Greasy Pole: Poverty – Blair Speaks

Does anyone now remember John Moore, the cabinet minister who was once encouraged to see himself as the next Conservative Prime Minister? He started out as one of those people who enriched themselves by doing things like selling pounds for deutchsmarks for dollars back to pounds again. Having made his pile it seemed the natural thing to do, to find a nice safe Tory seat so that he could participate in arranging the system to ensure that people like him could get even richer.

It worked like a dream and after he got into Parliament his rise was meteoric (an appropriate word because he later burnt out and fell like a meteorite). With some cunningly obsequious interventions he locked himself into position as Thatcher’s favourite. He got to be a minister and then, when the two departments of Health and Social Security became merged into the huge, hugely spending, dreaded DHSS he was put in charge. There he introduced the Social Fund, a method of drastically reducing the money available for Special Needs grants. To emphasise how fit and dynamic he was we were regularly treated to repulsive photographs of him on his exercise bicycle or at work in his shirt sleeves. But this rich, energetic, ambitious man was really not tough enough. The stress of running the DHSS while scheming to take over the top job cracked him up so that at one cabinet meeting, to the open contempt of Thatcher and the discreet glee of his rivals, Moore practically collapsed. It was not long before he returned to the back benches. No one was sorry to see him go.

He would have been wise to leave it at that, to accept the cruel reality of politics and devote the rest of his life to his roses or his currency note collection. But he decided to have one last effort at climbing the greasy pole. He would make a controversial speech which, on the basis a bit of pre-determined research, would claim to challenge some accepted ideas about a social problem. It was natural that the problem should be poverty, about which he should have learned a little when he gave up playing the markets and took over the DHSS. He might have spoken about alleviating poverty but that would not have been controversial enough to attract attention. Instead he set out to prove that poverty virtually did not exist, that it was really not much more than the angle from which you viewed the statistics about slums, malnutrition, poverty-related diseases or whatever.

It was not a very clever speech and the attention it attracted was not the kind Moore had reckoned on. It was savaged by the poverty lobby and by his erstwhile rivals in the Tory Party. Deservedly, it sank into a swamp of contempt—like Moore himself, who was packed off to the House of Lords.

That nasty piece of history came to mind when Tony Blair, on a trip up north, used a recent government “analysis” of levels of poverty to cast doubt on the generally accepted notion that the problem is wider, sharper and more punishing in the north than in the south:

“I am determined to make all parts of Britain share in rising prosperity and that in all parts of Britain we tackle poverty.”

Of course we are accustomed to that phrase “rising prosperity”; we hear it a lot when ministers are doing their best to lower working-class living standards. It is intended to disguise the fact that millions of people are unfamiliar with any kind of prosperity and spend their lives trying to survive through various degrees of deprivation. The burden of Blair’s speech was that while there may be deep poverty in the north it also exists in the south; in both parts of the country there are patches where workers are relatively better off. The object, apart from asking us to accept an index which is self-evidently nonsense, was to persuade us that this government is, by some miracle, successfully grappling with the effects of the long term decline in heavy industries such as steel manufacture, mining, shipbuilding . . .

Blair’s speech was no better received than that made by Moore, all those years ago—which says something about the persistence of the problems of poverty whichever party is in power. Apart from the usual clutch of disappointed Labour MPs, whose concepts and principles are flexible enough to keep them in the party whatever their reservations about it, there were also other objectors who may be called more detached. Bill Midgley was one of them: this president of the North East Chamber of Commerce and one-time building society boss described the analysis used by Blair as a “whitewash” and accused ministers of being “highly selective . . . Anybody can play the selectivity game”.

Less selective is the material coming from places like Bristol University, where research undertaken before the last election showed that twice as many babies die before their first birthday in Glasgow and Manchester than in less impoverished areas. These are places where there are some four percent more children living below the official poverty line. One effect of this is that there are 1.5 percent more GCSE failures. A survey carried out jointly by the Office of National Statistics and the Institute of Psychiatry found that children from poorer families are three times more likely to suffer from some kind of mental disorder. And a little piece of what is sometimes dismissed as anecdotal evidence is that staff at a school in Sheffield have to keep a sharp watch on the weather because the building where they try to teach is so rotten that the roof could be ripped off by a strong breeze or collapsed by a heavy fall of snow.

These are symptoms of the poverty inseparable from the lives of all those who have to sell their working ability in order to live. In the scale of that social reality it does not matter whether poverty is more intense, more desolate, more degrading, in one part of the country than another. When Blair argues to the contrary he is simply trying to obscure a persistent fact of capitalist life. Wherever it exists, and to whatever degree, poverty is brutal and nasty; it wrecks peoples’ lives, it makes them ill, it drives them mad and it kills them. It was doing massive damage to working-class lives when John Moore was hoping to rebuild his career by concealing reality and it is the same now when Tony Blair is trying to strengthen his hold on power by the same cynical method.


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