Why the left and the right are getting it wrong on poverty

Demos's new research shows that poverty can be both an economic and social phenomenon.

When the government announced that it was again reviewing how it measured child poverty, some on the left decried the move as "moving the goalposts". Iain Duncan Smith didn’t help matters by launching the consultation with a speech which seemed to suggest he had already made up his mind. The focus on family breakdown, in particular, raised hackles – in essence, poverty would be measured by how long a child had been raised in a two-parent family. While single parenthood can mean a lower income, to suggest a child should be deemed in poverty on this basis alone betrays a particular ideological outlook.

This is a shame, because it has meant that many have dismissed the consultation out of hand, as yet another cynical attempt by government to move the focus of the poverty strategy away from tackling deprivation and towards stigmatising single parents and troubled families. But the fact is, a more holistic measure of poverty – which takes causal factors and symptoms into account – will give us a better understanding of poverty, and help politicians tackle it more effectively.

Both the government and the opposition risk falling down an ideological rabbit-hole now that the definition of poverty is back on the agenda. On the right, the Victorian tendency to explain poverty as a social problem, experienced by troubled families, and brought on by their own failings and weaknesses, will no doubt lead to a critically limited range of policy responses. But this will be no more limited than the response from the left, whose fixed position that low income is the central feature of poverty has in the past led to a one-dimensional, technocratic approach – memorably described as "poverty plus a pound", where poverty is "solved" by redistributing until enough people are over the invisible poverty line.

Our research published today seeks to take the politics out of poverty and use evidence to point to the best policy response. By applying 20 separate indicators associated with poverty to the population below the poverty line, we keep income central to our understanding – but also recognise that the lived experience of poverty is never just about one’s bank balance, but a complex interaction of social issues, spanning one’s social networks, health, education, and housing.

The result is 15 distinct types of poverty across three cohorts – households with children, those without, and pensioners. Each type of poverty is made up of a unique combination of the different indicators, creating a sense of the "lived experience" of each type.

What was clear was that while some of the poverty types were experiencing the kind of poverty the government has set out to solve – unemployment, debt, single parenthood and poor health – many were not. The most prevalent type of child poverty (applying to about a third of families) was defined by long work histories in poorly paid jobs or recent redundancy from well paid jobs, a strong work ethic, home ownership and good education.

Our research disproves the assumptions held by those on both ends of the political spectrum – and concludes that poverty can be both an economic and social phenomenon, depending on the household in question. Perhaps this smacks of sitting on the fence – an excuse to do nothing. But this is far from the case. In fact, the findings represent a highly inconvenient truth. The truth is that there is no magic bullet to ending poverty – neither a crusade against troubled families, nor a predistribution and living wage strategy will be effective in isolation.

An effective poverty strategy will not, in fact, serve either party’s particular ideological standpoint. Indeed, our findings suggest there is no such thing as an effective poverty strategy, but that each type requires its own strategy, each one relying on a coordinated response from different combinations of agencies – good, old-fashioned joined-up government.

Those on the front-line working with poor families might be wondering what’s new here. They already know that a poorly skilled young mother struggling to put food on the table needs different help to a recently redundant, middle aged divorcee coping with a vastly reduced income.

But the Demos work has, for the first time, articulated and quantified this difference – and in so doing, shows exactly where existing narrower approaches are falling short. With the government’s consultation, we have an unprecedented opportunity to harness the evidence to guide our policy response – but politicians on both sides must first learn that a sincere attempt to tackle poverty is an issue beyond politics.

Claudia Wood is deputy director of Demos

Two young boys play football in a run down street in the Govan area of Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

Claudia Wood is deputy director of Demos.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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