11 June 2008

Last financial year in Britain there were 2.9 million children and 2.5 million pensioners in relative poverty. Both are increases over the previous year. Poverty matters because it constrains people’s lives unnecessarily and for many diminishes hope and aspiration and opportunity. Individuals, families, and the country suffer from frustrated achievement.

The eradication of such poverty has been a central Labour policy and since 1997 they have made progress with 600 000 children and 900 000 pensioners taken out of poverty. Labour started, of course, in 1997 from rock bottom, building up from the morally horrendous devastation of the Tories which had left millions of Britons in unnecessary dire need.

Labour has done well but nevertheless these latest figures are a mortifying failure. It is surely unnecessary to point out that many of these pensioners and children live in Cornwall.

In real life altruism has limits and progressives have to push it to those limits. Any government, including a progressive one, has to balance the competing claims of different groups in Britain and has to be restrained in how much tax it takes from working people to distribute to common services and people in need. Labour has struggled with this balance and lately has given more priority to the rich and comfortable middle classes than to the poor: for example, the £2.7 billion it is giving to partly right the foolish and wrong 10p attack on low income workers has gone mainly to middle class earners.

Would the Conservatives do better? Well, there’s the appalling record of the last Tory governments and David Cameron has said that poverty is not just about money. I agree but find it a scary comment from a Conservative. Does it mean they would not see more money to lift more of the poor out of relative poverty as a priority? Frankly, Labour trying and only partly succeeding in this sphere is better than the Tories not really trying.

Labour should refocus on poverty and give more importance to getting more people out of it though the bill is very large and the government is not awash with money. Nevertheless, perhaps the promised linking of pensions with wages could be brought forward. The £5 billion a year of unclaimed benefits for the elderly suggest a new approach is urgently needed there. The Conservatives should come up with some plain policies and be clear that what the poor need is encouragement to aspire and make and seize opportunity but they also need more money, higher benefits and pensions: pointing out Labour weaknesses and failures is not enough.