As I sat down to attend a panel discussion on poverty reduction at the Tory Party Conference last week, the chair, Fraser Nelson of The Spectator, made an interesting and poignant remark. He noted that while there were only a few talks on poverty reduction at this year’s conference, with most of the time being taken up by Brexit, it still vastly outstripped the Labour Party Conference’s zero discussions on the issue.
At first, this seemed to confuse, as what could be a better judge of the quality of a government than how it has helped the least well-off? But once one thinks about it, it makes perfect sense.
There is nothing more archetypically conservative than wanting to lift someone up and have them make what they will of their own destiny; free from nannying or being talked down to, it was part of the conservative DNA to liberate. This has been the case at least since Disraeli railed against the two nations that existed within this United Kingdom and called on his party to unite them.
Over 100 years later and it has been a winning battle, though the work is not yet done. Who could conceivably prefer the life of even the richest of noblemen in the middle ages to that of the working poor today who benefit from clean water, easy access to food, central heating, televisions, new technologies, easy access to transport, wonderful new medicines, a low child mortality rate, and a considerably greater knowledge of the world than possessed throughout history. There are however a few key steps to getting over the last hurdle, to see the last homeless person off the streets, the last working poor to go malnourished, and the last poor woman who puts up with an abusive husband in order to survive. The way to move forward is not to ask why is poverty prevalent, for we have always had poverty, but why is prosperity prevalent, such that we can spread that prosperity to all.
Three key identifiers were made to social mobility at the conference: house building, enterprise expansion, and education, though the proposals exhibited a varying degree of feasibility. When it comes to house building, there was an almost unanimous agreement that in order to meet the growing demand and plug the rising cost of housing—the biggest barrier to social mobility—building on the greenbelt is a necessity. This, however, is a politically untenable move, as there are lots of vested interests fighting to restrict the housing supply and get rich off of the development rights. Government initiatives, such as giving priority to owners as opposed to letters, and expanding right to buy, are demand-side solutions to a supply-side problem, and as a result destined to fail.
Enterprise building is another key area which could help alleviate poverty as Britain’s non-existent productivity growth, and lack of scalability within businesses, has prevented salaries from rising and better jobs being created. While there is record employment in this country today, the social mobility afforded by one’s job can only be utilised as new firms and products enter the market, driving wages up. In this department, there again seemed to be a consensus around the need to invest more and lower the risk burden to investors in order to develop new and potentially lucrative firms, but this was not the route the government has taken. The industrial strategy route harking back to the 70s style “picking winners” philosophy is an egregious move towards socialism, which can only serve to enrich special interests at the expense of the sectors that are not in the government’s favour.
Finally, in education, the tide began to turn against the highly academic, pro-university culture that has permeated in Britain since the Blair-era, in which a University degree is seen as an essential characteristic of a good job. This culture, however, has led Britain’s youth to be ill-prepared for the job market and indebted, with a high proportion of recent University graduate’s doing non-graduate level jobs. It was clear that expanding trade schooling and apprenticeships and encouraging more hands-on approaches to work are major ways of improving salaries and social mobility. The free school’s initiative has shown great success in improving the quality of schools across the country, and it is in education where the current government’s biggest success stories lie.
Outside of policy however, there was much discussion about the social means to ensure poverty reduction. I am one of what I am sure is a large number of people who do not believe that governments act effectively at helping the poor, and that it is up to each and every individual citizen to take the initiative to improve our neighbours’ lives.
The rise of food banks and other major third sector players in helping those in need is a great first step in building the community bonds that were once much stronger. The rising number of people with mental illness in my humble opinion is a symptom of major social breakdown, with people losing their families and sense of community, being overburdened by a highly individualistic world.
Cameron’s Big Society project, which he has gone back to work on now that he has left politics, is indicative of the kind of social cohesion necessary to maintain the gains we have made in fighting against poverty. Decentralising responsibility to local authorities and giving more freedom to the third sector to act in these issues will help build the community spirit and individual responsibility that has all but disappeared in recent years.
While there may not be a lot of political capital currently available for expenditure on poverty alleviation, the interest shown at the conference for preparing a prosperity tool-kit are a cause for optimism. It is important that a discussion on poverty is consistently occurring in order for us to not be complacent with the successes we have made, thereby neglecting what still needs to be done.
The more we talk in a meaningful and pragmatic way about major social issues, even if unable to act immediately, we act in a way that develops a community culture that we all strive to inhabit. It takes strength and unity to push forward the gears of real change, something that was clearly present during the talks throughout the conference.
Take notes Jeremy.