The Thick of It


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Poverty: better or worse under Labour?

According to David Cameron it has got worse and that because of Labour's reliance on the "big state". He proposes that charities and community groups should step in and boost social mobility. This was the Thatcherite message of the 1980s, one that failed disastrously. The result of 13 years of Labour government is that poverty has decreased, or at least increased less, depending on how you measure it.  

Channel 4's Fact Check has published a detailed analysis of Labour's record on poverty. I'll paraphrase the key parts here. 

"When looked at as a proportion of the population as a whole, the percentage of people in poverty drops by either eight or 10 percentage points, depending on whether housing costs are taken into account...there would be some more traction in Cameron's claim if judged only on the poverty figures in recent years."

It is true to say that Labour hasn't eradicated poverty. However, the picture is at worst cloudy and at best showing a clear effort to bring people above the poverty line. The increase in relative poverty that began under Thatcher in 1979 has slowed for the frist time, under Labour:

"This increase (of the last three years) pales into comparison with that which took place under Margaret Thatcher. Cameron's claim on poverty just doesn't wash - the number of people in general, and particularly children and pensioners, in poverty have reduced since Labour came to power, although progress seems to have stalled in recent years.

"It's worth noting too that Labour's tax and benefit reforms have been redistributive (Robin Hood-like). Had they kept the same system they inherited, there would be far more people in poverty today."

Richard Wilkinson of Nottingham University has been widely quoted by Cameron. He himself admits, unlike Cameron, that: "if Brown's budgets hadn't been redistributive then things would be worse than they are now."

That Cameron is talking about poverty at all shows that 13 years of Labour government have shifted the parameters of political debate. During the 1980s and 1990s the Tories consistently said that relative poverty didn't matter. If they have learnt one thing from being in opposition, I'd hope it was to admit that relative poverty does matter. I doubt however that they have the answers or the desire to eradicate poverty.

Liam Bryne thinks that Cameron's approach amounts to "little more than crossing your fingers." Cameron has no plan and no answers, and as such, he is wrong to make such play of poverty.

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