Wednesday 6 April 2022

Poverty as an objective of policy


Whilst out and about today in his incessant search for new photo opportunities reasons to visit hospitals, the PM answered a question about energy price rises by saying that the government “… will make sure we look after people to the best of our ability”. The immediately obvious catch in that promise is the bit about the ‘best of our ability’, a caveat which, when applied to Johnson, puts a severe limit on what is actually achievable. It – with almost refreshing honesty – spells out that the limiting factor is the lack of ability of the PM and his government, and not the availability of resource.

He went on to add that “… there’s a limit to the amount of taxpayers’ money we can simply push towards trying to deal with global energy price spikes”, prefaced by the wonderful phrase “Now, we’ve got to be frank with people”, something he’s never achieved in his entire life, and a phrase which guarantees, when uttered by Johnson, that what follows will be either a lie or an obfuscation. And sure enough, it manages to be both. The decision as to how much help to give citizens – and perhaps even more importantly, which citizens should benefit – is far from being as black and white as he suggests. It is, rather, a political decision. The PM and the Chancellor have decided how much help to give to people facing a crisis not in response to some magical financial limit completely outside their control, but in response to their judgement about what they think they can get away with without losing the support of voters, or being defenestrated by angry Tory MPs (who themselves share the same motivation but disagree largely on the basis that they believe that the tolerance level of their electors is lower than the PM thinks it is).

As another report today highlighted, the decision to limit benefits to the first two children in any family has not led to smaller families, merely to more poverty. It’s another example of the same thing – government decisions which deliberately and entirely foreseeably increase poverty levels, and which are taken not on the basis of any real objective limit to what the government can do, but on the basis of political judgements about the best interests of the Tory Party.

Can increasing the level of poverty really benefit a political party seeking to remain in government for the long term? Absolutely, with 2 caveats. The first is that the poverty predominantly hits the ‘right’ people – those who either don’t vote at all, or who will never vote Tory (and for the tiny minority who still do, nothing will deter them anyway)  and the second is that those not-so-poor who do or might vote Tory can be persuaded to believe that the poorest deserve their fate. If the poorest can be sufficiently demonised, keeping them poor is a very cheap way of distracting attention from the way government policies benefit the richest. It’s certainly cheaper than actually trying to help the not-so-poor.

The most depressing aspect of all is that deliberately increasing the levels of poverty as a means of keeping the Conservative Party in power in England might even work. Another reason or exercising our right to opt out.

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