General Election 2024

Twenty-first century Britain needs a new Beveridge Report

Labour has five missions for government—here are five alternative principles for real change

June 17, 2024
Image: keith morris / Alamy
Image: keith morris / Alamy

Labour’s 2024 manifesto has 33 glossy pictures of Keir Starmer. Contrast that with one picture of Jeremy Corbyn in the 2019 manifesto, and zero pictures of Rishi Sunak, or indeed anyone else, in the 2024 Conservative manifesto. 

“Stability is change,” said Starmer at the manifesto launch. Perhaps his love for George Orwell’s 1984 explains why there is so little in it apart from Big Brother-style pictures. After all, “Ignorance is Strength.” 

Orwell wrote 1984 around the same time as the 1942 Beveridge Report, in which William Beveridge, an economist and Liberal politician, identified five giant societal evils: idleness, disease, ignorance, squalor, and want. 

Their 21st century counterparts plague Britain today: Some 3.7 million people earn less than the living wage. Non-communicable diseases like obesity, anxiety and mental ill-health blight millions of lives. Around 6.3 million people suffer waiting for NHS treatment. One million children in the UK live in destitution—hungry, or without heat and electricity. Tenants die in sub-standard accommodation. Around 6,000 of people commit suicide in Britain every year. 

We are in need of a new Beveridge Report, and Act Now: A vision for a better future and a new social contract aspires to fill that void. It’s written by a coalition of seventeen academics, campaigners and politicians, including me, under the moniker the Common Sense Policy Group. Backed up by some heavyweight number-crunching to model the costs and benefits, and extensive polling, it shows it’s not just possible, but popular, to do things differently.

In 1945 Labour adopted the Beveridge Report, creating the welfare state and the NHS, and replacing millions of slums with council homes. Starmer is promising “tough spending rules” and pinning his hopes on growth.  But wishing really hard for something is no substitute for an actual plan to achieve it. 

Growth is a shibboleth of modern politics. And the constant discussion of it begs the question: growth in whose interests? The redistribution approach that underpinned Beveridge’s thinking assumed that healthy, educated, and secure people are likely to thrive. That post-1945 consensus led to the longest and most rapid increase in living standards in British history. The five giant evils, if not slain, certainly got a good kicking. 

In 2024, Labour’s thinking is underpinned by the assumption of a post-1979 consensus: that growth will, ultimately, trickle down. It won’t, however—at least not without a wealth tax. 

If you own £1bn in assets, you will accrue around £40-£50m in passive income every year, even if you do nothing but park that money with a wealth management company. But all that money comes from charging us for things they own. The utility companies we used to own were sold to the wealthy, who now bill us for using their pipes and water pumping stations—a form of rent. The NHS has £50bn still to pay on Private Finance Initiatives, another form of rent. Even if you buy your home on a mortgage, the interest you pay is a form of rent on the money you borrow. 

Far from rolling back the state, neoliberal ideology conceives the state as enabling wealth extraction. When Carillion went bankrupt, taxpayers were stuck with the liabilities. The same happened when the banks were bailed out after the 2008 financial crisis.

Labour has specified five missions. Instead, we need the state to operate to five principles. One, to put equality at the heart of public policy. A raft of research from the Marmot Review to the Spirit Level demonstrates that inequality itself causes serious long-term economic detriment. A rising tide does not lift all boats. It mostly helps those who own superyachts. 

Two, define freedom as freedom from domination. Far from the freedom to exploit, we would be better served by the freedom to resist exploitation. That could be the freedom to leave an abusive relationship, or the freedom to breathe clean air. Three, directly tackle the social determinations of health. Health is made at home, hospitals are for fixing people. Supportive services, a richer cultural life, and secure employment all enhance quality of life. They also help nurture a more creative, productive society. 

Four, build up community wealth.  Real devolution means communities owning assets that generate income for the people who live there, not distant shareholders. Five, truly level up the country. The pork-barrel style levelling up under Boris Johnson only paid lip service to reducing spatial inequality. Unless we close the democratic deficit, our local and regional institutions will lack the wherewithal to build thriving places. 

Each of these five principles runs through chapters on health, education, childhood, utilities, transport and infrastructure, and a Green New Deal. There’s too much to detail in one article, but it’s all backed up with costings and economic analysis. 

Labour’s manifesto contains proposals that no one would object to, such as recruiting 6,500 more teachers, or adopting the Conservative policy of unifying train and infrastructure operations into the single entity of Great British Railways (even if that would will leave the rolling stock operating companies making £409m profit from renting us our own trains). 

Rather than “Change,” Labour’s manifesto should be called “tinkering around the edges”. When it collides with the reality of government, and people’s disappointment is evident in the polls and on the picket lines, we’ve written a plan that is ready for Labour to pick up. And they should—the electorate would be grateful.  

Act Now: A vision for a better future and a new social contract is on sale from 24th June