Economists and human rights experts call on Starmer to drop “destructive” economic policy

2023-08-31 12:30:00 +0100

Over 70 top economists, human rights experts, and other academics have written to the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer urging him to make significant changes to his economic programme for government.

In an open letter coordinated by the think-tank Compassion in Politics, academics including Ha-Joon Chang and Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson - authors of the widely read The Spirit Level - warn Starmer that his current approach mimics the “economic orthodoxy that has made this country poorer, less cohesive and more unequal than fifteen years ago.” 

The signatories point to evidence that Labour’s pledge to maintain the two-child limit on child benefits could push more families into poverty and that their emphasis on maintaining or even extending cuts will make the entire nation poorer and weaker. 

The authors urge Starmer to back an increase in public spending - a policy that they say would not only protect the least well-off but also stimulate the overall economy. 

They also argue that, with a change of government likely, the Labour Party has a unique opportunity to transform the economy into one that “improves wellbeing, works in alignment with our environment, and achieves social justice.” 

They point to alternative economic models being trialed by governments outside Westminster - including ‘doughnut economics’ and ‘wellbeing economics’ - which focus on improving quality of life while reducing inequalities and the use of the planet’s finite resources.

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Jennifer Nadel, Co-Director of Compassion in Politics, said:

“Britain has still not escaped the shadow of the financial crash. While other nations are experimenting with new ideas and learning lessons from the disaster, we are still spell-bound by an illiterate economic policy that argues spending cuts make people better off. It doesn’t. It just inflicts misery on the ever-increasing number of people who need support.

“Now is a unique opportunity for change. The public have seen through austerity. An election is on the horizon. Labour - and indeed every party’s - mission must be to show bravery and ambition in articulating a new and better vision for the future of the economy and our country. As the authors of this letter have said, failure won’t just mean a wasted opportunity - but wasted lives as well.”

Kate Pickett, author of The Spirit Level, said:

“We need our next government to have a clear vision to protect and promote the wellbeing of both people and planet. New economic models, based on social rights, are there to underpin an attractive and feasible future for the UK.”

Koldo Casla, Director of the Human Rights Centre Clinic, and co-author of the letter, said:

“In the face of global warming, harmful inequalities and rampant inflation, more than an opportunity, Labour has the historic responsibility of presenting a transformational alternative grounded on social rights. Enshrining social rights in the law would set up a roadmap for public policy, providing minimum standards of adequacy in relation to social security, health or housing. Social rights can also act as benchmarks to track progress, and can provide a bullet-proof system to prevent deliberate retrogressive steps in the future.”

Full text of letter with signatures:

To Sir Keir Starmer, Leader of the Labour Party,

We, the undersigned, are concerned that your current economic programme for government will not transform the economic orthodoxy that has made this country poorer, less cohesive and more unequal than fifteen years ago. We urge you, as detailed towards the end of our letter, to use the unique opportunity you have at this moment to champion an alternative approach that can improve livelihoods, enhance wellbeing, and protect our planet. 

Firstly, the maintenance or extension of cuts in the current economic climate will only serve to deepen the poverty and hardship many are already facing. Those who rely most on social security have already borne the brunt of a decade of austerity and the dislocation caused by the pandemic. Without urgent help, deprivation will deepen. The Resolution Foundation forecasts that the proportion of people in absolute poverty will increase from 17.2% in 2021/22 to 18.3% in 2022/23. That means an additional 800,000 people in absolute poverty - unless investment is increased.

Secondly, under-investment in social security and services has a catalytic effect which leads to the further weakening of the economy and people’s overall wellbeing. Evidence suggests, for example, that cuts to Sure Start have led to thousands of children being admitted to hospital annually and therefore relying on emergency care facilities. Investment is a preventive measure which helps to limit inflated future expenditure.

In contrast, increases to public spending on social security and investment in public services are known to be some of the most effective ways through which to support livelihoods. We know that the successful and sustained efforts to reduce child poverty in the late 1990s and early 2000s - a legacy of the last Labour government - were achieved by increased spending on services like Sure Start and child benefit. In stark contrast, the Resolution Foundation expects relative child poverty and inequality to grow even after the end of the current cost-of-living crisis because the two-child limit and benefit cap will mean lower income growth. Wage stagnation and the fallacy of trickle-down economics means that even if the proverbial pie is to grow, it is highly unlikely that the benefits will be shared equally. In 2022, incomes for the poorest 14 million people fell by 7.5%, whilst incomes for the richest fifth saw a 7.8% increase.

Finally, investment in social security is good for the wider economy. Those who need that support the most are also the most likely to spend the money immediately - on essential items and services. That in turn stimulates the economy by putting liquidity into the system. It also provides a sturdy backbone to household finances, allowing individuals and families to plan and invest in their own future rather than living week-to-week. This leads not only to the enhancement of their own wellbeing but to the likely development of their skills and training, something that is reinvested in the economy. For this reason, we support the powerful call by more than 90 UK charities to make sure that all families have access to adequate levels of social security benefits to allow them to have a basic standard of living.

We believe it is the duty of an opposition to, where necessary, present an alternative vision for the future and when it comes to economics, multiple progressive models exist. ‘Doughnut economics’, for example, suggests that it is possible to live within the limits of our planet’s carrying capacity while enhancing human lives. The proposal developed by some of the signatories to this letter to create an Economic and Social Rights Bill would ensure that public policies on housing, health, education or social security are designed to fulfill human rights for everyone. Six governments (Canada, Scotland, Finland, New Zealand, Wales, and Iceland) have committed to becoming Wellbeing Economy Governments.

The Labour Party has a unique opportunity to reset the narrative and reform the rules of our economy - moving away from an out of date, economically and socially destructive approach towards a model which improves wellbeing, works in alignment with our environment, and achieves social justice. Failure to table an alternative will mean not only wasting that opportunity but many lives and futures as well. 


Professor Kate Pickett, OBE FAcSS FFPH FRSA, Professor of Epidemiology, University of York

Dr Koldo Casla, Lecturer in International Human Rights Law & Director of the Human Rights Centre Clinic, University of Essex

Jennifer Nadel and Matt Hawkins, Co-Directors of Compassion in Politics

Patrick Allen, Chair, Progressive Economy Forum

Professor Clare Bambra, Professor of Public Health, Newcastle University

Dr Amy Barnes, Senior Research Fellow, Public Health and Society, University of York

Dr David Barrett, Lecturer, School of Law, University of Exeter

Dr Dave Beck, Lecturer in Social Policy, University of Salford

Fran Bennett, Associate Fellow, Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford

Professor Jonathan Bradshaw, CBE, FBA, University of York (Emeritus)

Professor Emerita Julia Brannen, UCL

Professor Brendan Burchell, Professor of the Social Sciences, President of Magdalene College, University of Cambridge

Dr Gideon Calder, School of Social Sciences, Swansea University

Dr Meghan Campbell, University of Birmingham

Professor Mick Carpenter, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy, University of Warwick

Professor Ha-Joon Chang, Distinguished Research Professor of Economics, SOAS University of London

Dr Tom Cornford, Senior Lecturer, School of Law, University of Essex

Professor Robert Costanza, FASSA, FRSA, Professor of Ecological Economics, Institute for Global Prosperity, University College London

Professor Sara Ashencaen Crabtree, PFHEA, FRSA, Professor of Social & Cultural Diversity, Bournemouth University & University of Stavanger

Dr Sarah Craig, School of Law, Ulster University

Professor Anthony Culyer, CBE, FMedSci, Emeritus Professor of Economics, University of York

Professor Elizabeth Dowler, Emeritus Professor of Food & Social Policy, University of Warwick

Professor Rosalind Edwards, SSPC, University of Southampton

Dr Andrew Fagan, Director, Human Rights Centre, University of Essex

Dr Eldin Fahmy, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, University of Bristol

Professor Brian Ferguson, Department of Health Sciences, University of York

Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick, School of Law, Ulster University

Dr Kayleigh Garthwaite, School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham

Professor Caroline Glendinning FAcSS, Emerita Professor of Social Policy, University of York

Professor Maria Goddard, University of York

Professor Ian Gough FAcSS, Visiting Professor, London School of Economics

Sir Andrew Haines, Professor of Environmental Change and Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Dr Andrew Harding, Lecturer in Health Inequalities, Lancaster University

Emeritus Professor Hartley Dean, Department of Social Policy, London School of Economics

Professor Colin Harvey, School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast

Professor Annette Hastings, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow

Goretti Horgan, Social Policy, Ulster University

Professor Emeritus Robin Humphrey, PFHEA, NTF, Faculty of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Newcastle University

Dr Gillian Kane, Lecturer in Law, School of Law, Ulster University

Dr Jim Kaufman, University Fellow, University of Salford

Reverend Professor Jasper Kenter, Professorial Research Fellow Deliberative Ecological Economics, Aberystwyth Business School, Aberystwyth University

Dr Derek Kirton, Emeritus Reader in Social Policy and Social Work, University of Kent

Dr Ewa Kruszewska, Lecturer in Law, University of Essex

Stewart Lansley, FAcSS, University of Bristol

Professor Ruth Lister CBE, FBA, FAcSS, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy, Loughborough University.

Professor Gerry McCartney, Professor of Wellbeing Economy, University of Glasgow

James Meadway, Director, Progressive Economy Forum

Professor Emeritus, Jane Millar, University of Bath

Professor Simon Mohun, Emeritus Professor of Political Economy, Queen Mary University of London

Professor Lydia Morris, Professor of Sociology, University of Essex

Dr Luke Munford, Senior Lecturer in Health Economics, University of Manchester

Dr Dave Neary, Social Policy, Liverpool Hope University

Professor Rory O’Connell, Professor of Human Rights and Constitutional Law, Ulster University

Professor Charlotte O'Brien, Professor of Law, University of York.

Ellie Palmer, Prof Emerita, School of Law, University of Essex

Professor Jonathan Parker, FAcSS, FRSA, FJUC, Professor of Society and Social Welfare, Bournemouth University & University of Stavanger

Dr Ewan Robertson, Social and Political Sciences, University of Edinburgh

Peter Roderick, Principal Research Associate, Newcastle University

Professor Jill Rubery FBA FAcSS Executive Director, Work and Equalities Institute, Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester

Professor Lisa Scullion, Professor of Social Policy, University of Salford

Dr Anne Smith, Ulster University, School of Law

Professor Stephen Sinclair, Scottish Poverty & Inequality Research Unit

Professor Sigrun Skogly, Professor of Human Rights Law, Lancaster University

Dr Elizabeth Speake, Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University

Dr Guy Standing, FAcSS Professorial Research Associate, SOAS University of London

Dr Juliet Stone, Centre for Research in Social Policy, Loughborough University

Dr Sue Sudbury, Associate Professor of Media Practice, Bournemouth University

Research Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby, FBA, OBE, University of Kent.

Professor Emerita Geraldine Van Bueren KC, Queen Mary University of London, Visiting Fellow Kellogg College Oxford

Stewart Wallis, OBE, LLD (Hon Causa) Lancaster, Executive Chair, The Wellbeing Economy Alliance.

Paul Wilding, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy, University of Manchester.

Emeritus Professor Richard Wilkinson, University of Nottingham.

Professor Siobhán Wills, Transitional Justice Institute, Law School, University of Ulster

Dr Joe Wills, Lecturer in Law, University of Leicester

Professor Candida Yates, Department of Humanities and Law, Bournemouth University

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