WILL a future Labour government restore the welfare state – or rely on food bank sticking plasters?

When another report or raft of statistics on rising poverty in the UK is published, as we saw last week with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s (JRF) latest release, it is hard to be shocked anymore.

Angered, yes. Despondent, of course. But anything resembling surprise is difficult to muster when the causes are so blatant and the warnings that have morphed into pleas for change have become background noise that those with power are adept at filtering out.

According to JRF’s analysis, more than one in five people in the UK were living in poverty in 2021-22, including more than four million children, one in 10 full-time workers and one in five part-time workers. Four in 10 of those in poverty were living in “very deep poverty”, meaning their household incomes were far below the poverty line.

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Looking at the falls and rises in poverty rates over the past two decades, and even before then to the days of Margaret Thatcher, JRF is clear about the impact that political decisions have had on poverty. But is anyone willing to listen who can actually do something about it?

Before Thatcher’s government deepened inequality and brought an unprecedented rise in poverty levels, a steady 14% of people had been living in poverty. More than 50 years later and we still haven’t seen a true reversal of that deterioration.

There is sobering evidence of the prolonged effects of callous policy choices and the shifts in the accepted parameters of the political spectrum which can emerge over time.

During its 13 years in government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the Labour Party brought about a significant fall in child and pensioner poverty specifically by investing in social security for those groups, albeit overseeing an overall rise in income inequality. Nonetheless, so much progress has since been eroded by successive Conservative governments – a fact which should be among the top lines of a Labour election campaign.

And yet, is today’s Labour Party even willing to say with its whole chest that the cuts made by the Tories to the social security system and public services were wrong? Or has another irreversible shift taken place, whereby the best we can hope for is something which isn’t quite as bad as the Tories, but definitely not as good as it was before?

The National: Labour leader Keir Starmer addresses the Resolution Foundation think tank's conference in London

Labour leader Keir Starmer said in a speech last week aimed at those working and volunteering in civil society organisations such as charities and community groups that the past 14 years had been a time of two stories. A story of “a government that has stoked division for its own ends”, and a story of “ordinary people … looking out for each other”.

As an example, Starmer pointed to the work of a local charity which started as a food bank and now provides food, accommodation and training for those who need it.

These are not two stories, but two sides of the same coin. When Tory austerity pulled the safety net out from under people and pushed many to crisis point, local people and established charities alike had no choice but to spring into action to help. This is, in a word, shameful, and that ought to be recognised explicitly by any future Labour government.

Yes, the people providing crisis support to those who need it are to be commended. But we must also remember that these same people could be devoting their time to helping people in other, longer-lasting ways if they were not compelled to continually firefight the social and economic disasters caused by the disintegration of social democracy.

One might aim for an optimistic reading of Starmer’s words and assume that this is, in part, what he meant. But in a speech in which he also reflected that the Labour Party set up the welfare state with a recognition that “the government couldn’t – and shouldn’t – do everything by themselves”, it’s hard not to wonder if this is our future prime minister laying the groundwork for his own version of David Cameron’s “Big Society”.

Thus it was with concern and dismay that I heard the last Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown, call earlier this month for a UK-wide expansion of the “multibank” model which he helped establish in Fife. The service operates, in his words, as a “food bank, a bedding bank, a furnishings bank, a hygiene bank, a baby bank, all rolled into one so you can meet the holistic needs of families who are in difficulty”.

Oddly enough, I seem to recall that there already was a system put in place, available anywhere in the UK, to help people who were struggling to cover the costs of food, furniture, personal hygiene and caring for their babies and children. That system was called the welfare state, once among the proudest achievements of Labour’s legacy.

Indeed, despite significant efforts to decimate it, with the basic rate of Universal Credit now below destitution thresholds, that system still exists, and a renewed focus on rebuilding it could transform the lives of millions of people currently weighed down by poverty.

A campaign by the JRF and the Trussell Trust – the UK’s largest food bank network – is calling for a rise in Universal Credit to meet the cost of essentials, which they estimate would lift 1.8 million people out of poverty.

This is what will prevent people from falling into poverty, not sticking plasters in the form of crisis support. This, along with necessary changes to our labour market and workers’ rights so that nobody is left unable to make ends meet because of exploitative employers, and a transformation of the tax system so the wealthiest pay their fair share.

It would be all too easy to let stark statistics on poverty and the cost of living be a reason to accept that we are living in a new form of society where emergency is the everyday. But on the contrary, these figures should motivate us to do the opposite: to reject this new normal and demand a better way.

It’s an insidious sort of sleight of hand for those within a hair’s breadth of real power to point to the generosity of volunteers and expect people to accept this as a solution to the problems that will be their responsibility to solve.

It is the state that has the ability to alter the poverty-ridden landscape of our countries, not the kindness of strangers at the local community hub. Whatever we do, we must not allow the hard work of “ordinary people” to become an excuse for inaction from government – past, present or future.