Rejoice! John Redwood has discovered the root cause of poverty

Tory MP's comments on gambling show why casting poverty as the result of individual spiritual failure is seductive - because it gets the government off the hook.

Clear your desk, economics. Sociology, your services are no longer required. One man, working alone, has solved a problem which decades of study in these academic fields could not touch: John Redwood MP has uncovered the root cause of poverty. And, in the casual style of the true intellectual radical, he didn't announce this revelatory finding in a research paper or at a press conference, but with a simple comment on a news story.

Asked about the proliferation of bookmakers in poorer areas, Redwood said,

"I put it down to the fact that poor people believe there's one shot to get rich. They put getting rich down to luck and think they can take a gamble . . . They also have time on their hands. My voters are too busy working hard to make a reasonable income."

There it is, the Redwood explanation of inequality. It's simple, it's comprehensive, it's devoid of empathy and it's seething with contempt for those struggling to get by: if you're poor, it's because you just don't understand that you have to work hard to succeed. You think wealth can just be chanced on as you faff about with betting slips, while the well-off just get out there and strive for their fortunes.

And as a former employee of N. M. Rothschild investment bank, Redwood has had ample opportunity to observe meritocracy in action. Sorry, not meritocracy. I meant to say he's had ample opportunity to observe the assumption of vast riches through the dumb accident of inheritance. That's the one.

Casting poverty as the result of individual spiritual failure is seductive because it gets the government off the hook. It's not George Osborne's catastrophe economics that mean people are left struggling to stretch a shrinking income over an ever-increasing cost of living, it's just in their nature to be poor. Nothing to be done about it.

And Redwood's not the only Conservative to grasp at essentialist explanations for poverty. Iain Duncan Smith loves this stuff, spouting neuroscience-ish guff about how deprived children grow up to have "small brains" (the researcher IDS quoted said the politician had distorted his work), and offering sweeping psychological judgements about unemployed people's reluctance to take risks.

In Redwood's version the original sin of the poor is that they're too willing to gamble, creating a weird composite figure of the Tory version of a poor person: someone who's too cautious to move for a new job, but happy to take the odds of beating the bookies. The idea of a correlation between gambling and unemployment is, of course, nonsense: in 2000, the Gambling Commission found [pdf] that "people in paid work were by far the most likely to have gambled in the past year".

Bookmakers don't appear in deprived areas because the jobless are compulsive gamblers, but because empty shops on ailing high streets mean cheap premises. Your social class does influence the sort of gambling you're likely to take up, though: John Redwood's constituents in Wokingham might be too busy to make bets, but perhaps some of them will squeeze in a visit across the boundary to Reading where they'll soon have a choice of two super casinos.

When it comes to gambling, the house always wins, and there's a similar dreary inevitability in Conservative attitudes to poverty: if you're poor, it doesn't matter whether you take your chances or play it safe: the Tories will find a way to hate and blame you for your circumstances either way.

John Redwood, in happier times. Photo: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit