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The Conservative Route to Fighting Poverty

On Thursday, the Spectator held a conference titled as above. Towards the end of the morning, Alex Morton, former advisor to No10 in the Cameron days (who was a speaker recently at the TRG conference) challenged the panel suggesting that the biggest problem we have is that all think tanks that advise on the subject are left-wing, so there is a lack of conservative thinking and research on this issue. All except for (at least) one, the audience must have thought; the one founded but the very person who was the architect of the most radical reform of the welfare system (Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice). At the time of creating our IMPACT course policy, which was effectively a Conservative way to provide the money-draining Sure Start, we used the work of the CSJ extensively. But can a single think tank really cut through the noise of “moar monies” made by everyone else? The answer, in my opinion, is exemplified by the shambles of IDS’s own reform, Universal Credit. The reform itself is something I believe in and have championed throughout: it brings all benefits under one roof, administered together, in-work and out-of-work, making it easier to transition and especially removing the “cliff edge” between too sick to work and able to work, making the system more friendly to the many people with conditions that are not black and white. It takes away the pressure of losing money if moving into work, and reflects the way people see themselves. It also brings back what Catholic Social Teaching calls the dignity of work (and since IDS was the first Catholic leader of the Party it’s likely something that he knew).

The fundamental problem with the welfare system is just how big it is, so the reform had to be bigger and courageous, and the problem with such visions is you need people to believe in them. Now add George Osborne, called by Janesh on the Financial Times “the last Whig”, to the picture, with his attempts to impose Hayek on a public that would find Keynes unpalatable (a lot of policy-making is dictated by the policy consensus, e.g. the manifestos of all 3 parties at the GE in 1945 had the creation of the NHS as policy), and it’s a recipe for disaster.
The policy consensus now is anti-austerity, except that nobody knows what austerity even means. In the way nobody can discuss privatised healthcare provision without the world screaming with hysteria, there is hardly any proper discussion of making the system more efficient. People on the right have a wariness of measures involving public investment for fear of creating dependency. It’s not a misplaced fear, as I’ve been employed on a low wage and told by my employer that I could get housing benefits so why should he pay me more? (it’s the age-old free-rider problem). When things are there, people use them, and it’s a seemingly unbreakable vicious cycle when the face of modern poverty is in-work poverty.

The fight against poverty used to be about bringing people out of poverty by bringing them into work, and that is happening (we have now record low unemployment), but with the cost of living in places like London being too high, and people having hardly any choice but to try and live here because this is where the economy is booming, it seems to many like the problem is just shifting in nature rather than being solved. It’s a cynical view, and I don’t subscribe to it entirely, but the perception of it as a problem has been heightened by the rhetoric of May’s government against the market. But is the market really broken? Economic discourse treats it as a demigod with a life of its own, but the market is just the sum of all our economic interactions with each other as businesses, consumers and yes, the government both as a business and as a consumer. There is no solution that is outside of the market itself, no matter how much rhetoric you use. Theresa May has been called by many (who aren’t One Nation Tories themselves) a One Nation Tory, owing more to Burke and Disraeli than the left, despite a manifesto that could have been Ed Miliband’s. In a way, she reflects the cynical prejudice against the “money-grabbing bourgeoisie” that would lead to Disraeli’s romantic vision of an unexpected alliance of the landed gentry and the working class. However, the Big Society is an inherently liberal concept, in which traditional social order and the sense of duty of the upper class (noblesse oblige) function as the safeguard against the abuses that we have come to know. In many ways, it’s closer to Thatcher’s “no such thing as society” infamous speech (read in full) than it is to Theresa May’s vision of government intervention, which offer no real conservative thinking on social justice at all.

Fraser Nelson accused us social justice types of banging on too much about Wilberforce, which kinda gives the impression that the party hasn’t cared about social justice ever since the abolition of slavery , and it’s not an unjust criticism (and I am the first to be guilty of that). In my opinion, this is the other side of the coin that is the problem Alex Morton highlighted: we have become the party of the good economic management, a technocratic choice that people elect to clean up Labour’s mess after the honeymoon period of big spending is over. We have evacuated the moral high ground when we should be shouting from the rooftops that our system, while far from perfect, has done a lot of good (see for example the research gathered here on sub-Saharan Africa). Fraser Nelson himself wrote a damning piece on the subject. I’m repeating it like a broken record, but I think it’s about time we bring back the Primrose League. We are where we are because everything has become inherently linked to the party machine. The fact that our central office is CCHQ (Conservative Campaign HQ) and not CPHQ (Conservative Party HQ) should be enough of a hint that it’s not a working approach, even without politicians calling for a festival of conservative ideas while Corbyn graces the stage at Glastonbury. Said politician was, not surprisingly, George Freeman, who only the week before gave an amazing keynote speech at the One Nation Day conference of the Tory Reform Group. The work of TRG and Conservative Mainstream is invaluable, but it is party-orientated, and this is a two fronts war. The same could be said of Bright Blue, which, despite their aims including a lot about society, are a think tank, and think tanks by their nature exist within the policy framework. We need something that fights on the societal front.

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