Here’s the problem as I see it. Brown has long understood that metrics are power. He who chooses the yardstick wins the battle – and if he defined “poverty” as the number of people below the 60% median income, he can fake progress. For ten years, instead of tackling poverty, he has used the tax credit system to manipulate the results of this very specific target. And for ten years, the Tories have said nothing. Poverty, they figured, was Labour’s domain.
In his speech, Cameron broke free of this. He drew a distinction between the symptoms of poverty – lack of money – and the root causes. Brown chased the former, he said, and but only the Tories would combat the latter (education, families etc). Brown hails a success if, by a few pounds a week, someone is dragged over the poverty line. Even using Brown's narrow measure there are 100,000 more children “in poverty” than last year, Cameron says. This is the first time I can remember that he has questioned this definition of poverty.
Cameron then mentioned other measurements, such as the poorest 10% getting poorer. He took a gamble saying that the DWP is delaying child poverty data because the picture is getting worse – like Cameron I’d heard that, but he’ll look a plonker if this ain’t so.
The last Labour government gave us 97% tax for the richest people, he continued. This lot has given us this for the poorest. If a single mother with a child doubles her income to £200 a week, she gets to keep £6 of it.
With Chris Grayling’s help a few Brownies were debunked, such as last week’s gem that “almost a million” children had been lifted out of poverty when the real figure was 600,000. Grayling said Timms was also wrong to claim 2m pensioners out of poverty, real figure is 200,000.
Then came IDS, who has tilled the field on which Cameron now seeks to sew. If money alone was the key then giving welfare to a drug addict lifts them out of poverty, he said. In practise, the money goes to drugs. Children of addicts find no food in the fridge or clothes in the cupboards, yet by Brown's definition they are not in poverty. That's why Brown's shallow materialism is an invalid measure, he said.
He went on to list other metrics which the Tories could use to measure poverty. Boys in care make up 0.6% of population but 30% of prison population, he said – so why are care homes serving as prison academies? Social housing now used by younger people, he says, and has become a “dumping ground” for those being written off by this government? And finally, the destitution of the asylum seekers not allowed to work to sustain themselves. If you regard poverty as a narrow problem of money, IDS concluded, you will never change anything. You will spend more and achieve less.
At the end, we had questions. One woman stood up saying she was “from Govan” – ie, not an organisation but part of Glasgow. She gets tax credits, she said, but her husband has been laid off as a joiner because Poles will for £6 an hour do work that he used to do at £14 an hour. What would Cameron do about that? A tense moment – here in a room full of Westminster villagers was a real person, voicing a complaint which we hardly every hear in the mainstream media.
Cameron said he’d simplify tax credits and impose limits on immigration. That’s as maybe, I thought, but EU rules mean he can’t stop any Pole. Cameron finished by saying immigration is good, but has bad effects. It was a sincere attempt to empathise with this woman (who has, she said, ten children to support).
The truth is that no politician can or will do a thing about cheap European migrant labour undercutting natives as long as it’s all above the minimum wage. Cameron was confronted by a loser from mass immigration, and he had no message. Because there is none. In these circumstances, I thought he handled the situation well. I wonder how Brown would do. She’s the type of person whom No10 aides spend a lot of time making sure does not get the chance to pose a question like that to the PM. I’m a strong supporter of immigration, and it left me numb. One cannot say “go tell your husband that’s the way the gloablised cookie crumbles.” If CoffeeHousers can think of what Cameron’s answer should have been, I’d be interested to hear. For once, I had no answer.
Anyway, back to the speech. As Cameron said in Blackpool 2005, this is the start of something. If the Tories are finally breaking free from Labour’s metrics and language, then all becomes possible. Today’s speech was the strong basis to claim the Tories are the party of fighting poverty. Cameron has a dodgy habit of making speeches like this, then saying nothing for months (ie, his immigration speech last autumn). Lets see if he can finish what he today started