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Does it matter if Tories don’t know what it’s like to be poor?

20 January 2014

4:21 PM

20 January 2014

4:21 PM

I have this theory that the reason why the British public is so hugely in favour of cutting welfare to the bone, and the British media so hostile, is that many (maybe most) journalists still depend on financial support from their parents well into their 30s. Since most media folk come from the sort of backgrounds where home ownership is expected, and yet work in an industry where the typical salary makes living anywhere near London extremely difficult, they feel too ashamed to opine on ‘scroungers’ because, well, they are scroungers.

Anyway, maybe that’s what’s called projection.

Most people in politics, like those in the media, tend to come from fairly privileged backgrounds, and this seems to be the crux of Labour’s counter-attack on welfare. Rachel Reeves was making this point on the radio this morning, where she said:

‘Fundamentally, for all David Cameron’s rebranding, Iain Duncan Smith’s epiphanies and conversions, and George Osborne’s tough talk, the Tories just don’t get it. They don’t know what it takes to overcome the barriers that many who are unemployed face. They don’t know what it’s like to work hard, but struggle to earn enough to make ends meet. They can’t see that the spread of insecurity, and over-reliance on low-paid, poor quality jobs is undermining our country’s ability to earn our way out of the cost of living crisis, and making it harder to get the costs of social security under control.’ 

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There’s no doubt the cost of living is a real and growing disaster, despite Labour’s attempt to turn into one of those irritating political slogans (like the Conservatives and their ‘hardworking families’ – arrrgh, kill me). But how many politicians do ‘get it’? Rachel Reeves grew up in Bromley, which is hardly equivalent to the background Ramsey MacDonald had. Of course that’s nothing like as privileged as George Osborne, who’s like a real life English villain from a Mel Gibson movie, and who has certainly never needed to worry about wolves at doors. But most of the Left’s grumbling about the Bullingdon Club is basically the 2 per cent attacking the 1 per cent, or the 0.2 per cent attacking 0.1 per cent for that matter.

Labour should be wary about playing prolier-than-thou, because very few politicians would have experienced grinding poverty, and that’s because at least since the days of Clement Attlee grinding poverty has not been widespread in Britain (although concentrated in pockets).

It’s important for politicians to understand what the marginalised go through (certainly it’s important for them to be seen to do so – think of the damage done to enemies of the French monarchy with ‘let them eat bread’) but do they need to have experienced it? This is similar to the logic that parliament needs to be more ‘representative’ of the public and real people; judging by what the general public think about some things, that would be a terrifying prospect.

And isn’t it more important that lawmakers and governing officials base their decisions on cold evidence rather than an emotionalised language of empathy? It’s like the argument that crime policy should be decided by the relatives of prominent crime victims, when I would have imagined they should be the last people to make those judgments.

I’d rather politicians read more than tried to empathise with real people; William Gladstone grew up in a position of great privilege and spent months of the year reading Homer in North Wales, and he seemed to screw things up a lot less than the current lot.


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Show comments
  • Marie Louise Noonan

    I thought we only had ‘relative poverty’ in this country?

  • Cornelius Bonkers

    If this proposition were true then obviously the best people to govern us would be the poor unfortunates who queue for alms at the food banks and soup kitchens. Meritocratic societies function well because they exploit class differences rather than making them sacrosanct. The possession of wealth can mean many things and obviously incompetence is one of them. But others might be insight, intelligence and decency. Oh, and just in case those on the left have forgotten, a good education matters. Grammar schools were a good idea and still are especially for those who might make something of themselves.

  • River P

    Odly enough the poor seem to vote Tory while the well off and middle classes tend to feel sorry for them and vote labour?

  • Mynydd

    Does it matter if Tories don’t know what it’s like to be poor? It wouldn’t matter if the Tories had done something about the poor, but they have not, apart from driving more and more families to the food bank.

  • Mike Barnes

    I’d say it matters a lot.

    The party used to win majorities when they had people from ordinary backgrounds like Thatcher and Major in charge.

    “Two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk” running things during a recession isn’t very appealing.

  • black11hawk

    I don’t think people care really where someone comes from. What really matters is that they feel that person is representing them well. It’s like in Gladiator when Gracchus says “I may not be a man of the people, but I try to be a man for the people.”

  • black11hawk

    I don’t think people care really where someone comes from. What really matters is that they feel that person is representing them well. It’s like in Gladiator when Gracchus says “I may not be a man of the people, but I try to be a man for the people.”

  • Steve781

    Still, those who didn’t grow up in privilege tend to have a greater understanding of how the world works. Compare the Grammar School generation of politicians to the current shower

  • David Ganz

    Lord Freud and Iain duncan Smith remain shameful and frequently mendacious.

  • Colin

    No, it doesn’t matter. What does matter, though is that unlike the Tories, the main objective of the Welfare (labour) Party is to keep people poor. Without poor people or lack of aspiration, creatures like reeves can’t continue to exist.

    • saffrin

      But Colin, Labour’s latest plan for the poor is to ensure they get £120 a week on benefits. Just think Colin, the poor would be able to afford the BBC’s TV tax, enabling Labour’s propaganda machine to fill their supporters tiny little minds with ever more BS.

  • shaft120

    Good to see you bavk into your stride since leaving the telegraph Ed. Very much enjoyed your articles there and hope to do so here.
    I wholeheartedly abhore this new left, progressive idea that people only habe a valid opinion on a subject if they have direct experience, and that you should defer im a debate to somebody if theyhave more relevant personal experience than you. This thinking culminated in my most irritating phrase of 2012/13, “check your privelidge” which trumps ‘hard working families’ or ‘cost of living crisis’ hands down.

    The idea that the logic of an argument, the analysis of emperical evidence or empathy is somehow irrelevant in the face of the 2 pence worth of a ‘victim’ of whatever subject is being discussed is actually what large swathes of the, right on, left elites believe. Ayn Rand couldn’t have come up with a better idea for one of her books.

    Of course by this definition a well off old etonian toff, having been pretty successful in life, has the authority to speak about nothing, being trumped on almost all subjects by the war torn immigrant, paraplegic lesbian living on benefits street in an mixed marriage with a islamic fundamentalist bi-sexual under a control order.

  • Kitty MLB

    No it does not matter in the slightest that The Tories
    do not know what its like to be poor- Rachel Reeves has a utter cheek.
    Is this the new little tactic from the peoples party, ‘we are like you, we understand your pain after all we spent 13 years creating it, and we are also all poor as little church mice’!
    A ghastly education system that gets young people ready for the benefits system!
    open doors immigration policy, The Iron Fist of the EU, that controls far too much of our lives, Taxes that are far too high, those who
    encourage banks to lend money to people who will never be able to afford to pay it back etc.
    The problem is as a gentleman said the other day, when Princess Diana Died,
    Blair used that to be able to manipulate, and started us on the that everyone needs to feel everyone else’s pain, and then his little husky hugging acolyte Cameron
    appeared and everything becomes about image instead of action.
    Oh well never mind as long as they know the price of bread. make the right
    noises, and they must never, ever attend private school, we would not want
    those who run the country to be very well educated, would we.

  • Agrippina

    Although it is true you should not have to experience hardship to understand it, it helps. Thus when Portillo left Parliament in 1997, he went to live with a family on their budget made up of various benefits. He struggled to buy and stay within budget and admitted it was hard as you are always weighing up what you can afford. He did not have to pay any utilities, he said he would have strugged and he could see it would be difficult to have to buy clothes, shoes etc. He also said that if anything broke down, white goods, it would be impossible to replace with ease. He accepted he had not understood this aspect of living on welfare whilst in power.

    However, too many children just adds to the burden, only pay benefits for 2kids that would help. Then stop bringing in cheap foreign labour that undercuts the Brits, thus ensuring that the low paid Brits can earn enough to live on. Build decent social housing max 3 beds, properly insulated, ensuring cheaper bills. Bigger families can buy their own.

    A govt’s duty is to their own citizens 1st so get on with making the changes. Make sure folks send their kids to school (make a small sliding scale charge) because education is the way out of poverty.

    • Rainsboro

      Wouldn’t disagree with any of that. The problem with having politicos who haven’t experienced things like living on benefits is that they’ll base their solutions on ignorance. The chapter on tax credits in ‘The Blunders of Our Governments’ is a case study in ignorance breeding disaster. And Rachel Reeves, for the record, employed unpaid interns which, to my mind, rather disqualifies her from commenting on low pay/poverty

  • Agrippina

    Although it is true you should not have to experience hardship to understand it, it helps. Thus when Portillo left Parliament in 1997, he went to live with a family on their budget made up of various benefits. He struggled to buy and stay within budget and admitted it was hard as you are always weighing up what you can afford. He did not have to pay any utilities, he said he would have strugged and he could see it would be difficult to have to buy clothes, shoes etc. He also said that if anything broke down, white goods, it would be impossible to replace with ease. He accepted he had not understood this aspect of living on welfare whilst in power.

    However, too many children just adds to the burden, only pay benefits for 2kids that would help. Then stop bringing in cheap foreign labour that undercuts the Brits, thus ensuring that the low paid Brits can earn enough to live on. Build decent social housing max 3 beds, properly insulated, ensuring cheaper bills. Bigger families can buy their own.

    A govt’s duty is to their own citizens 1st so get on with making the changes. Make sure folks send their kids to school (make a small sliding scale charge) because education is the way out of poverty.

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