just look what happened in 2010 when people turned their backs on Brown and the Labour party we found ourselves saddled with a coalition government that is led by the tories.

    The people need to participate more in the politics of this country. We need to remind them that our vote every few years is not our only role in democracy. We need to remind them that once elected our MP’s answer to us and we should be telling them as much as possible what we want from them. If we remember this and come together to elect another Labour government then we may just stand a chance of stopping this downward spiral we find ourselves in. After all we need a party in power that will listen to us to have any real effect on what happens to us and our society. The tories do not listen to the voters once elected and we cannot afford another decade or more in the grip of a tory led government. We, who are not the “elites”, will all end up in the poor house ending our days in poverty.

    I am not a member of any political party but I worry that if the people are too fragmented we will end up with another coalition after the next election. Or worse a tory government unhindered by a coalition. Although it is fair to say they haven’t been terribly hindered by the libdems so far. At least with a Labour government we would stand some chance of recovery and it would give us the time we need for new socialist parties to get established.

  4. I love your articles but please qualify the bit about council housing rents being “subsidised” – I thought they were not at all subsidised, but rather provide money for the public purse. There was a big issue about how the government takes the profit these rents make from the councils! The myth that rents are subsidised is used to pit poor people against poor people, pretending that taxes go towards giving people lower rents when in reality those rents are simply lower because they do not make as large profits as those of private landlords.

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  6. Great article, as always ! I always learn something even about stuff I already thought I knew about. I have to raise concern about this line, though: “the UK continues to build 100,000 homes a year less than it needs to in order to meet requirements”. It seems to take for granted that we have a “requirement” to endlessly expand our destructive culture across what’s left of the landscape.

    There is no “requirement” for perpetual expansion and perpetual growth. The world is the midst of a population crisis, leading runaway global warming, destruction of the natural world and mass extension. To build more houses is to stick our heads in the sand and hope that it goes away. I’m not for a minute trying to justify homelessness, by the way — there are a million properties sitting empty in this country right now! But we cannot expect to live as comfortably as we did two generations ago because there are 3 times as many people on the planet now!

  7. As a 71-year-old pensioner, I agree with much of what you state regarding the need for a proper Welfare State, and the sense of security-for-the-masses subsequent to its creation in the UK, after the Second World War, that it brought. A sad fact of its creation was that the “safety net” it created, and the almost immediate increase to comfort and safety in health, education and housing, led to a feeling that no-one need fight to maintain these things anymore; that well-deserved as they were, no future government would attempt to remove them. Perhaps the feelings of security, and transition to a peace-time state, made more obvious the fact that food rationing still existed and that Attlee’s Labour government – which had done as much as it could on a very limited post-war budget – could be dispensed with and a Tory government be brought in that promised “jam” on top of Labour’s “slice of bread and butter”. So it transpired with the general election of 1951…

    Yes, the Trade Unions did fight for the rights of their memberships throughout, and they were fought by the Government and many and varied employers, but their achievements were great and beneficial to both members and the working classes in general through the knock-on effect of pay bargaining. However, the unions did go over the top during the 1960s and especially during the middle and especially the late 1970s! Especially in the nationally valuable automotive and shipbuilding industries etc.: I worked for Ford Motors of Dagenham during the mid-1970s initially as a maintenance electrician, latterly as a maintenance supervisor. So many times I came into work to begin a day shift and was met by the greeting of a shop steward speaking these words, “Don’t take your coat off, you’re not stopping – the nightshift has voted for a strike!” Less than a third of the members of five-shifts of employees would often initiate a walk out – or, as I found out after my promotion, the company would “engineer” one if it were appropriate to their needs (a low order book or a stoppage in one of the other plants perhaps). At other times just the works convenor or shop stewards committee would provide the spark that drove the ultimate mass surge for the factory gates.

    Margaret Thatcher was helped by this form of virtually uncontrollable union madness because many folk not a part of trade unionism were affected by the stop-and-start effect it placed upon their working lives and earning abilities. The disagreements created between unions by embargoes placed on tradesmen because of their differing role in the various industries – particularly in the electrical and general engineering spheres – meant that many people left the unions, fed up of the strife this splitting of the workforce caused. When Maggie made her move against the miners (a strong, rarely strike-bound union) and the union split in two, the “end was nigh”… Don’t get me wrong, I have been a working-life-long trade union member (except for the nine years I served in the Royal Navy during the 1960s; whilst I retained my union membership I obviously could not use it) and retain a retirees membership of the GMB Union. And oh, how we so badly need a strong trade union intervention now when the British working man so desperately needs it..! Of course, we also need a re-incarnation of the Clement Attlee government to redefine the policies of New Labour and pour some true Socialism into the mix, to fight against the cruelty and social bias of this ConDem administration currently blighting the country…

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  10. Pingback: Half a century of social progress reversed in last decade – Institute of Fiscal Studies. | Doug Wright Save YOUR Services

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