Thursday, November 23, 2006
Relative Poverty Isn't An Absolute
The fuss over Greg Clark's invocation of Polly Toynbee's name is a typical example of a media firestorm on an extremely slow news day. As I listened to various news bulletins I could scarcely believe my ears. You could be forgiven for thinking that Greg Clark was suggesting slaughtering the first-born from the reaction of some people, and this is reflected in some of the comments on the previous post and on Conservative Home. It makes me wonder if people ever actually bother to read what he said before they are ready to denounce him. Well, here's a short YouTube video Greg recorded yesterday evening for 18DoughtyStreet. I would have thought his views would resonate with most thinking Conservatives. The only bone of contention in what he says is how you define poverty, so, as Connie would say, let's start from the very beginning...
Poverty is defined in an Online Dictionary thus: the condition of being extremely poor. If you are in poverty, you are probably unable to pay your bills, are struggling to have a roof over your head and are finding it difficult to feed yourself and your family. Indeed, that is how I have always thought of it. However, lingua-fascists have now redefined the word to include anyone who is earning less that 60% of the median wage. Quite when this happened, no one's quite sure, but I trace it back to the 1980s when the Child Poverty Action Group tried to tell us that three million children in this country were living in poverty. It was rubbish then, and it's rubbish now.
Of course there are children, and indeed many adults, who are impoverished. No one denies that, and everyone would agree that it is a prime duty of the State to lift those people out of poverty, but to pretend that someone who is earning between £12,000 and £15,000 a year is living in poverty is a joke.
So the argument has moved on to a debate about whether we should be talking about absolute poverty (as per Churchill) or relative poverty (as per Polly Toynbee). The answer is that they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In Churchill's day there was a huge amount of absolute poverty in the country but this has almost totally gone. Sure, there are still pockets of poverty, especially in big cities and certain rural areas (this reminds me of a great quote from John Gummer - "poverty is consdidered quaint in rural areas, because it comes thatched") and the State has by and large failed to lift people in those areas out of poverty. The task is now falling to social entrepreneurs, outside the State machinery, to do this. So as the level of absolute poverty has declined to a small fraction of what it was half a century ago, it is only natural that politicians from all sides start to examine relative inequalities - note that I decline to use the phrase 'relative poverty'.
Polly Toynbee's analogy of a long train of caravans trekking through a desert, one behind the other is a good one. She is worried about what happens if the caravans at the back become detached from the rest of the group - for 'group', read 'society'.
I am not someone who believes that everybody must be equal. Like Boris Johnson in today's Telegraph, I believe that society needs winners and losers. Winners must be rewarded, but society cannot function properly if we forget about the losers. But I actually regard it as a triumph of our society that we can even talk in terms of losers being people who earn 40% of the media wage.
As Pascal says in the comments to the previous post... "Maybe I am confused, but doesn't the concept of relative poverty means that there ALWAYS will be poverty, no matter how much you raise the lower incomes? At least not until everybody earns the same amount."
I don't think even Polly Toynbee is suggesting the latter, but Pascal's point is a valid one, and perhaps one which Greg Clark ought to address. I don't know what the media wage is in Liechtenstein, but I suspect that under the current definition of 'relative poverty' a large number of very wealthy people would be caught in the poverty trap there. We Conservatives must not be defined by the language of the left and if Greg Clark made an error, it was possibly falling into that trap.
I have absolutely no problem at all in agreeing with the Polly Toynbee Caravan anecdote, and I totally agree with Greg Clark that the concept of 'no one left behind' is something that all Tories should adhere to. After all, Greg and I both supported a leadership candidate last year who said this...
The just society, for Conservatives, is one in which no one is deprived of opportunity, and no one is excluded. It is, indeed, the fulfilment of Churchill's dream of a Britain, in which "there is a limit beneath which no man may fall, but no limit to which any man might rise"... Tories in recent years have become too timid about saying how we want to improve society. We sometimes behave as if the Left, with their vocabulary and their policies, had acquired a freehold on social policy... The test of any Conservative policy is how it affects the poorest in society.
Amen to that. Perhaps we now need a real debate on what poverty actually means in the 21st century. Can we really equate poverty in this country with poverty in places like Darfur or Rwanda? Perhaps someone needs to invent a new word. Best that we do it before Polly Toynbee does.