David Cameron is not the first Tory to claim poverty as his issue while presiding over policies that have the opposite effect. He is following in the footsteps of his work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith. The left fumes but Cameron gets his headlines. Why can’t Labour land its punches?
There are three linked reasons why Labour has no traction on this issue. The first is that the public idea of poverty is still one of destitution. Of cold and hunger and dirt. There is a shocking amount of this in the UK, but it’s only a small subset of those living below the official poverty line. Most people don’t see much destitution themselves, so they don’t believe it’s a big issue. Poverty has not featured as one of the top five public concerns in MORI’s political issues index for 20 years.
The second problem is the pervading story about why people end up poor.
Everyone knows some people make it out of poverty to become successful businessmen and women, entrepreneurs, celebrities. So why can’t everyone make it, at least to a decent standard of living? Surely those who end up poor are the authors of their own misfortune? They should have worked harder, been more careful and made better choices.
The Tory narrative fits this popular understanding. Poverty is about responsibility and work. Cutting benefits is in the interests of the poor, because it makes them stand on their own two feet. Never mind the fact that most poor children now live in families where at least one parent is working. Never mind that poverty is concentrated among those with disabilities or caring responsibilities, among particular ethnic minorities, and in those areas of the country where good jobs are scarce (see the HBAI statistics). It’s their own fault.
The third problem is that Labour has been politically hamstrung by concerns that we would be seen as fiscally irresponsible and too generous on welfare. The only significant benefit cut we were committed to reversing at the last election was the bedroom tax. But other welfare changes made by the coalition government were much more significant, especially the 1 per cent cap on uprating and limits on housing and council tax benefits. We were not confident enough of our political ground.
Until we tackle all three challenges, we will remain stuck. First, we have to get serious about the dull-sounding task of developing and arguing for a better understanding of poverty. In the final moments of the last Labour government we legislated to abolish child poverty by 2020. That legislation has become a dead letter and a fig-leaf for the Tories. We should have the courage to say so: drop the 2020 child poverty target and work out a better and more realistic alternative.
Beyond this, we need to change the public story about why people become poor. This is a campaigning and communications task, and the Labour party should work with civil society organisations who share the same objectives and concerns. Most importantly, we need to develop our strategy for reducing poverty as a party of government, so that we don’t get stuck in the fiscal trap again.
Welfare is just one way of tackling poverty, and it is by far the most expensive. The first priority is to get more people into work, which is about skills, employability and support. A third of young people in England currently leave education without the literacy and numeracy skills they need to survive in the modern economy. Local labour markets work poorly in many areas, with weak links between employers, education and skills institutions, and potential employees. And we need a welfare-to-work system that does more than sanction people off benefits and force them into temporary, unskilled and unpaid work.
The second priority is to make work pay better. For the last general election we boiled this down into an unambitious retail offer to raise the minimum wage – and promptly got trumped by the chancellor. We should be thinking about the minimum wage, living wage agreements, progression up the wage scale, careers advice, adult skills training, and productivity improvements all as linked parts of the strategy. We should be doing all this with the unions, and it must not just be for those on the very lowest wages but about shifting the whole lower end of the earnings distribution upwards.
There is a rich territory here for a political argument and innovative policy. But we have to get serious about the challenges and understand why we failed to make headway in the last parliament. Otherwise we will simply repeat our recent history. Maybe we will feel the pleasurable frisson of righteous anger, but we will make no progress with the public. And the cost of that failure will be borne by the people who most need our help.
Richard Brooks was Research Director of the Fabian Society and co-author of Narrowing the Gap, the report of the Fabian Commission on Life Chances and Child Poverty. He tweets @_RichardBrooks_