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A general election won’t cure poverty

This opinion piece is over 7 years old

​A different political landscape won't cure poverty argues Peter Schroeder

Back in the 1990s, based in East Sussex where I ran a welfare advice drop-in centre, I faced years of constant incredulity when I told people the extent of poverty in the region.

It was still very much a Conservative Britain in this period and a very Conservative southern England and most working class Englanders believed poverty was something happening in Africa. It was, I was often told, the direct result of a known variable that could be solved with a change of attitude: laziness.

That was far from the truth. But those who worked hard to earn a crust harboured deep – in many ways understandable – resentment against those who didn’t work.

We had created the nation of Haves and Have Nots where an admission you were signing on meant only one thing: you were scrounging and being propped up by the working class’s hard earned efforts.

Twenty years on I’m hearing the same story. This time in Scotland. After spending 10 years at Glasgow City Council working with welfare advice teams, I’ve been struck how many average families are being hammered by living costs but still harbour the same resentment against this “army” of scroungers who cost the welfare state billions.

While the rational among us know this is far from the truth, the message continues to be foisted by the main political parties.

Yet if you think up here we’re more enlightened with our attitudes to poverty, you should think again. Tory voters might be as rare as hen’s teeth, but similar attitudes to poverty, to worklessness and to those who aren’t as well off as others, persist.

When I hear every target in Scotland aimed at ending poverty – whether fuel poverty, absolute poverty or child poverty – hasn’t been met it is of no surprise. Because fighting poverty isn’t a vote winner. It never will be. What matters is appealing to the majority – the working, middle class and that is where most of the policies are being directed. And every successive Scottish government has done this. Just as every successive Westminster government has.

We are all essentially selfish creatures, wanting the best for ourselves and our families; that is to be expected. However we are being faced with a simple choice if we are to tackle poverty. Are we willing to relinquish our own levels of relative prosperity to help the minority, to help those on the margins who need our support most? Would you vote for that?

More importantly, is there a party out there which supports this aim? I don’t want to be a pessimist but I really don’t think there is.

Peter Shroeder has advised Wesminister governments as well as the Scottish Government on tackling inequality. He formed the London charity LinkWork in the 1990s and currently works as a policy consultant



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