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Making poverty matter

The Tories have seized on Labour's record to argue that it proves that 'big government' is no longer a solution to poverty and is now a cause of it. Ruth Lister argues that, on the contrary, the state needs to do much more - and the left needs to defend it

May 7, 2010
4 min read

Poverty and inequality have not figured as an election issue in recent decades. Those at the sharpest end – people living in poverty – are less likely to vote, and those of them who do are less likely to live in the marginal constituencies where elections are largely won or lost. Thus their second class social citizenship is compounded by second class political citizenship.

Paradoxically, it’s possible that the Tories will try to make poverty and inequality an election issue this time. In his autumn party conference speech, David Cameron taunted Labour: ‘Who made the poorest poorer? … Who made inequality greater? No, not the wicked Tories … you, Labour: you’re the ones who did this to our society.’ And one of the Conservatives’ pre-election publications, Labour’s Two Nations, argues that ‘the evidence is stark, and it proves that Britain is once more divided into two nations.’

For those of us who lived and fought through the Thatcher years, the amnesia is breathtaking. In 1997, Labour inherited a society divided once more into two nations as a result of Tory economic, fiscal and social policies. Yet, its own failures leave it vulnerable to these attacks. It has failed to meet its interim targets to reduce child poverty; the number of working-age childless adults living in poverty has increased; and the National Equality Panel suggests that the gap between rich and poor (as measured by the Gini coefficient) is at its highest since soon after the second world war.

The Tories have seized on Labour’s record to argue that it proves that ‘big government’ is no longer a solution to poverty and is now a cause of it. But this is to ignore the extent to which the situation would have been even worse had it not been for the measures that Labour did take. For instance, analysts at the London School of Economics have calculated that, in 2008-9, overall poverty would have been up to six percentage points higher and child poverty up to 13 percentage points higher than it was without the improvements Labour made to the tax-benefit system. The true lesson to be learned is that the state cannot ease up, if poverty and inequality is to be reduced significantly. That is not to say that other actors, such as civil society and employers, do not have an important role to play, nor to ignore the oppressive role played by the state in the lives of marginalised groups. But if the role of the state in meeting social need becomes an election issue, as it might well do, then the left needs to defend it.

The left should also be supporting the campaign groups who are trying to ensure poverty and inequality are on the electoral agenda. For those of us who do not experience poverty ourselves this is in part an act of solidarity. But it’s also worth noting that many more people are poor at some stage in their lives than at any one point in time; so it’s not a simple question of ‘us’ in solidarity with ‘them’. Moreover, we now have a mass of evidence of the damage that inequality does to the health and wellbeing of society as a whole. Inequality should therefore be of concern to everyone in the forthcoming election.

The more the case for tackling poverty and inequality is made during the election, the more likely the incoming government will be under pressure to take decisive action and the more convincing a mandate it will have to do so. This action will need to address both the original distribution of income and wealth and its redistribution through the tax and benefits system.

A higher minimum wage, a better deal for part-time workers and a high pay commission could be tools to achieve a more equitable wages distribution. A reformed inheritance tax and more progressive income tax system are needed on the redistribution side, together with more effective anti-poverty measures. Welfare to work policies should place greater emphasis on removing the structural barriers faced by disadvantaged jobseekers and on retention and progression once in paid work. They should be complemented by social security policies that reverse the trend to ever greater reliance on means-testing and ensure that benefits for both adults and children provide an income sufficient to maintain human dignity – the essence of a human rights approach to poverty.

Ruth Lister is professor of social policy at Loughborough University

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