Last weekend, an all-party report into poverty in Britain produced in conjunction with the Church of England has further embarrassed a government under whose watch sanction after cut has only seen the gap between those who have and those who do not have accelerate at breathtaking levels. It’s not the place of this little corner of the internet to forensically investigate the reasons as to why this may be. It’s being thoroughly looked at elsewhere, and where the ultimate responsibility for this rests is, as much as anything else, a matter that will be guided by political persuasion.
What is interesting, however, has been the reaction to this report, and what it says about the state of political discourse in this country in the twenty-first century. In spite of what we already know about slashes to benefits, swathing cuts to the very infrastructure that, whether directly or indirectly, had been keeping people from falling into poverty and an entire culture that has built up around blaming the worst off in our culture for their predicament, the suspicion remains that there remains a huge number of people who either do not understand the nature of poverty, or who to choose their political persuasion over the realities of what it means to be poor these days.
There are two strands to these whys and wherefores – the benefits system and the increasingly shaky and insecure world of work. These two have, of course, always been interlinked, but this has increasingly become the case in recent years, reaching an inevitable, if scarcely credible, apogée in the form of workfare, which gives employers who wish to a convenient out for paying the meagre minimum wage to the bottom rung of their staff in the place of aspirations towards managerial competence. What sort of business, we might well ask ourselves, is fit to trade if it can’t – or, perhaps more pointedly, won’t – pay everyone who works for it £6.50 an hour?
One of the dominant political memes of the last five years has been a degree contortion on the part of those with a vested interest in conflating various ideas into one single, unappealing ideology. One the one hand, we have seen the rewriting of very recent history to turn the economic collapse of 2008 from being the fault of a runaway financial sector – on a global basis – to being, well, something related to the budget deficit, which permitted slashing and hacking at public expenditure that has frequently appeared to be ideological rather than practical, especially when we consider the extent to which the deficit has continued to rise over the last four and a half years or so. Secondly, we have seen the growth of scepticism about continuing membership of the European Union, which has been tagged into an increasingly savage view of immigration on the part of what seems to be a growing part of the population.
Thirdly, on the part of political parties that are sold to us as “the opposition,” there has been a marked cowardice in terms of countering the claims of the British political far-right, no matter how factually incorrect or otherwise mad their soundbites have been on a variety of different subjects. Many of you will have already seen those lengthy articles explaining how the public’s perception of both immigration and how money is spent though the welfare state is hopelessly misinformed. This is most likely largely the responsibility of a media who will make up more or less anything in order to push an agenda, but even this has become increasingly insidious of late, with television companies – who, unlike newspapers, are supposed to have a veneer of political impartiality – joining the queue to kick the poor in the form of such wretched “documentaries” as Channel Four’s “Benefits Street.” In many respects it’s small wonder that so many people seem to have developed such hard-line view on such matters. They’ve been drip-fed scare stories for years.
On the matter of poverty amongst those who are in employment, the picture is more muddied, but little more optimistic. We know that the minimum wage hasn’t been keeping up with inflation, and we know that millions of people live and work below the poverty threshold, but we don’t seem to care about this. We continue to pack out the stores of employers who pay wages that don’t even give people enough money to live on or enough hours of work. We caterwaul about the European Union whilst apparently ignoring the fact that the few limited protections that we have against this “flexible” labour market come from our membership of it. We complain long and loud when working people go on strike because their jobs are being denuded.
We have, with the active encouragement of those with a vested interest, convinced ourselves that poverty is the fault of those who are in that position, but it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the ultimate reason why a large number of people seek to blame the poor for their plight is that we don’t understand what it might even mean to be poor. Those amongst us with secure jobs, who bought their property at the right time, who have ample savings as a result of their good fortune may not even be capable of understanding how it feels to be two pay cheques from destitution, how it feels to never know from one week to the next whether you will even have enough money to live on, to be at the mercy of an increasingly rapacious private property rental market, or to have to make potentially damaging decisions because your financial position won’t allow you to do anything but live in the short-term.
To consider that this is the position of millions of people, in the twenty-first century, in the eighth wealthiest country on this planet, is to have to face up to some extremely unpleasant home truths. And that so many people find themselves in this position is, to some extent at the very least, the fault of all of us. We, as a collective, have driven a political agenda that is now openly and explicitly blaming the poor for their own fate whilst dropping in a poisonous dollop of fear and distrust of immigrants into the bargain. Groups with far-right political agendas, from the explicit such as UKIP to the more insidious Migration Watch, hog mass media attention, pushing for even more of what got us here in the first place. Ideas such as the dismantling of the NHS or the privatisation of the BBC are now nudging their way towards the political mainstream. And one of the central tenets of this shift in the timbre of political debate in this country has been to demonise the poor for position in which they find themselves.
There are few vocal groups that will stand up for the poor and immigrants, and those who attempt to shout somewhere near as loudly as the ultra-conservatives seldom get the chance to put their side of the argument across. Consider, for example, the diametrically opposite treatment that UKIP and the Green Party received from the BBC in terms of who would be accepted for televised debates in the run-up to next year’s general election. As I write this, Nigel Farage will be carefully cultivating his one-liners, cleaning his dog whistle and practicing his hackneyed “man in the pub” bon mots, while the Greens wait outside in the cold, muttering under their breath about taking the BBC to court in the full knowledge that the establishment will probably be okay with UKIP having a say in the formation of the government after the next election, but will never allow them any significant say in things.
Poverty, however, shouldn’t even need to be a party political issue. It should surely be the single aim of any political party entering government to wish to – and preferably have a coherent plan to – increase the living standards of everybody that makes up its electorate and its populace. Furthermore, to solely blame politicians for this state of affairs is a complete red herring. If politics in this country has become even more mean-spirited, xenophobic, nastier and coarser over the last five or ten years or so, then this state of affairs reflects very badly upon us as a people, that we have chosen not care, that we have chosen demonising over helping, and that, overall, we might well deserve everything that we may well end up getting as a result of our own short-sightedness. We’ve had the opportunity to help the worst off for years and years, and have opted to not do so. Heaven help you if you find yourself on a zero hour contract and earning the minimum wage, or if you ever have to avail yourself of a food bank because your only alternative to that is not eating. Because there are precious few actual people who seem to want to help you, these days.
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