Greg Clark MP: Poverty is too important an issue to leave to the Labour Party
Greg Clark MP was recently appointed Shadow Minister for Charities, Voluntary Bodies and Social Enterprise in the Department for Communities and Local Government team. His article below emerges from his chairmanship of the economy and welfare working group of the Social Justice Policy Group.
Iain Duncan Smith has been rightly praised for his pioneering work with the Centre for Social Justice – and the Social Justice Policy Group, on which I have been privileged to serve. In his time as leader, and ever since, his commitment to the poor has been an inspiration.
It was as leader that he spoke out on poverty, challenging those who say that it is a thing of the past:
“…there are those who say that poverty in Britain simply does not exist. But it does. Many people do not enjoy the opportunities and freedoms that most of us take for granted. I think of children growing up in homes where it’s still hard to make ends meet…poverty is real today for those children.”
With those words, IDS overturned the Conservative orthodoxy of the 1980s, most famously set out in John Moore’s 1989 speech, The end of the line for poverty.
Moore’s argument was that absolute poverty had declined to the point at which it had virtually disappeared. Certainly, it was the case that absolute poverty – meaning poverty defined against a fixed income line adjusted only for inflation – declined in the 1980s. However, relative poverty – meaning poverty defined as a given percentage of contemporary average income for the whole population – did rise during the 1980s.
In other words, the gap between the people at the bottom of income scale and the middle of the income scale grew. But is this poverty?
If you think that poverty is about more than hunger and homelessness, then, yes, it is. If our fellow citizens are excluded from the everyday basics of a mainstream lifestyle by their economic circumstances then they are poor by contemporary standards.
This is not a new idea. Nor is it one alien to Conservative thought. On the contrary, the idea of a truly united kingdom is integral to the entire Conservative tradition, and stretches all the way back to Adam Smith. It was Smith who defined what we now call relative poverty and social exclusion in his Wealth of Nations:
“By necessaries I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without.”
By way of an example, he spoke of a linen shirt, which he said was not, strictly speaking, a necessary of life:
“...the Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty which, it is presumed, nobody can fall into without extreme bad conduct.”
Adam Smith understood that society’s measure of what constitutes poverty has to move with the times. If it doesn’t, then people will be left behind.
One can picture our nation as a convoy crossing the desert. Everyone may be moving forward, but if the distance between those right at the back and rest of the convoy keeps growing there comes a point at which it breaks up.
This is an image I’ve borrowed from a book by the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. I realise that this might be scene as unusual point of reference for a Conservative MP, but I make no apology for wanting a society that holds together or for believing in a Britain that remains united.
This is something that the Conservative Party as a whole must make crystal clear. Ignoring the reality of relative poverty was a terrible mistake. It allowed the Left to dominate the poverty debate for a generation and to copyright the issue of social exclusion. This was an absurd position for us to be in, Disraeli’s idea of One Nation is nothing if not a determination that no part of society should be alienated from the whole – in other words, socially excluded. In short, poverty is too important an issue to leave to the Labour Party and overcoming social exclusion is an essential ambition for a Conservative Government.
What’s more, we need to hold the current Government to account. In researching the Social Justice Policy Group’s report on economic poverty and dependency it was apparent that New Labour has systematically exaggerated its achievements in this area. Most dramatically, we found that the Government has reduced child poverty by targeting households just below the official poverty line of 60% average income. In the same period, there was an actual increase in the number of families a long way below the Government’s poverty line. Among families with children – and compared to the mid-1990s – there are a quarter of million more individuals living in households with less that 40% of average income. Among all households, there are three-quarters-of-a-million more individuals at this deep level of poverty. Furthermore, there’s been no improvement in the duration of poverty for those affected by it.
So for the poorest people in Britain, their relative poverty is deeper than ever and lasts just as long – not something that Ministers are keen to reveal. However, this is not the limit of Labour’s failure. The SJPG report goes on to document multiple flaws in the Government’s anti-poverty strategy, so many that the entire policy can only be seen as a dead end for the poor. A new way forward is desperately needed, one which the Conservative Party must find in order to present a genuine alternative to Labour. That is the next stage in the work of the Social Justice Policy Group.