Poverty amid plenty
Last week the All Party Group on hunger and food poverty published its report, ‘Feeding Britain’. The findings reminded of the UK’s obscene levels of poverty and hunger. George Osborne’s Autumn Statement provided another shocking reminder of how far the Conservative Party has abandoned the postwar consensus about the welfare state. It has embraced the idea of the richest groups in British society being indulged in an unfair and generous tax regime, while the lives of the poor and disadvantaged are being diminished and demonised in an aggressive display of right-wing ideology rarely seen in this country, even under Thatcher.
Inequality and the idea of social justice were prominent during the referendum campaign as Scots weighed up whether independence or staying with the Union would be the best bet for tackling poverty in Scotland.
Nicola Sturgeon and Jim Murphy have made bold claims about social justice and the need to tackle poverty. This is timely as new figures show that in Scotland levels of poverty are increasing and inequalities deepening.
There are more children in poverty. This against a background of unacceptable differences in pay levels between the highest and lowest paid in industry. At the same time, the living wage is only voluntary. And people in Scotland are going hungry as more people are using food banks by the day. As a wealthy country, why are we allowing this to happen? Where is the anger?
Using austerity as a cloak, the Westminster Government has overturned any lingering notion of the common good, national solidarity or ethical based politics. In his book, The Soul of Politics, published in the US, Jim Wallis, a new wave Christian intellectual, talks about the relationship between politics and morality being absolutely vital for the future of society. Wallis asks: “Is it possible to evoke in people a genuine desire to transcend our more selfish interests and respond to a larger vision that gives us a sense of purpose, direction, meaning and even community?”
For Labour in Scotland this is the key issue. The inequality gap is widening. There are serious doubts about our commitment as a society to justice, fairness and equality, the fundamental issues at the heart of our politics.
As a wealthy country, why are we allowing this to happen? Where is the anger?
The inequalities of wealth in Britain and Scotland are shocking, the gap between rich and poor is widening and, as we have known for many years, we are one of the most unequal societies in Western Europe. Sadly none of this is new, but what is different under the Tories is the accelerating rate of poverty and disadvantage and the number of people who are being drawn into this depressing Tory world of food banks and handouts.
We should be aware of the ideological mindset shared by neo-liberal conservatives in this country and right-wing Republicans in the US. They see poverty as the product of the feckless and the undeserving. They like the idea of smaller government to dismantle welfare. Both want lower taxes regardless of the consequences for others. They want tax cuts for the rich. They see the poor outside the mainstream and as a burden on society. There is no commitment to redistribution or equality. They believe the market should dictate health and education outcomes. And view unemployment as an economic variable, like inflation or interest rates. While the USA has great virtues, it also has obscene levels of poverty and a widening gap between the rich and poor.
Towering above everything else is the idea of fairness in the context of justice and opportunity for all regardless of economic or social status. Fairness and equality have slipped down the political agenda.
Why are we allowing the Tories to reframe the debate? They are marginalising people and creating two nations. Labour needs to make the case for an alternative which outlines a progressive vision based on a modern social philosophy and the ethics of the common good. This is one way of helping to spell out what Scottish Labour stands for!
Poverty and children starving in modern Britain is not just about austerity and mean-spirited conservatism, it is about what is right and wrong in society, how the national wealth is distributed and what kind of country we want to be.
These are philosophical questions which seem sadly lacking in our political debate, to the point where the churches, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis, the aid agencies such as the Red Cross and enlightened single issue groups and individuals in society, are generating debate and action while political parties seem muted, unsure and afraid to talk about core matters, and the mayhem and madness of ‘modern’ conservatism wreaks havoc on a great swathe of our fellow citizens.
Are we immune to the suffering of others or have we bought into the farcical idea that we are ‘all in this together’? Or because of austerity, can we do nothing to close the widening inequality gap between rich and poor? Can we not confront market excesses or do we have no moral views about the role of fairness and justice in our society? Many of us are frustrated because of the lack of leadership on these important issues and are asking why this social, economic and moral decline is taking place.
The relationship between our politics, our ethics and our public life remain at the heart of this inequality and poverty story.