Saturday, 22 December 2012

Bah humbug to you too Mr Shelbrooke MP!

'Tis the season of goodwill. Bah humbug! From a political perspective 2012 has been defined by a certain kind of nastiness. It all started so well. We were all 'in it together'; austerity that is. We would all share the pain. But in 2012 it is clear we are not 'all in it together'.  Far from it.  Some big companies don't pay tax at all, yet rely on state-subsidised wages. The rich it seems pay tax on a voluntary basis, because if you tax them then they don't pay it. This was Mr Cameron's Christmas lesson for Mr Miliband. The poor on the other hand are a different matter. One thing we know already about 2013 is that the rich are set to get richer and the poor are set to get poorer. And what will happen to Tiny Tim?

This is the season of goodwill. A season to be jolly. And also a season to reflect on our fortune and the misfortune of others. So up pops Tory MP Alec Shelbrooke with the idea that those on welfare benefits should be given cash cards instead of payments so that they would  only be allowed to buy 'essentials.' They would be prohibited from buying alcohol, cigarettes, from gambling and watching pay per view TV channels (presumably nasty pornographic sports like football).

I can only suspect Mr Shelbrooke thinks those on welfare let their kids go hungry whilst they live a life of drunken debauchery. It is a very Victorian view of the poor; that poverty was the hallmark of a wasted life or a life lived in sin. It is a view of political convenience. It means the poor can be blamed for their poverty.  

And this view of the poor has very much defined politics in 2012. The unemployed have been stigmatised as 'work shy', lazily hiding behind closed curtains whilst the virtuous get up for work.  Those on benefits have been defined as 'scroungers'. The disabled have been assessed as, well, not disabled; the sick as, well, not sick, and many have been driven to despair, and a few to suicide.  It has all been a very sorry Victorian tale. 

When Seebohm Rowntree, a member of the famous confectionery family, studied the conditions of the working class in York at the end of the nineteenth century he came to an extraordinarily simple conclusion. And it should be a lesson to us all. The poor were not poor because they were sinful. They were poor because they simply didn't receive enough in wages for the work they did. They weren't lazy or alcoholics. The didn't waste their lives.  They just were not paid enough to cover the essentials of food, clothing and a roof over their heads. That is poverty. That is why people are poor.  It would be well for Mr Cameron, Mr Osborne, Mr Clegg and the likes of Mr Shelbrooke to understand this. Because, sadly, it is just as true now as it was in Seebohm Rowntree's time. 

A staggering  5 million people in Britain are paid less than a living wage. A living wage is simply the same concept as that applied by Seebohm Rowntree; a wage required to afford the basics of life. It is a disgrace that for so many this is not so. The answer  to poverty is not to treat or denigrate  the poor as sinful spendthrifts but to ensure they are paid a living wage.

There are many for whom Christmas will not be as jolly as Mr Shelbrooke's. And as he tucks into his Christmas turkey with all its trimmings, I hope he well reflect on how fortunate he is. I hope he thinks of Tiny Tim. Bah humbug to you too Mr Shelbrooke MP!

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