Social Justice

5 ways to fix a broken UK – from universal credit to an urgent general election

2024 has to be a better year... right?

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak has plenty to ponder when it comes to transforming the UK's fortunes. Image: Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

Between biting poverty, the crippling cost of living crisis and a refugee homelessness scandal of the Tory government’s own making, 2023 in the UK was… bleak, to say the least.

But there’s hope to be found in 2024 – we asked campaigners and activists what needs to be done to turn the UK around in 2024. From an overhaul of universal credit to a reset of parliamentary arithmetic through a long-overdue general election, they weren’t short of ideas.

Here are 5 key takeaways.

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1. Increase benefits to tackle poverty in UK

“Top of our wish list for turning things around in 2024 would be for the government to ensure benefits like universal credit always cover the essentials,” proffered Pat Fitzsimons of Hackney Foodback. It would be one key way, she said, to help vulnerable people to deal with the rising cost of living, with food prices having increased by around 28% in the past two years. “Social security is meant to be a safety net but it’s full of holes! Demand for our food bank has increased by 55% this year and we’ve seen a huge surge in people aged 65 and over needing support. Until universal credit truly guarantees people’s essentials, there will always be demand for food banks like ours.”

Earlsfield Foodbank manager Charlotte White echoed the call for a radical overhaul of the benefits system, and warned that the UK was “sleepwalking towards a dangerous reality where food banks are the main solution to poverty”.

“We need to reverse at least some of the damage done in the last 14 years,” she explained. “A switch to a ‘cash first’ approach where efforts are focused on maximising income instead of providing emergency food aid.

“When considering these measures, ‘cost’ is often called out as the main barrier. But what’s the cost of doing nothing? The impact of poverty and food insecurity on people’s physical and mental health comes at enormous human cost and strains public finances through the provision of NHS and other support.”

2. Houses, houses, houses

There’s no big secret to fixing the housing crisis: build more homes, particularly genuinely affordable ones. Successive governments’ failure to do that for decades – and the loss of social housing stock through Right to Buy – has seen demand send the price of buying and renting homes surge.

While the Conservative government has increased housebuilding, it has failed to hit its target of 300,000 homes a year, managing 234,400 homes across England in 2022-23. Meanwhile, the Scottish government is shaving a quarter off its affordable housing budget in 2024-25 to save £200m despite three councils declaring a housing emergency and a target of 110,000 new affordable homes by 2032.

Things are not likely to get better in the short-term. Anna Clarke, director of policy and public affairs at The Housing Forum, told the Big Issue house-builders are struggling to deliver due to the impact of the cost of living crisis.

“Social landlords are finding it hard to cover the costs of new development given high inflation, fixed grant rates and a growing need to invest in their existing stock,” said Clarke.

“The housebuilding sector can contract fast – and that is what we’re starting to see currently. But it struggles to bounce back quickly – recruitment of skilled workers can be hard and slow, and SMEs struggle to break into the sector or to grow. We urgently need the government to support the housebuilding sector – and the best way of doing this is probably via the social housing sector, who could keep the sector building, whilst also building much-needed affordable homes.”

Housing secretary Michael Gove announced a revised National Planning Policy Framework for England in December, promising to introduce league tables to name and shame local authorities who are failing to build enough homes. That’s despite the government scrapping local house building targets and the many local authorities already on the brink of financial ruin.

Ultimately, there’s no other way of fixing the UK housing crisis and end homelessness without spending tens of billions to build enough social housing.

3. A long election year begins… hopefully

The big, unavoidable question in 2024’s politics is the timing of the looming general election, as current polling predicts a wipeout for the Conservatives.

After 14 years of Conservative rule, change cannot come soon enough, says lawyer and social justice campaigner Peter Stefanovic: “The Tory government has locked millions of people out of the electoral process, stripped back our right to protest and robbed millions of workers of their democratic right to strike.

“We need an election NOW to reverse the damage it has done, and continues to do, to our democratic processes.”

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer will begin their campaigns by December at the latest, but a new survey has revealed most voters want to go to the ballot box by summer.

4. Worker’s rights

TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said a general election could usher in better pay, job security and employment rights: “For a better 2024, working people need a general election and a new government with a new deal for working people.

“A deal that bans exploitation through zero-hours contracts and fire and rehire. And a deal that boosts pay and job security with Fair Pay Agreements and full employment rights from day one in a new job.”

5. UK must take climate justice seriously

2023 broke records, and not in a good way. It was the second hottest year on record in the UK, and from wildfires to floods the effects of the climate crisis are becoming more apparent.

“In 2024, we need politicians to show the ambition on climate which the public wants to see, with policies to slash emissions and protect our climate,” said Alethea Warrington, senior campaigner at climate charity Possible.

“This includes supporting clean renewable energy rather than dangerous fossil fuels, to bring down emissions and people’s bills. In this crucial year for climate action, we need to hold those in power accountable for the choices they make on our climate.”

A big political change can be the catalyst for climate action, says Labour donor Dale Vince, who has stopped funding Just Stop Oil and believes the ballot box will be more effective than protest in 2024.

“2024 could be the year Britain frees itself from nearly 15 years of Tory governments and starts a new era with Labour,” says Vince. “More social justice, compassion for the homeless, refugees and those of us on benefits, and we start the green economic revolution that holds the answer to all of the major problems we face – economic, climate, nature, and human health.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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