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Martin Sewell: Why is it so difficult to engage with the “Progressive Left” on the issue of poverty and social mobility, without provoking an angry response?

6a00d83451b31c69e201157078aaa7970b-150wi Martin Sewell is a family Solicitor from Kent.

On Wednesday, Tim Montgomerie offered the following proposition to Guardian readers:

“The surest route out of poverty: good education, strong family and willingness to work”.

Reading the many internet responses, one could not help but feel that he had ventured into a den of self-righteousness, as readers’ outraged responses came pouring back at him.

“..or in the case of the condem regime leaders, inherited wealth and over-privilege” said one, “ ...if the coalition really cared about tackling poverty,”...”But maintain at all costs the allocation and distribution of wealth that ensures even those in work are in poverty”....”More lies or pretence about social mobility won't wash.” ...” I read this article twice and was unable to ascertain any semblance of a coherent political ideology.”.. and so it went on.

To those genteel (and doubtless overprivileged folk) on ConHome. all doubtlessly schooled in Oxbridge tutorials, such barely concealed anger and outrage that a Conservative dared to talk about helping the poor might have come as a shock. So I pose the question: Why is it so difficult to engage with the “Progressive Left” on the issue of poverty and social mobility, without provoking such an angry response?

If entrenched poverty is a problem in Britain - which it is - one might have thought that any sign of one’s political opponents attempting a serious dialogue on the subject would be welcomed, but there is plainly a sensitivity about this which might bear some examination.

Tim’s proposition was nothing but a re-statement of old wisdom. It was well known to Martin Luther King Snr, whose model for his excluded Deep South congregation was “ Get yourself an education, a vote, and a mortgage”, but it was equally demonstrated by generations of socialist welsh miners, whose sons and daughters benefitted from the application of such principles, and became socially mobile school teachers in many a schoolroom in the 1930’s when social mobility presented obstacles to many a working class family - including my own.

Nobody who responded to Tim’s piece quite went so far as to argue the converse - that poor education, weak family ties and idleness was a better pathway to success, and so the only conclusion must be that when we begin to discuss these matters, we will be rebuffed for visceral, rather than intellectual reasons. How dare we show concern for the disadvantaged!

Few of those attacking Tim seemed to have paid any attention to the recent news. There has been a real, and some say heated, discussion between George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith over the affordability of IDS’s welfare to work proposals. IDS wants to help the poor in difficult times even if it means spending more money.  We may have differing views about that debate, and the timing of implementation of IDS’s core election contribution, but the essence of it is not that George Osborne was in any way antipathetic to the project - which I am sure he isn’t - but rather, whether the ghastly mess of Labour’s economic legacy enabled  the necessary policy to be implemented sooner rather than later.

It is very difficult to extract from that dispute, the notion that the Conservatives, or the Liberal Democrats for that matter, do not have, at the very least, a desire to lift the excluded from the intergenerational squalor to which they have been consigned by the previous undemanding State-hand-out consensus.

Yet that inability to contemplate a benign motivation may be at the heart  of the outrage of the Left. When you have proved, yet again, that Labour governments have a systemic and seemingly hard-wired propensity to run down the economy, leaving the nation in worse economic straits than ever before, you do need something to keep the red flag flying.

It is equally difficult to look at the mismatch between money spent and achieved outcomes across a range of public services, during 13 years of Labour administration, and when your own chosen indicators of child poverty also convict you of incompetence, there really is not too much left to lift the spirits.

So when an obviously “Tory Toff” like Tim hoves into view, exhibiting a long-standing faith-based commitment to the poor, no wonder he finds himself engulfed in the ululation of grief because “from the one that does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away”.

I conclude that it is this thought that provokes the anger. When all else is in disarray, the progressive Left likes to comfort itself with the notion that whatever else, they “care” more about the poor, the excluded, and the disadvantaged, and any evidence that threatens this unique brand selling point, this self-righteous affirmation of their own moral superiority, this bulwark against agreeing with anything that comes from across their own self-erected wall of incomprehension, is just too painful to contemplate.

The problem is that they need poverty too much, and love poor people too little.

When the poorer centiles of the population have been lifted from the kind of absolute grinding poverty that my great-grandfather knew, they construct mathematical formulae to ensure that “the poor” are indeed always with us. My great-grandfather incidentally knew what it was to be going blind, trying to support 12 children on the wages of a baker, before Lloyd George’s 1911 budget. Let there be no doubt, he would have regarded much of today’s poverty as riches beyond dreams.

For the Left however, in present circumstances, reaffirming their own virtue, and decrying the bona fides of others, is pretty much all they have left, and so we shall have to expect more of it.

It is paradoxical however that the Left has tended to do best when they are not on their priggish intellectual uppers.

When Bill Clinton effectively had Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” pressed upon him by Republican majorities in both Houses, he found that it included successful and effective Welfare Reform, and was smart enough to embody it in the phrase "a hand up - not a hand out”.  As a result,  many refer to the stolen clothes as “The Clinton Reforms”.

Similarly, amongst the dross of Labour’s legacy, there are some Academy Schools that have confounded the stereotypes of the Left and shown that high standards offered to poor school children can, and do, result in successful and socially mobile young people.

I welcome and acknowledge successes like these and can only hope that pragmatic lessons may yet be learned by our chattering classes

I have spent my professional life working with poor and excluded people, visiting the poorest of them in their homes and welcoming them into mine. We share friendships and respect which is sometimes more important in combatting social exclusion, than adding pence without care to a financial benefit. I am but one of many conservative thinkers who want better for such people who I know not as a class, but as individuals, each with differing needs and means of fulfilling them given life enhancing choices rather than a deadening template devised by bureaucrats

What seems to upset our critics more than anything, is that our principles do seem to deliver, but they can just about live with that. What truly hurts is deeper and fundamental.

There is one equality which our opponents cannot bring themselves to proclaim, and that is that conservative thinkers have an equality of compassion.


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