Wednesday 11 November 2009

Cameron's rhetorical strategy on poverty and inequality

He's at it again. A key part of the Cameron strategy is to try to disorient voters who think of themselves as progressive by claiming that Labour has failed on poverty and inequality and that the Conservatives will somehow do better. The trope was central to his speech at the party conference, and it has reappeared in his article in today's Guardian (based on his Hugo Young lecture).

In an earlier post I subjected Cameron's claims about Labour's record to scrutiny, drawing on the independent research of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It may help to recap the main points.

(1) By the standard measure, poverty rates have fallen for most demographic groups since 1997 (although they have risen in the past few years). So it is just wrong to say, as Cameron does in his Guardian article, that 'poverty and inequality' have increased under Labour.

(2) It is true that if one looks at those with incomes less than 40% of median income (rather than using the standard measure of poverty as living on less than 60% of median income), poverty rates have increased. This, I think, is what lies behind Cameron's claim that the poorest of the poor have done worse under Labour. However, without wishing to dismiss this concern, we should note that the IFS have issued a clear warning about the interpretation and reliability of the figures for those with incomes less than 40% of median income. Cameron disregards this warning.

(3) Income inequality is indeed higher on the most recent figures than it was in 1997. However, IFS estimates also indicate that inequality is probably lower than it would be had Labour simply continued with Tory tax and benefit policies. In other words, Labour's budgets, which have been consistently redistributive in their effects, have not reduced inequality but they (probably) have checked its increase.

So Labour's redistributive efforts have had some helpful impact on both poverty and inequality.

Having tried to rubbish Labour's record, the second half of Cameron's strategy is to argue that a Conservative 'big society' approach will succeed where Labour's 'big state' approach has failed.

It is very hard to assess this claim, however, because the content of the 'big society' approach remains so vague. One of the few clear things is that the 'big society' approach will differ from the 'big state' approach in making less use of direct redistribution.

However, the lesson to learn from Labour's record is not that increased redistribution is ineffective - after all, it did reduce poverty for most groups and (probably) checked the growth of inequality - but that Labour has not faced up to the scale of redistribution required to make greater in-roads into poverty and to reverse the growth of inequality.

Cameron invites us to draw precisely the opposite lesson to the one we should draw. He asks us to make even less use than Labour of a tool which has proven effectiveness, in favour of a vaguely-defined tool that, because of its vagueness, is of very uncertain effectiveness indeed.

There's no doubting that Cameron has developed a good rhetorical strategy when it comes to the issues of poverty and inequality. Unfortunately, the strategy remains largely only rhetorical, offering little substance when it comes to tackling poverty and inequality themselves.

1 comment:

Anthony Painter said...

I've just posted on the same topic. Seems he might have a bit of equality opportunity about him but not anything more. Completely dishonest about poverty data.

It's here: