Bottom of the class

In the second part of our series on poverty, Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford argue that the g

Who cares about the poor? David Cameron says the Conservatives do. Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, is worried that the Tories are not simply raiding Labour territory, they are declaring war on its reason to exist. Through 100 years of disputes about what Labour is or should be about, Field says, "most have agreed that [it] exists to protect and advance the interests of the poor". That consensus is now open to question.

The Welfare Reform Act 2009 received royal assent last November. There is no better time than now for the centre left to ask itself a few difficult questions about its relationship with the poor. In the final vote on the bill, the Commons rejected Lords amendments that sought some protection for the most vulnerable. Those who are sick, even very ill, will be expected actively to seek work, or face sanctions. Sanctions also apply to mothers of very small children and to those suffering serious mental illness. But the biggest shock to those who campaigned for a more humane approach to welfare reform was the silence of the labour movement. Was this through lack of interest, or tacit support for the measures?

Government ministers rigorously defended the bill, claiming that William Beveridge would have approved of it. This is wrong. Beveridge described his 1942 plan as "in some ways a revolution, but in more important ways it is a natural development from the past". The revolutionary part broke with the ruling welfare ideology and created a "new type of human institution". Beveridge called it "social insurance", which implies both that it is compulsory and that "men stand together with their fellows" by pooling risks. The implementation of this universalist principle and its ethic of
solidarity was an exceptional event in British history. The Welfare Reform Act undermines both the principle and its effect.

Yet there is some truth in the government's argument. The rhetoric of welfare reform is in keeping with some of the "natural developments" that influenced Beveridge, including the idea of an "undeserving poor" and the belief that it is the dysfunctional behaviour of the poor that is responsible for their poverty. The punitive treatment of Incapacity Benefit claimants and the belief in the curative powers of work have their roots in the late-Victorian idea of a "social residuum". New Labour revived a disciplinary approach to welfare, concerned with controlling rather than supporting individuals.

Its intellectual lineage - represented by figures such as Thomas Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, the late-Victorian social investigators, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb - is steeped in a technocratic and rationalist notion of progress. Its driving ethos was not so much social justice as that the "degeneracy" of the poor got in the way of the efficient drive towards a perfect society. Sidney Webb railed against the falling birth rate and feared that the country would fall "to the Irish and the Jews".

Moral panic

Beveridge was a member of the Eugenics Education Society, set up in reaction to the threat of "degeneracy". Its "first object", wrote its founder, Francis Galton, "is to check the birth rate of the unfit instead of allowing them to come into being . . . The second object is the improvement of the race by furthering the productivity of the fit by early marriages and the healthful rearing of their children." In his 1907 pamphlet The Problem of the Unemployed, Beveridge argued that men whose "general defects" make them "unemployable" should be made "dependants of the state". In return, they must pay with "complete and permanent loss of all citizen rights - including not only the franchise but civil freedom and fatherhood".

Labour has historically lacked the political ideology to counter the legacy of utilitarian, disciplinary welfare. Its own political culture has been imbued with the Puritan work ethic. As Richard Tawney has argued, 17th-century Puritanism prepared the way for capitalist civilisation and brought with it a new punitive attitude towards the poor. Labour, like the wider social-democratic tradition, has been unable to build a counterculture that can offer an alternative ethics of living and working. As a result, it has colluded in distinguishing morally between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor.

History has shown us that economic crises generate middle-class panics about a "dangerous" underclass and its racial and sexual transgressions. In the 1980s, the new right embarked on a project to theorise an underclass in Britain. It drew on the work of the American political scientist Charles Murray, whose research had revived eugenicist debates about race and intelligence. Murray was invited to Britain by the Sunday Times in 1989 and his ideas were taken up by Digby Anderson's Social Affairs Unit. The American academic Lawrence Mead was also influential in reviving the belief that poverty was about behaviour and dependency, rather than economics and justice. The problem was not environment, but individual failing. The work of the new right laid the foundations for New Labour's welfare reforms.

Electoral collapse

The government calculated that it could triangulate the Conservatives and subject the underclass to punitive measures without alienating Labour's core supporters. Its refrain of "hard-working families" attempted to codify this division. But the so-called underclass is not a class apart as the new right and the social investigators of the 19th century tried to prove. It is an imagined body of people - chavs, hoodies, junkies - projected on to single mothers, the sick and parts of the working class impoverished by the impact of recession and unemployment.

Welfare reform has generated insecurity beyond those it has targeted. It has helped to create support for the BNP among low earners who fear the same abyss of unemployment and culture loss. The government's treatment of the poor has become an electoral liability. Statistical evidence about the numbers taken out of poverty will not undo the distrust and the feeling that Labour is "not on our side". How will Labour rebuild its base?
The centre left needs answers. The Tories discuss recapitalising the poor, while the government can only talk about harsher penalties. Across Europe, centre-left parties associated with the neoliberal transformation of the nation state are paying a heavy political price.

In Germany in 2002, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) launched the reform of the benefits system with its "Hartz IV" laws. The introduction of greater conditionality speeded up the downward trend in the party's electoral support. Membership collapsed and its working-class base deserted it. Oscar Lafontaine exited to form the Left Party, culminating in the SPD's catastrophic defeat in last September's federal elections. New Labour has followed a similar path. It must face the possibility of similar losses to its support come the election.

Jon Cruddas is the MP for Dagenham
Jonathan Rutherford is professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University

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This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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