The Labour party in opposition criticised the Conservative government for ignoring the poor. Tony Blair promised that his one-nation politics would entail empowering the poor and creating ‘a fair and inclusive society’. Since its election success New Labour ministers have promised to listen to what service users want. So much for the rhetoric. What of the reality?
The Poor Can Write
Living in the hugely disadvantaged area of Easterhouse in Glasgow, Professor Holman is not convinced that New Labour is listening to and improving the conditions of poor people. But he also recognises that what he thinks is not what counts.
And so he has encouraged seven low-income residents to write and their powerful contributions are now in Faith in the Poor, from Lion Publishing. Their views may not be representative but they are important. But before pointing out the policies these people would like to see from the government, it as worth drawing two conclusions from their writings.
One is that they are not an underclass – a term till used by New Labour. Certainly, a one-off snap shot view might suggest that they are members of the feckless, irresponsible, inadequate underclass which Charles Murray blamed for much of the poverty in Britain. Erica was a prostitute and heavy drinker who had been to prison: Anita had seven kids, two of whom were excluded from school and one a heroin addict: Carol was an emotionally insecure lone parent whose child was taken into care: Penny at nineteen was on her own with a baby in a hostel.
But over time a different picture emerges. Erica wrote, ‘Then one day when I was twenty and pregnant again, I looked at myself in the mirror and I did not like what I saw. I decided to sort out my life.’ Eventually all the women settled down. They emerge as responsible parents who value family life, as strong not feckless, as articulate not inadequate.
The other observation is that all are still in real long-term poverty.
Penny wrote, ‘For the kids clothes, I go to the charity shop. I cannot afford to go into a proper shop like Pounderstretchers!’ Their accounts and diaries show that they did not have fresh fruit, meat or vegetables
Their problem is not, as the new Third Way gurus proclaim, that they lack motivation and access to education and jobs. Jobs are not an option for women who just about keep their families together by staying at home. What they lack is money.
What Do the Poor Want?
So what policies do poor people recommend? First, greater equality. As Anita put it, ‘My children are lovely and intelligent but they don’t stand a chance. There are hundreds of millionaires but thousands lying in poverty.’ In similar vein, Erica wrote I think everyone should be equal. I hope my children have a better future.’
Their pleas for greater equality fit with recent research such as that by Professor Richard Wilkinson. He shows that it is not just poverty that harms. Those at the bottom of a very unequal society can become so alienated and distanced that they react with an apathy or an aggression which only makes matters worse. Significantly, New Labour refuses to lessen inequality even by greater income tax on the very wealthy. Politicians listen to millionaires but not to the poor.
Second, reform of the Social Fund. Before, people were entitled to grants for essential domestic items like cookers. The Conservative government replaced most grants by discretionary Social Fund loans with repayments deducted from weekly giros. Some claimants thus repay £30 a week so that their incomes are far below what is considered the minimum. Penny explained, ‘I get only £62 a week income support plus £19.69 child benefit. I used to get £78 but it was cut because I had a loan for bedding. I asked for another loan as I do not have a washing machine but I was turned down.’
The writers wanted a return to grants. In opposition, Labour bitterly condemned the introduction of loans. Significantly, New Labour now decrees that they will remain.
Third, financial backing for neighbourhood groups. Residents in deprived areas often organise credit unions food co-operatives, youth projects and similar groups. The survival of the writers owed much to these neighbourhood groups for these reasons:
- They are practical often providing low credit and cheep food
- They relieve parental stress through clubs which offer safe leisure to their children.
- They are participative with low-income residents being committee members, staff and volunteers. Such involvement can have an empowering effect as powerless people have a little control over their circumstances.
But neighbourhood groups lack funds. Significantly, New Labour refuses to install a system of financial support despite the wishes of their participants.
Professor Holman believes that for all its good intentions, Labour is not building an inclusive society. Poor people are still poor and are still ignored.
© Bob Holman