Land of opportunity: the developed world has allowed the poor to get poorer while the super-rich flourish
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Capitalism was supposed to signal the end of poverty. What went wrong?

David Aaronovitch reviews new books about wealth and inequality by Linda Tirado, John Kampfner and Danny Dorling. 

Hand to Mouth: the Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World 
Linda Tirado
Virago, 224pp, £14.99

The Rich – from Slaves to Super-Yachts: a 2,000-Year History 
John Kampfner
Little, Brown, 480pp, £25

Inequality and the 1% 
Danny Dorling
Verso, 192pp, £12.99 

During the long boom of the 1990s and 2000s, it became possible to imagine that nearly everyone who wanted to could do well out of capitalism. The rich would be rich – a few, alas, would be richer almost than we could imagine – but the poor could be (and should be) educated, doctored and employed out of poverty. There was much to do, true, but much had been done; the “system”, if such a name could be given to the historical agglomeration of habits and institutions that governs our economic lives, seemed to work. And that was why virtually everyone, from the cool Icelanders to the red Chinese, subscribed to it.

Some readers will be shaking their heads, proclaiming their opposition to capitalism or to “neoliberalism”. Perhaps they went on a march in the City against globalisation or attended one of the late Tony Benn’s twinkly, twilit evenings of socialism. But it would have taken an unusual inner certainty – a faith, almost – to have believed that this great, growing cornucopia of riches, from iPods to EasyJet, would be brought to a halt.

In this country, the near collapse of Northern Rock in the autumn of 2007 marked the end of the era of confidence. For the first time in years, the comfortable and the doing-OKs began to look at the world with something of the same continuing anxiety that had been limited to the poor. Indeed, they began to feel poor themselves. Yet they weren’t poor and they haven’t become poor. That much should be obvious to anyone reading Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth. Albeit a book by an American (and therefore set in a society that believes anyone can make it if they try hard enough – and its corollary that if you didn’t make it, you didn’t try hard enough), it is nevertheless a book about everywhere in the developed world, too.

The name Tirado is almost an aptronym, because the book doesn’t ever let up its tone of exhausted complaint and makes no attempt to charm its readers. This artlessness may be why Tirado’s original post on the Gawker website in the autumn of 2013 went “viral” in the first place. It was an answer to the complaint that the poor tended to be poor because of the choices they made – because they smoked, took drugs, had children they couldn’t afford and otherwise connived at their own poverty. This is something that Americans say and believe but that British people tend only to believe.

Her post was entitled “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or Poverty Thoughts”. Within a year, it brought Tirado a book deal and a precarious celebrity. It also brought her plenty of criticism from people who seemed – through attacking her credibility (she comes from a middle-class family) – almost desperate to deny the truth that she was describing.

It is easy to see why. Tirado depicts a life in which hard work – very hard work – often gets you nowhere because you aren’t paid enough to save for the day when you have no work, or fall ill, or the car breaks down. A life in which the smallest budgeting decision makes the difference between buying insurance or having enough to eat. In other words, a world in which the “long term” cannot afford to exist.

This is the world of people who flip burgers by day and wait tables by night, not to get through college but for life. For ever. And, as Tirado makes mercilessly clear, these tend to be the same jobs where we (and therefore the employer) expect a smile from the counter staff, a have-a-nice-day delivered convincingly by someone who has been on his or her feet for six hours – and our orders got right or else we’ll be cross.

The book is not enjoyable, it is not witty and its anger and sense of hopelessness make it hard to like the author. But Tirado doesn’t want you to like her, or even feel sorry for her. More of her book says “F*** you” to the reader than “Help me”. Nor is she particularly interested in her own demons, whose shadows the readers must discern for themselves. Far from everything that happens to Tirado is a necessary consequence of her poverty and you can’t help wondering how a different person would have managed the same problems.

Yet this, exactly, is her strength. She strips away our capacity to avoid the truth, to be sidetracked. Tirado tells us what we all secretly know every time we catch a glimpse of the night cleaner in the early-morning office finishing up and then heading off to a second job, or to take the kids to school, or to college. It’s a harder life than ours.

That Tirado should have been lionised probably says a good thing about us, because generally, I imagine, it is easier to sell books about the lives of the spectacularly wealthy than those about the quotidian existence of the poor. The first category is, after all, about infinite possibility (or as infinite as a human being can manage) – not, like the second, which is about severe limitation. In that sense, it is about fantasy being realised, which is why Mills & Boon heroes are rarely car-wash operatives.

I have to say that, for myself, this lack of limitation makes the super-rich boringly unreal. The furniture and frocks and motor cars in Downton Abbey very quickly become a substitute for plot or insight into character. The man or woman becomes a mannequin, over which are draped distracting furs and jewellery.

John Kampfner, a former editor of the New Statesman, must have encountered this precise problem when writing his new book, The Rich. The riches are interesting but the people may not be. He compounds this problem for himself by looking at the lives only of the male creators of fabulous wealth, when he could have made more drama by examining the biographies of the wives, mothers, aunts and daughters of the super-rich.

Despite this self-imposed limitation, Kampfner’s book is a fascinating series of well-observed vignettes, beginning with Marcus Licinius Crassus, a contemporary of Caesar, and ending up with more generic chapters on the sheikhs, geeks, oligarchs and bankers of our own times. There are some surprises here (I had never heard of Alain le Roux, the Breton who came over with William the Conqueror and took over much of England) and reminders of some of the ever-thusnesses of human history.

We talk easily of how huge wealth must be accompanied by equally huge power. Kampfner’s book reminds us that this is often not the way it feels to the super-rich. Paradoxically the scale of their riches makes them feel unsafe. Rather than thinking themselves invulnerable from state action because they can control politicians with their money, they more often worry about what could go wrong. This is well illustrated by Kampfner in the case of the new Chinese billionaires, who are only too anxious to render under to the communist Caesars that which is the Caesars’.

What they are worried about is envy. I don’t mean by this that all opposition to their excessive wealth is irrational but that – especially in times such as these – what they have and what they are can seem to be almost psychically unbearable.

The political use of that envy is the purpose of Danny Dorling’s chart-littered polemic on the “1 per cent”. Everything that is wrong with our society, Dorling argues, is the fault of the top 1 per cent of earners taking a bigger and bigger share of our wealth. Tackle them, he writes, and you hardly need to do anything else – or, as he puts it, “Simply concentrating on the share taken by the 1 per cent is enough. It may even be one of the best measures of inequality to consider in terms of how simple a target it may be for effective social policy.”

There are three flaws in Dorling’s hurriedly written book (he had another published in February). The first is that the 1 per cent doesn’t really exist, which is why again and again in the book he seems to use the term “super-rich” about people who earn above £150,000 per year. The consequence is that he attributes characteristics of behaviour, psychology and action to a group, most of whose putative members don’t share those characteristics.

The second problem is that he becomes absurdly determinist. It should be obvious to anyone but the most sequestered that Sir David Attenborough is against what he sees as overpopulation not because (as Dorling strongly implies) he is one of the anti-poor 1 per cent but because he is a lifelong and over-passionate naturalist.

The third problem is more serious. Dorling wants to form a coalition against the super-rich that he knows (and argues) is more likely to be led successfully by the well-heeled middle classes than by the downtrodden – by the other Dorlings than by the Tirados. The poor may wave a pike or knit in the shadow of the guillotine but the committee of public safety will be made up of doctors and deputy head teachers.

There is, it seems to me, a more likely consequence – which is that the relatively well-off (certainly those whom Tirado and her cleaner and fast-food comrades would consider well-off, which is almost everyone reading this article) will absorb this argument and say, “Tax them, not me.” Any substantial change in the condition of the poor in any developed nation will only happen with the agreement and the contribution of the middle classes. They will have to agree to pay, one way or another. Theirs is another book altogether. 

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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