Poverty and no philosophy

26th May 2019


Millions still suffer poverty in the UK

The United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, this week published his final report on deepening poverty in the UK.  Alston accused the government in his report of the “systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population.”   Alston is a 69-year-old law professor at New York University and has been UN poverty rapporteur since 2014, carrying out investigations in that period in the US, China, Ghana, Saudi Arabia, Laos and Chile.

Alston usually expects a detailed analysis or refutation of his reports but this has not been forthcoming from the UK.  So far, the response from UK ministers has been to dismiss the report as “barely believable” and to suggest that the report is “a completely inaccurate picture of our approach to tackling poverty.”  Work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, has claimed that the report is politically biased.  The government is preparing a complaint to the UN as well as requesting a meeting with the UN high commissioner on human rights.

Alston’s claim, that the government’s approach to benefits has been to create “a digital and sanitised version of the 19th-century workhouse”, inevitably infuriated the Daily Mail who described the claim as “simply ridiculous” and “an insult to our national intelligence.”

Alston has indicated that changes to the welfare system are essential, to tackle the fact that, in one of the world’s richest countries, even official figures show that 14 million people are living in relative poverty.   He defends his claim of the creation of a 21st century workhouse stating,

“I think breaking rocks has some similarity to the 35 hours of job search for people who have been out of work for months or years.  They have to go through the motions but it is completely useless.  That seems to me to be very similar to the approach in the old-style workhouse.  The underlying mentality is that we are going to make the place sufficiently unpleasant that you really won’t want to be here.”

The publication of Alston’s report last week has inevitably been lost in the welter of publicity around the European elections and the resignation speech of UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, resulting in a feeding frenzy in the Tory Party as the battle to replace May gets underway.

Alston does not frame the report’s conclusions in this way but it is an indictment of capitalism as a system that the lives of millions can be wasted due to lack of education, opportunity and employment.  In the day to day cut and thrust of political debate it is easy to forget that exploitation is endemic within capitalism and, as Karl Marx pointed out, the extraction of surplus value from wage labour the source of all wealth.

While the views of Karl Marx get about as much airtime as those of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK media these days, Labour Deputy Leader, Tom Watson remains a darling of the British liberal press.  Writing in The Observer (26th May 2019), Watson is pessimistic about Labour’s performance in the European elections and the Party’s expected loss of support.  Watson states,

“This was the first election I can remember where Labour members said they couldn’t support us.  One member I met in Bristol broke down in tears as he told me that, after 44 years of voting Labour, he was going to vote Lib Dem.”

As Deputy Leader of the Labour Party you may think that Watson would have been quick to point out the record of the Lib Dems in propping up the Tory Coalition government, inflicting years of austerity upon the country, reducing public services to the bare bones and the NHS to an organisation struggling to fulfil its mission of delivering free health care at the point of  use.

Watson may have pointed out the Lib Dem position on student tuition fees, their support for which has ensured many years of debt, and in many cases anguish, for many young people.  All this and more was inflicted upon the people of the UK while Lib Dems cavorted in a Tory led Cabinet.  Not to forget the fact that, as UN rapporteur Philp Alston has pointed out, an estimated 14 million people in the UK are living in relative poverty.

So, Watson may have said, get real, pull your socks up and vote Labour!  Of course not.  Watson chooses instead to wallow in the Brexit debate and suggest that,

“Our performance is a direct result of our mealy-mouthed backing for a public vote on Brexit when it is being demanded loud and clear by the overwhelming majority of our members and voters.”

Other than the opinions of his dinner table guests and friends in the media, there is no evidence for Watson’s assertion that the majority of Labour members and voters back a public vote.  If anything, the outcome of the European elections is likely to show that there is a far greater appetite for leaving the EU as soon as possible, as the Brexit Party sweeps to the top of the polls.

Watson may not like it but he has to face up to the reality that the EU is not only undemocratic and unaccountable, it is unpopular.  It is a sad fact that some of that unpopularity is based upon the erroneous anti-people messages pedalled by Nigel Farage and his ilk.

However, some of that unpopularity is based upon the reality that after 40 years of EU membership the UK still has 14 million people living in poverty, including 30% of children, and is engaged in creating a digital 21st-century workhouse.  Why should anyone vote for that?

Watson cannot see this because he has no political or philosophical framework within which to view the world.  He is an opportunist simply wanting to catch the next media trade wind to carry him into office.   As Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Tom Watson should be out there arguing the case for a people’s Brexit and the socialist transformation of the UK economy, whether the BBC and the media like it or not.  Otherwise he should just stand down.


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