Greasy Pole: Waiting for Poverty

Waiting For Poverty
Two years after he set out on his historic drive to eliminate the world’s problems, starting with a few in Great Britain, it seems that Tony Blair is not impressing as many people as he would like. True, there is now a new bogeyman threatening to undermine all the humanitarian ambitions of leaders like Blair and Clinton—Milosevic in place of Saddam Hussein—and the bombs fall on Yugoslavia instead of Iraq. True, a different bunch of multi-millionaires now have a Prime Minister fawning on them at receptions and banquets in Number Ten. Was this, then, what the Labour Party meant when they bellowed, in their 1997 election manifesto, that Britain Deserves Better?

Meanwhile the Blair machine which churns out sound bites, promises and threats in about equal measure has been relentlessly at work. Very little escapes its attention. We are accustomed now to hearing the Prime Minister’s views on the week’s football results, on whether Lennox Lewis was robbed of that heavyweight boxing title, on how British pop stars are doing in competition with those from abroad. So it was something of a surprise when Blair recently departed from the usual script to dissertate on a rather more substantial issue. In a speech on 18 March, Blair had another promise to offer:

“Our historic aim will be for ours to be the first generation to end child poverty. It will take a generation. It is a 20-year mission, but I believe it can be done.”

This was pretty strong stuff—ending child poverty as distinct from alleviating it. And in only twenty years. It caused a lot of excitement among what is called the poverty lobby—those tireless organisations whose members earnestly toil to expose the extent and the effects of deeper deprivation among people, only to spoil it all by suggesting remedies, like increasing state benefits, which have been shown to be ineffective and unrealistic. Listening to Blair, many of the people in the poverty lobby must have thought that this was why they voted Labour. It seemed to go unnoticed, that in twenty years’ time Blair will probably be long out of politics. By that time his speech will be forgotten, replaced by some other politician’s promise about ending the scandal of children in desperate need.

Back in 1979 the Labour Party did not lose the election because they had been wildly successful and had conquered problems like poverty. They lost it because they had been exposed as powerless to do anything about such damaging influences on our lives. At that time we had come through a post-war period of 32 years during which the majority—17 years—had been under Labour government. Their failure can be seen in their manifesto for that election, when they said that their “. . . purpose is to overcome the evils of inequality, poverty, racial bigotry, and make Britain truly one nation”. This sounds very similar to what we are accustomed to hearing from Blair. His efforts to exploit the issue in order to win support is evidence that as the last Labour government left office poverty was still an intact blight on our lives. Twenty years later a Labour leader can talk as if his party had only just got around to thinking about it, had never been in a position to realise their promises to alleviate it. That 1979 manifesto elaborated on the circumstances which, it said, made it vital to vote Labour:

“As long as there are men and women struggling with low pay, mothers stretching the household budget to make ends meet, youngsters in search of a job, children learning in out of date classrooms, patients queuing for a hospital bed or families without a decent home—then there is work for a Labour Government.”

That was the situation in 1979 and it is the situation today. We can take our pick of the facts and the statistics which tell the grim story of the extent of poverty and what it does to the lives of people. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown recently presented a Treasury survey which showed that two in every five children are born into a “poor” household—by which he meant one where the family members live at or below the official poverty line. The Treasury has also just discovered that these conditions don’t simply evaporate with time; they are handed down, from one generation to another; 25 percent of children, they said, never escape from that level of deprivation. “The next task for the Government,” declared Brown (presumably after they have completely flattened Belgrade), “is to wage war on child poverty.”

The Children’s Society (one of those toilers in the poverty lobby) point out some facts about the concentration of the worst poverty—that the highest incidence of disadvantaged children is in just 59 local authority districts, which do not include places like Mayfair and Knightsbridge. Over twenty-five percent of the children born in those local authority areas start their life underweight, an effect of the malnourishment and lack of care of their mother during pregnancy. Their mortality rate will be 30 percent higher than children born elsewhere. When they get to school they will be disruptive in class, giving additional trouble to teachers already over-burdened, they will truant four times as much as the national average and about 150,000 of them will be excluded from school in a year. The lesson is clear—if you must be born, try not to have working class parents and not to come into the world in places like Hackney, Salford and Toxteth.

As there were high levels of deprivation twenty years ago and we now have yet another government making plans about abolishing it, we might have assumed that there would be some consciousness that the problem is rather more durable than the politicians are admitting. Blair, it is said, is bored by the whole subject—knocking hell out of Yugoslavia is probably more exciting—and will allow his eyes to glaze over if some tiresome underling raises the topic in his presence. Well of course if a problem is not only very nasty but persistent it can get tedious, especially if it affects other people rather than yourself. Perhaps it was boredom that prevented any proper mention of it in Labour’s 1997 manifesto, where there were only references to vague concepts like “higher wages and employment” and “educational and employment opportunities for all”. This was part of Labour’s obsession with getting as many people as possible into employment—into proper, regular exploitation instead of on the dole—so that they equated poverty almost solely with unemployment as if employed workers were never poor, deprived, repressed and always lived in decent homes, ate the best food, wore adequate clothes . . .

Working class deprivation is usually worse for someone who is out of work, as it is for someone who falls ill or gets old. That is because workers have only one method of getting a living—selling their ability to work to an employer. If they can’t do that, often because there is no demand for what they produce, they don’t count in capitalism’s scheme of things. But they can’t be left to expire, which would have all manner of implications for public health and the political stability of the system and so be even more expensive than granting them the right to claim the dole. But to keep them going without being in employment is also expensive so the best solution, for politicians like Blair, is to force (he calls it “helping” ) them into a job. This government has worked hard to impose that policy—on the unemployed and on single parents and now they are starting on the sick and the disabled.

Poverty is an inescapable part of capitalist society. It can be abolished, but only when there is a fundamental change in how we organise society. That is way beyond any policies or even concepts of the Labour Party. Meanwhile we are expected to be satisfied with Blair’s version of hope deferred.


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