Why Labour must make a fresh start on poverty at party conference

In the first of a series of blogs during party conference season, Chris Goulden assesses the successes and failures of Labour’s approach to tackling poverty, and what they should do next.

Labour never had a proper strategy on poverty, which is why initial improvements in child poverty started going off course long before the recession. A good strategy needs to set out an end point, describe how to get there and take a comprehensive approach.

The high water mark of Labour’s approach on child poverty was achieved in 2005 when the so-called absolute income poverty rate reached 16 per cent, plummeting by one half from a level of 32 per cent in 1998. In fact the absolute poverty rate fell so quickly and so far, it was almost dismissed as an irrelevance in contrast to the more stubborn relative poverty rate. However, we now know not to take anything for granted, with the latest forecast from the Institute for Fiscal Studies warning of rising absolute poverty over the rest of this decade.

As we set out in A UK without poverty this week, the country is now facing a rate of absolute child poverty of 36 per cent by 2020 unless urgent action is taken. These are not just abstract statistics; they reflect growing numbers of families being unable to afford to meet their basic needs.

Yet this is a more complicated story than the Coalition just undoing the Labour approach in response to the recession and the subsequent crisis in public spending. As the stats show, things started going wrong some time before the recession hit. But why? Part of the answer is that, while Labour certainly had policies in place in particular on child poverty (Child Tax Credits, Lone Parent welfare to work programmes, National Minimum Wage) and pensioner poverty (Pension Credit, Winter Fuel Payments), there never was a coherent strategy to end even child poverty, let alone poverty in general.

A strategy is more than a list of policies. It needs to have a focus on the end game and set out a roadmap of how to get there. Labour was never very clear about these two fundamental issues. While the goal of ‘ending’ child poverty was fixed for the year 2020 (translating Tony Blair’s original call to end poverty in a generation) the description of what ‘ending’ meant changed from initially being ‘among the best in Europe’ (not the greatest ever definition) to 5 per cent on the relative measure to eventually the 10 per cent figure set out in the Child Poverty Act. As the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission have pointed out, achieving this at this stage is now impossible.

A third essential aspect of a good strategy is to consider all the policy areas that matter and think about what policies, resources and funding are required to reach the target. While it is a caricature of Labour’s approach to say that they only relied on Tax Credits or ‘poverty plus a pound’, several crucial areas were neglected. Arguably the most important is the demand side of the labour market. In the face of growing awareness of the importance of in-work poverty, there is now some recognition of the issue in the Coalition’s child poverty strategy even if the responses to the problem remain inadequate.

Future strategies on poverty need to remedy these flaws and set out an achievable end point with as clear and honest a description as possible of how to get there. They also need to take a comprehensive approach including all sections of society and take action across all the areas of policy that matter for poverty. As Labour have indicated, the Office for Budget Responsibility might be a good place to start, monitoring levels of child poverty. But to be effective, this should cover all age groups and be supported by Alan Milburn’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission to scrutinise the government’s plans.

This will not be a five-year undertaking, so what we really need to see is a longer-term consensus on how to achieve a UK without poverty. Conference is an ideal time to start afresh.

  • JRF chief executive Julia Unwin will be ‘in conversation’ with Jon Cruddas MP and Tim Montgomerie on ‘A relational approach to poverty’ at the Labour conference, taking place on Tuesday 22 September, between 6pm and 7pm at the JRF/Total Politics Coffee Club. JRF will be attending all three party conferences.