It is easy to be high-minded about the Social Contract idea, which may be why it is not yet universally known or accepted. Yes, it is a vision of addressing the main social ills of this country, campaigning to have them put right. And yes, it gains legitimacy by assuming the mantle of William Beveridge, the Liberal who produced a great Reform plan during the Second World War, including a demand that ‘five giant evils’ of the time should be destroyed by following his plans.
What could be more appropriate for the Liberal Democrats to campaign on, than a plan developed during the current world crisis, to tackle the huge social ills which are modern equivalents of those which Beveridge saw? It can also meet the present mood in the country for major beneficial change, which is comparable to that felt by the British people suffering in that devastating War
To demand a new post-COVID Social Contract, the equivalent of the post-War Social Contract is not just poetic; it is practical and far-reaching. Just as in Beveridge’s time, the social ills here today existed before the present crisis, and are likely to worsen as the immediate remedial measures come to an end.
Beveridge’s ‘five giant evils’ were disease, want, squalor, ignorance and idleness. We reckon the equivalent ills are:
1. Poor health and health care. The NHS developed following Beveridge’s plans has been starved of sufficient funding during the past decade, and care for the sick and the old and of the carers themselves is inadequate in the present health crisis.
2. Poverty. Fourteen million people are living in relative poverty in this country, about 4.6 million of them children, and the numbers have been steadily rising. Now many more are suddenly dependent on Universal Credit, which even with the temporary increase provided is inadequate to raise them out of poverty.
3. Homelessness. The homeless need to be permanently housed, and there must be sufficient social and other housing built over the next few years to ensure that everyone who needs it is provided for.
4. Deficient education, skills and training. With the coming of the digital age and the demands of Climate Change, there will be far more need for relevant skills training and apprenticeships in the coming months and years.
5. Employment and under-employment. Too many of the care workers seen to be essential in this crisis are on zero-hours contracts and the minimum wage. Thousands of people are now newly facing unemployment.
These grave problems need an overall plan to deal with them. The UN Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, concluded after his fact-finding visit here in November 2018 that the former post-War Social Contract had broken down. We should plan for a replacement for that broken social contract – a new post-Coronavirus Social Contract for our times, in which the government is obliged by the electorate to face its responsibilities.
The Liberal Democrats should take the lead in this. It is our natural heritage, looking back even before the Liberal Beveridge to the great reforming government of Lloyd George and Asquith from1905 to ‘15. The present Labour party cannot assume the Beveridge mantle – though perhaps they will be able to carry out matured plans in due course, just as the Attlee government did in 1945-51.
Our country needs a new national Social Contract to be understood and fulfilled. But so, frankly, does our party. We struggle in the national polling, barely making 10 per cent at best, and that is unsurprising when we fail to define clearly what we stand for. This plan will give us the vision, purpose and developing strategy which the Thornhill review of the General Election performance demands we develop. We recommend it to our members as the overarching theme needed for our party at this time, and we ask our future leader to take it forward.
* Katharine Pindar is a long-standing member of the Lib Dems and an activist in the West Cumbrian constituency of Copeland and Workington.