Friday, 9 April 2010

The question Dave keeps ducking on inequality

David Cameron told the Today programme that the Conservatives would have done better than Labour on poverty.

Yet he is against redistribution, despite the IFS evidence that it narrows the gap.

But the big question which David Cameron never answers is how he explains the rise in poverty and inequality in the 1980s, and what lessons he has learnt from it. Perhaps the press corps could make sure we get a clear answer to that by the end of campaign 2010.

His egalitarian commitments to Guardian readers mean he will surely want to make sure his advocacy that redistribution has failed, the big state should be cut back and the role of society expanded does not lead to the same results as when Margaret Thatcher made exactly those same arguments, as Cameron acknowledged. Yet Thatcher made that case to argue explicitly for greater inequality, as her Let our children grow tall speech in 1975 made clear.

Cameron himself says "I'm a Lawsonian, basically" on tax, yet must believe that Lawson's policies would have the opposite results this time around. As The Independent's Johann Hari points out today that Cameron's own policies will show that redistribution still works when government puts its mind to it:

"he will redistribute wealth – substantially – but in a strange direction: from everyone in the big wide middle and bottom of British society, to the very top".

All rather contradictory.

To try to unpick the mystery, Tim Horton of the Fabian Society wrote the Conservative leader a Dear David letter before Christmas, sending him our Solidarity Society book, after his Hugo Young lecture of poverty trends across the 20th century simply skipped the Thatcher years.

Here is Mr Cameron's reply. It displays a rather good grasp of epistolatory etiquette but it did not advance any further the central issue of why David Cameron thinks poverty and inequality rose in the 1980s and how he would avoid doing the same thing again.

Dear Tim

Thank you for your recent letter. I am sorry it has taken me some time to get back to you. I read what you said carefully and I am grateful to you for the time you took to respond to my Hugo Young lecture.

It was good of you to get in touch. Thank you, again, for writing.

David Cameron

This was in reply to Fabian research director Tim Horton's question to the Tory leader.

we were surprised that your recent lecture at the Guardian skipped straight from 1968 to post-1997 in analysing poverty trends, so said nothing at all about the 1980s, which saw the largest increase in poverty and inequality in 20th century Britain.

• Poverty measured as below 60 per cent median income rose from 12 per cent in 1977 to 25 per cent in 1992 – more than doubling.

• Poverty measured as below 50 per cent mean income rose from 8 per cent in 1977 to 25 per cent in 1992 – more than trebling.

So the largest increase in poverty in the 20th century coincided with a political programme to reduce the role of the state. This would seem to be precisely the opposite of the analysis you offered. We are interested in your views as to why you think this happened. 

Perhaps you would disagree with our analysis of why poverty rocketed in the 1980s, but the problem is that nobody knows what your view is.

For the Conservative anti-poverty agenda to be a serious one, you should give another speech where you tell Britain what you think went wrong on poverty and inequality in the Thatcher years, and how you would avoid making the same mistakes. Will the Conservative Party's approach to taxation and public spending be different enough under your leadership to avoid simply leading to the same results?


We appreciate that politics is about argument, debate and the clash of ideas.

So we hope you will take up our challenge to continue this important debate. We would encourage you to respond with your own analysis of the huge rise in poverty and inequality during the 1980s, and what would be different under a future Conservative government.

We look forward to hearing from you - and the Fabian Society would be delighted to offer you a platform to continue the debate.

While that question remains unanswered, it rather reinforces the detailed analysis of the Conservative approach to poverty and inequality by Ruth Lister and Fran Bennett in the new issue of Renewal.

Two of Britain's leading academic experts on poverty conclude that Cameron's interest in poverty is important and welcome, but his analysis is weak and partial, and his policies often point in the opposite regressive direction, so would often make Britain more unequal rather than less.


Letters From A Tory said...

Shame you didn't also mention the recent IFS study which showed that Labour's benefit system has incentivised people to work less and have more single-parent families.

Silent Hunter said...

Oh come on Sunder; you know as well as I do that the disparity between the rich and poor has GROWN under New Labour - not fallen!

Labour are the party of the Greedy Bankers.

Remind me again . . . which "Bank" does Tony Blair get £10 million a year from?

Perhaps you can also advise us as to which "Bank" Gordon has lined up for his own trough after the election?

You see . . . it's difficult to claim the moral high ground when the last Labour leader is such an overtly greedy bastard, for all to see.