Ross Clark in today’s Times gives vent to his spleen at Ian Duncan Smith’s desire to reposition the Tories as “the party of the poor”.

It is unsettling but entertaining to have a Tory trying to outflank Labour from the left but I suppose not totally unexpected (see IDS’s earlier pledge of fee-free tertiary education ).

Clark appears to be a man of the right and his attack on the new direction the Tory’s are taking is well-written but essentially what you’d expect any Conservative (without a position in IDS’s organisation) to say. He contrasts the spirit of Smilesian self-improvement amongst the Nineteenth Century poor with the way, according to him, that poverty “became a source of group identity and pride” after the advent of the Labour movement. He goes on to explain the reasons he thinks poverty has such historical staying-power in our islands;

“The reason poverty persisted in Twentieth Century Britain was because there were so many organisations with a vested interest in maintaining the existence of this entity “the poor”. Trade unions knew they owed their existence to a low paid monolithic workforce and so, in the decades of union power, low-paid is how their members remained”.

Read that again if you like, I’ve quoted it accurately. One of the chief sources of poverty in Britain is the Labour movement and Trades Unionism. I’ve got news for you Mr Clark – poverty has many sources; unemployment in post-industrial areas, depressed prices for agricultural commodities, low-wage employment opportunities being just the first three that came to mind. To try to stitch-up the Trades Unions for the persistance of poverty in the Twentieth Century is astonishingly naive and betrays a worrying lack of understanding of how things work in the real economy not to mention the Unions.

Union leaders have actually been pretty successful in negotiating valuable material and other improvements for their members. Whether this was always in the long-term interests of the factory that employed them is really a different story from the one Clark wants to tell and one that I won’t examine in this post. I’d also love to know how Union leaders kept the plans Clark says they had to keep the working class in poverty secret for so long.
The one thing on which Clark and I can agree is that it is not useful to define someone as suffering from “poverty” who is in receipt of 60% of the median income. The article correctly points out that this merely records differences in income and not poverty in any meaningful sense.

Right, I’m off to unionise some Welsh hill-farmers…….