Sunday 13 February 2011

Cameron's deep 'big society' confusions about inequality

Please remember that he is not "relaunching" the "big society" but David Cameron is certainly coming out swinging with his non-relaunch, including an Observer commentary insisting that his enigmatic big idea is here to stay.

Perhaps the Prime Minister could take some comfort from the Independent on Sunday/Mirror ComRes poll finding "I have heard of the Big Society but don't know what it means" being defeated, by 59% to 30% no less. Except that the 27% who have never heard of it presumably went for "disagree", leaving us with a fairly even three-way split between never heard of it (27%), hear about it but don't know what it is (30%), and about a third who have heard of it and do know what it means. Since we seem to be twice as likely as not to think that what it means is "cuts", this helps to explains why the poll finds about one in six people who have heard of it, know what it means, and have a positive impression of its ability to increase volunteerism (17%, against 38%) or redistribute power (16%, against 42%).

The Prime Minister recognises there is a communication challenge. But how he is doing on content? The greater modesty is a good idea, as is admitting that the big society builds on the strong civic participation which the Tories have inherited. (It was very good to hear ResPublica's Phillip Blond last week praising how much cooperatives had thrived over the last four years, when the Big Society was barely a glint in Steve Hilton's eye, which surely acknowledges that his claims about the Big State crushing the life out of society were somewhat exaggerated).

Unfortunately, a not bad piece is badly marred because Cameron is still talking complete nonsense about poverty and inequality.

Next Left unpacked the gobbledegook he gets into on this subject a year ago. This is really quite embarassingly bad for a Prime Minister. It would only require his speechwriters and article drafters to talk more to his own advisors for Cameron to avoid getting it quite so badly wrong.

Cameron writes this:

The third criticism is that this may work in the leafy sort of areas that I represent, such as West Oxfordshire, but it won't work in the most deprived parts of our country. Now, I could point to the failure of the alternative – big government – to help the poorest in the last decade, as the poorest got poorer and inequality widened.

Well, he says that he could do that. But he always ducks the queston when he is asked to provide the evidence behind this claim, exemplified by his empty response when challenged by the Fabian's Tim Horton to provide evidence for the claim that big government causes poverty, when all of the comparative academic and historic evidence suggests quite the opposite conclusion: “The more generous the welfare state, the greater is the extent of poverty reduction”.

(By contrast, if national government adopts a deliberate policy strategy of "unwinding" additional financial support for poorer areas, as one minister describes the policy to the BBC's Mark Easton, so that they face greater cuts in the local government settlement, that is indeed going to be demonstrably much better for West Oxfordshire than Liverpool).

David Cameron complains that inequality rose under Labour.

It did, because of the gains to the top 1%. (So challenging and critical scrutiny of Labour's record on poverty and inequality should always acknowledge this).

So that could be a fair challenge. I would like to agree with Dave that Labour should have done more sooner about that, except that he doesn't agree with himself.

For this isn't something that you can complain about if, as Cameron argued in his Hugo Young lecture, you have explicitly argued that this shouldn't matter.

That doesn’t mean we should be fixated only on a mechanistic objective like reducing the Gini co-efficient, the traditional financial measure of inequality or on closing the gap between the top and the bottom

We should focus on closing the gap between the bottom and the middle, not because that is the easy thing to do, but because focusing on those who do not have the chance of a good life is the most important thing to do.”

As John Hills equality panel report sets out (PDF), inequality between the bottom and the middle, and between those 10% from the bottom and 10% from the top narrowed.

So the inequality that Cameron cares about decreased under Labour, though it is also true that the inequality at the top that he doesn't care about increased.

As the IFS has reported on the Thatcher years, “the scale of this rise in inequality has been shown… to be unparalleled both historically and compared with changes taking place at the same time in most other developed countries". As everybody who has tried knows, David Cameron has always refused to say a single word about the reasons for the growth in inequality in the 1980s, even when reviewing trends across the century.(Hint: it wasn't the growth of the Big State). What he has said is "I'm a Lawsonian basically", favouring flatter taxes, and a shift from income tax to VAT. Cameron could hardly deny that these choices increase inequality and hits the poor hardest.

Cameron's claims about poverty increasing under Labour have often been debunked by independent analysis. The real incomes of the bottom 25-30% rose by around 2% a year under Labour. There was a considerably more even distribution of growth.

On "the poorest getting poorer", you might have thought that Cameron would at least listen to his own poverty tsar Frank Field, who has often warned him about making a dodgy claim here: "His choice of figures is in a few instances dodgy. The data on those at the very, very bottom of the income scale is not that reliable", as Field has written.

Cameron has claimed that redistribution used to be an effective anti-poverty measure until the late 1960s, but that it then stopped working in the last decade. An authoritative study by Jane Waldfogel demonstrates this simply isn't true: child poverty fell more in Britain than any other country (bar Mexico). Using absolute measures of poverty favoured by many on the right, the results were especially dramatic.

Pensioner poverty fell dramatically, so that pensioners are less likely to be in poverty than other British adults for the first time in social history.

But poverty increased among single adults out of work. It is the policy strategy of this government - such as with its housing benefit reforms - to considerably extend this, as an incentive to get back to work and on 'fairness grounds'.

On poverty, inequality and the big society, David Cameron could again get a tutorial from within Downing Street itself, now that Richard Reeves is chief political advisor to his deputy Nick Clegg. Indeed both Cameron and Clegg could learn quite a lot from Reeves' Prospect article, co-written with Phil Collins (a Blairite writer who both politicians admire), on a big unequal society, which set out both the illogicality of the Cameron "redistribution causes poverty" argument and the lack of substance behind the Big Society's pro-equality claims.

it makes literally no sense to argue that inequality needs to be reduced and then to call for a reduction in state benefits. The issue is not ideology; its not politics; its just arithmetic ... Labour's record shows that cash transfers can work to reduce basic income inequality. It also shows that even a broadly centre-left government did not feel able to transfer money on the scale needed truly to make society more equal. So inequality has been checked, not reversed ...

He is signing himself up to Labour-style poverty and inequality measures, even as he rejects Labour-style redistribution. In other words, he is setting his own big trap, and trotting gamely towards it ...

It is quite possible to hear him speak plausibly about a society which is “bigger”—meaning more plural, more open, gentler, more interesting, more vivid and more imaginative. But more equal? Not likely.


Robert said...

Bit like Blair third way really what the hell was that about do you know, it's mouthing words to make something sound great but in fact I'll see sod all, well I suspect labour third way did do one thing put the Tories back....

Unknown said...

Indeed, a long time ago, when the Big Society meant very many different things even according to Cameron himself - "You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility'; I call it the Big Society" – ‘equality’ did not make this heterogeneous shortlist. Now with the attempt to rectify this disastrous vagueness of communication – Cameron is forced to come up with something more specific and to face the problem of equality in the Big Society. His method so far has been to pursue an evasion strategy. A good news is that, if the Big Society vision ever materialises into something more than a wilful injunction that people should make themselves ‘more empowered’ – some crushing counter-evidence to its progressive credentials will soon become available.

It does seem that judging the effects of policies retrospectively has a great advantage of getting the policy implications right. In this sense, it would be foolish for Cameron to challenge Tim Horton on the point that: ‘'reliable measures of poverty have fallen since 1997 as important aspects of the welfare state have expanded once again. Poverty measured as below 60 per cent median income fell from 25.3 per cent in 1996 to 20.5 per cent in 2004 - and today stands at 22.5 per cent'. It would be foolish, unless what’s being challenged is the way of measuring poverty itself. A question I raised before is what to make of the contention that increased benefits and tax credits in the past decade have successfully raised many people from just beneath the poverty line (60% of median income) to just above it; However, these gains are said to disguise real and more entrenched increases in poverty - if the poverty line were 40% of median income rather than 60%, three quarters of a million more people would now be in poverty than in 1997 (?)

A disclaimer:
Still, even if there’s some evidence suggesting that the increases in social welfare spending under the New Labour cannot be directly correlated with decreases in the pre-welfare poverty rates with the poverty line set at 40% - this obviously does not undermine the FACT that to claim that reducing welfare support inevitably leads to the reduction in poverty rates, is to perpetrate a 'myth' fabricated on the playing fields of Eaton and St Paul’s.