The breakdown of the social contract (and what is to be done)
Five years ago, Progressive Review published ‘The Social Contract in 21st Century Britain’. In our previous editorial, we opened by stating that “eight years of austerity have left our public services and social safety net in tatters”. Today in 2023, in the wake of the pandemic and further public spending cuts, this has only worsened.
Almost across the board, the UK’s public services are failing to deliver for citizens. Last winter it was estimated that failures in the health and care system contributed to hundreds of preventable deaths a week. Waiting lists for NHS treatment in England reached nearly 7.5 million in May 2023, while last year the attainment gap in schools reached a 10-year high.
Almost across the board, the UK’s public services are failing to deliver for citizens
At the same time, public services are experiencing a workforce crisis. Almost 10 per cent of NHS roles were vacant at the end of September 2022 – the worst gap on record. Recruitment and retention has been deteriorating for more than a decade: since 2010 the vacancy rate has quadrupled for nurses and quintupled for teachers. This crisis was recently made even worse by sharp declines in the living standards of public sector workers, as a result of rising prices. Pay increases which failed to tackle inflation fuelled a wave of strikes so large that the public sector lost more days to industrial action than in any other period since comparable records began.
It is therefore little wonder that trust in politics is in freefall and that measures of public satisfaction with public services like the NHS have been falling. As Harry Quilter-Pinner and Halima Khan recently wrote: “It appears that the basic social contract – by which voters pay in tax to a collective pot and government spends this effectively to provide a safety net and enable people to thrive – is now broken.”
This is a dismal state of affairs, but it is crucial we do not fall into the trap of fatalism. We must go beyond simply diagnosing the issues. Instead, we must use every tool at our disposal to build a better world for us all.
That is why in this issue, our authors focus as much on reimagining what a better world could look like as they do on the issues we face – from practical measures we can see realised in the short-term to make immediate material differences to peoples’ lives, to more transformative long-term visions for a society rooted in social, economic and political justice and care.
Anna Coote, principal fellow at the New Economics Foundation and project director of the Social Guarantee, details the need for a commitment to providing everyone in society with life’s essentials. She argues that progressives can cohere around the concept of a ‘social guarantee’ as a framework for expanding the social contract.
Tariq Modood, professor of sociology, politics, and public policy at the University of Bristol, challenges us to renew the UK’s social bonds in a way that goes beyond transactional thinking. To defend multiculturalism and tackle the rampant polarisation we see in society today, he argues that we need to develop respect and belonging, not just contracts.
Dr Daniel Edmiston et al. argue the case for a broader civic minimum. Following a decline in real terms benefit payments, they use public opinion evidence to highlight support for more comprehensive welfare packages than are currently provided in the UK.
Louise Haagh, professor in politics and global development at the University of York, makes the case for introducing basic income as a broader vision of stable economic security than distributive alternatives. She argues that basic income would reform the way individuals receive subsistence security in a way that prioritises their control and dignity.
Rachel Bannister and Gayle Pledger, of the campaign group Just Treatment, tell their experiences of their daughters’ use of the NHS. They contrast its underpinning values and Brits’ belief in them with reduced resources and declining ability to deliver, arguing that health is a public good that any future government need to invest in defying commercial interests.
With an extract from his book The Five Health Frontiers, Chris Thomas, head of IPPR’s health and prosperity commission, explains what progressives need to do to move beyond nostalgic calls to ‘save the NHS’. Instead, he sets out a vision for how the NHS can live up to its ambition of providing the best care for all, not only a threadbare safety net. To do so will stem the tide of people choosing to go private, and ensure the British public have a good reason to secure the future of the NHS for the long term.
Emily Kenway, author of Who Cares: The hidden crisis of caregiving, and how we solve it, looks beyond usual calls for a better-resourced state funded care service, to consider instead the solutions needed to truly transform society for the benefit of carers and those cared for. Drawing on the testimonies of unpaid carers and her own lived experience of caring, Kenway argues that a shorter working week, universal income and cooperative living would enable each of us to care for our loved ones in ways that also allow us to thrive.
Heejung Chung, professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Kent, calls for a radical reconsideration of our social contract and notion of work. She argues that we need to provide workers with the right to work in meaningful jobs, ones that create social value and reduce social costs.
Dr Pam Lowe, senior lecturer in the school of languages and social sciences at Aston University, writes about the inequities at the heart of abortion law in England and Wales, advocating for its long overdue removal from criminal statutes. Critiquing the Victorian-era legal framework predating women’s equal rights, Lowe explains that existing legislation not only hinders clinical practice but also places women at significant health risks, while denying them bodily autonomy. With gender equality a pressing concern for any progressive government, reforming abortion law emerges as a crucial imperative.
Ellie Kearns, corporate and governance officer at IPPR, and Joseph Evans, researcher at IPPR, interview Lisa Nandy MP on her book All In: how to build a country that works. Lisa delves into issues currently facing the UK that are preventing it from becoming fairer, more sustainable, and more prosperous. She then explains her ideas for a future Labour government on a local, national, and international level.
Finally, looking in more detail at electoral strategy, Professor Mark Blyth, William R. Rhodes professor of international economics and professor of international and public affairs at Brown University, delves into the credibility of the Labour party on debts and deficits. He examines how Labour’s narrow focus on fiscal responsibility ties its hands and limits policy options. Showing a way to break free of this ‘credibility trap’, Blyth highlights that voters’ concern over debts decreases when trade-offs with other policy goals are made apparent. In a time when public investment and the reparation of public services are sorely needed, progressive parties should see gaining credibility as an asset, not one that undermines ambitious policy goals.
There’s no doubting that the situation we face as progressives is challenging, even bleak. But what must fuel us is our knowledge that this state of affairs is not inevitable. It is borne of political choice – and we can ensure that better choices are made for the benefit of all.
Anita Bhadani, Ellie Kearns, Joseph Evans, Joshua Emden, Lucy Mort