Death is a class issue, GMB union politics

Spending on things like health and social care is much lower here than in comparable European countries. This of course would be directly responsible for deaths, as well as mental health issues and addiction problems.

1 September 2020

Neil Smith, GMB union political officer, believes that ‘’matter of life and death is a class issue’’.

We keep hearing that the pensionable age had to be raised because we are living longer. That might be the case in wealthier parts of the UK but not for those people living in the most deprived areas - some who can expect to die seven years earlier than their richer neighbours.

Indeed recent research by the London School of Economics has shown that people not directly impacted by poverty are living to a ripe old age, while for poorer folk their life expectancy predictions overall are falling to the worst levels in the last 16 years.

They say the worrying patterns are linked to widening social inequalities and leading to an increase in the number of avoidable deaths in “disadvantaged communities”.

Many of these cases include people dying of poisoning by drugs, alcohol consumption and suicide among under 50s, which is a further worrying trend tied into austerity and lack of hope for many families and individuals.

Unlike other similar European countries it appears these categories in the UK are leading causes of avoidable deaths for people aged 20-49.

The figures are stark and clear, for example women living in most deprived areas of the UK have a life expectancy of 78 years and 8 months, set against 86 and 2 months for women living in least deprived areas. It should be no surprise that the issues we as a union fight and campaign for are part of the problem, including jobs, housing, health care and education.

It appears the spending on things like health and social care is much lower here than in comparable European countries. This of course would be directly responsible for deaths, in particular as mental health and addiction problems grow and drink and drugs are seen as a way out of the poverty trap, then we are already at a disadvantage. An example of this is highlighted by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) who point out Richmond-upon-Thames had the highest male healthy life expectancy of 71.9 years which is nearly 19 years more than our men members born and living in Blackpool where it is just over 53 years. Women can expect to struggle in Nottingham where it is 54.2 years compared to 72.2 in the leafy suburbs of Wokingham, only 37 miles west of London.

They say these life and death figures have stalled since 2011 and in some areas have gone backwards.

The statistics are stark. They are shocking and unacceptable that life expectancy in the UK is lower than many of our European neighbours. What will they be like after the shambles of this government have caused further damage to our communities after Coronavirus and Brexit? As unemployment starts spreading like wildfire and rogue companies look to slash hard won pay, with terms and conditions under attack as they were during the Thatcher era.

What about the state pension? There are also murmurings from Tories about not being able to afford the triple lock to protect pensions. Which by the way are substantially lower than a number of our European neighbours.

Among suggestions and options being mooted are

  • to reduce the pension benefits and increase national insurance contributions.

  • encourage savers to increase private pension contributions. 

  • An even worse scenario is that they try and scrap the state pension.

Savers? How many of them do you know? How many people earn enough these days to regularly squirrel away funds into savings, pensions or Isa’s? There are people who can’t afford food or clothing for their kids, particularly in the same deprived areas with the highest early death rates.

Is it within our mindset to even consider that they would suggest scrapping the old age pension scheme? It has been in place for 109 years and at one stage was means tested. Many one nation Tories accuse the left of scaremongering over this, but let’s be blunt, nothing is beyond this right wing cabal.

Campaigning alliances of politicians, unions, charities and our communities need to change the debate to demand a higher level of income, in the form of decent salaries and benefits including pensions and for a reversal of policies by this government. It will enable a new civilised approach to society, which can look at tackling and wiping out poverty and the spectre of poor health and an early death for working class people.

Neil Smith

GMB Union Political Officer

GMB Union North West & Irish Region

GMB North West & Irish Region