What we didn’t talk about in the election


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We really are living in the age of the permanent campaign. The general election was just weeks ago, but the main parties and political commentators have moved on and are looking at events through the lens of the 2020 election. Before that happens, it’s worth noting something pretty peculiar about the 2015 campaign.

‘Poverty’ was barely mentioned during the UK general election.

I know it featured in the Scottish debates, after the Scottish referendum, debate focussed relentlessly on the rise in child poverty that was to come and public concern was roused. South of the border, the only times I can recall poverty being discussed was when some pretty, um, heroic claims were made by Ministers. Apart from that, nothing.

And yet the UK faces a child poverty crisis. The latest projections from the much lauded Institute for Fiscal Studies show that child poverty rose by about 300,000 in the last parliament and will continue to rise by a total of around 700,000 by 2020. Attentive readers might remember that 2020 is the year when child poverty was supposed to have been eradicated under the terms of the Child Poverty Act 2010. Yet, we are expecting nothing of the sort. Instead, the ‘economic waste’[1] described so well by David Cameron back in 2006 is set to grow, costing the country £29 billion a year and rising.[2]

We were told that cuts were unavoidable in order to protect future generations from the burden of the fiscal deficit, that we were ‘all in it together’ and ‘the broadest shoulders would bear more of the burden’ of deficit reduction. Well, the results are in - we know what actually happened. Distributional analysis from the London School of Economics, York and Manchester Universities [3] shows that the burden was not borne by those most able to bear it. Instead, the whole of the poorest half of the income distribution is worse-off and the whole of the richest half is better-off with the small exception of the richest 5 per cent who had a tax rise – but then they can afford it. And the effects are fiscally neutral – the poorest half has paid for the improved incomes of the richest half. No savings were actually made.

And all of this was known before the election. Given the centrality of the economy to the election debate, it’s hard to comprehend how the political parties seemed to make poverty a dirty word. Not a peep from any of the main UK parties.

The latest child poverty figures are out later this week - even if they confound the IFS by not rising, they will still show that the Government is nowhere near meeting the targets it signed up to. With £12 billion more benefit cuts in the pipeline, whatever they show will inevitably turn out to be an underestimate. There’s no doubt more pain is to come for struggling parents and their children - political choices will leave them facing impossible choices. Far from protecting future generations of children from the deficit, today’s poor children are suffering worse prospects in the here and now. The fall-out won’t stop with families however, the damage inflicted on our public services and our economy will be very real and impossible to ignore.

Perhaps, then, politicians will finally turn their attention to this unfolding disaster and tell us what they are actually going to do about it.

[1] http://conservative-speeches.sayit.mysociety.org/speech/599937

[2] http://www.cpag.org.uk/content/estimate-cost-child-poverty-2013

[3] http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/case/spcc/rr04.pdf