Thinking of Armistice Day, with particular poignancy this year as we remember the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, it made me reflect about the context in which the commencement of the war occurred.
From 1911 to 1914 there was significant social reform following a Royal Commission on changes to the poor law.
These social changes laid the foundation of the modern welfare system. The reforms built on the work of Charles Booth and B.S. Rowntree, who had both been looking critically at the cause of poverty across the country and the stigma of claiming poor relief.
There was a growing movement for change driven by a moral concern for the poor. Compare this to today where parts of the political classes and the media seek to belittle those forced to use food banks because they are struggling on the minimum wage or on zero hours contracts to put food on the table. Who would have believed that in the 21st century in the UK we would still be talking about the ‘working poor?’
Trade unionism had been growing between 1910 and 1912 around poverty and improving working conditions and were supported by the emerging Labour Party, both committed to social democracy.
Today Unison is still campaigning for fair pay. Public sector workers who provide services and support to the most vulnerable in our communities, are themselves struggling against poverty. In this region we are seeing an increase in the number of children living in poverty; in some parts of Newcastle it is one in two children.
Prior to WW1 there were public work schemes to improve living conditions, including in rural areas, through central government loans for house building. Today Unison is campaigning for an increase in the provision of social housing. The introduction of the bedroom tax, has affected many families, including the disabled. The reality is that there is not enough alternative housing available for those who are losing part of their benefits as a result of this unfair tax.
The period 1907-12 saw the introduction reforms covering everything from health, education, national insurance, pensions, health insurance which laid the foundation for the NHS, labour exchanges, bringing more workers under the national minimum wage, a Development Fund to provide work in times of depression, fire and rescue services in mines, national insurance and the right to unemployment pay, investment in public utilities, increases in direct taxation on the wealthy and investment in social services. All of which helped to improve living, health and social conditions for the country
Here was a really radical attempt to improve the state of the nation. Yet today we are campaigning to keep the gains we have made on the foundation of these reforms. Campaigning for a Living Wage to take those on the minimum wage out of poverty. Against exploitation of workers by the expansion of zero hours contracts which leaves many in a state of permanent uncertainty about what work or pay they will receive each week. To keep our NHS as ours and not hand it over piecemeal to the private sector. Serious measures to tackle unemployment especially for young people. To tackle poverty and the widening gap between the north and south, and challenge inequality. To invest in the public sector and its services.
It is ironic that the Coalition Government has privatised part of the probation service, devastated career advice services, both of which were introduced to give young people support and direction in life. The introduction of university fees has excluded many from fulfilling their educational aspirations.
Commending the People’s Budget to MPs, Lloyd George said, “This is a war Budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness. I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty, and the wretchedness and human degradation which always follows in its camp, will be remote to the people of this country.”
World War I saw the mass destruction of lives on a scale never envisioned before. Not only those who were killed but also the wounded and shell shocked and those remaining family members that had to live the remainder of their lives under the shadow of their loss. For me the best commemoration that we can show them is to continue eradicating poverty and its consequences, promote equality and build a country of inclusivity that truly honours their sacrifice.
- Gill Hale is regional secretary of Unison