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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.’ 

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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