Thursday, April 23, 2015

Labour must reaffirm its preferential option for the poor

To be honest with you people like myself - in full-time employment, with mortgage rates at an all-time low - have been relatively unaffected by the cuts imposed by the Tory-led coalition government. However as the IFS reported last year, George Osborne's spending cuts are - and will continue to - hitting the poorest far harder than the better off.

Over 100 years ago Seebohm Rowntree carried out some preliminary research into the amounts and types of foods, the levels of rents, cost of heating and lighting, etc. deemed necessary to maintain 'physical efficiency'. Rowntree's estimates of the income needed to avoid poverty were set deliberately low in order to test whether there was any level of income at which people could not maintain a non-poor lifestyle no matter how hard they tried. In his report Rowntree distinguished between:

'Primary poverty’ - families whose income was insufficient for the maintenance even of 'physical efficiency'
'Secondary' poverty’ - families whose income would have been sufficient for the maintenance of 'physical efficiency' were it not that some portion of it was absorbed by other expenditure.

When you read Rowntree's report today, especially in light of the savage cuts to welfare, housing and adult social care, one is left contemplating exactly how we might today define what physical efficiency means. For Rowntree it meant the following:

'A family living upon the scale allowed for must never spend a penny on railway fare or omnibus. They must never go into the country unless they walk. They must never purchase a half penny newspaper or spend a penny to buy a ticket for a popular concert. They must write no letters to absent children, for they cannot afford to pay the postage. They must never contribute anything to their church or chapel, or give any help to a neighbour which costs them money. They cannot save nor can they join a sick club or trade union, because they cannot pay the necessary subscriptions. The children must have no pocket money for dolls, marbles or sweets. The father must smoke no tobacco and drink no beer. The mother must never buy any pretty clothes for herself or her children, the character of the family wardrobe as for the family diet being governed by the regulation nothing must be bought but that which is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of physical health and what is bought must be of the plainest and most economical description'.

So how, exactly, will today's poor be affected by these draconian, brutal and according to many commentators, unnecessary cuts? The coalition cabinet was drawn almost exclusively from the financial elite, people who simply have no concept of what 'physical efficiency' means for the millions of their fellow citizens who exist on modest incomes but who will bear the brunt of this ideologically driven spending round. Too many of David Cameron's Conservatives are the ‘right kind of people’ – i.e. his people: privately educated and from a background of immense wealth and privilege. Under Cameron, the Tories still believe the role of government is to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of those who embrace their own particular political, economic and social outlook.

Rowntree's 1901 report exposed the senseless, soul destroying and economically dire implications of a laissez faire, non-interventionist state - we owe it to today's poor to ensure that his sound advice and analysis are not dismissed on the grounds of the inevitable consequences of deficit reduction. If we really are 'all in this together' then we cannot allow millions of people to be condemned to live lives that result in physical insufficiency.

Politics that seeks the liberation of people from poverty, injustice and persecution can be a powerful force for change. At home and abroad it is time for Labour to reaffirm its preferential option for the poor. It is time to take sides and end the political cross-dressing of the 1990s. As a political party it is time to be clear about who we are, who we were and what we want to become.

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