Left has given up on working class

It is now almost a weekly thing to see someone somewhere reel off the statistic that “more than half of people experiencing poverty are in work”, with the (implicit or explicit) point being to reject the notion that work is a fundamental route out of poverty. Such nonsense is plain dangerous.

Let us firstly simply reverse their point, noting that the comfortable majority of working age people are in work and defining “poverty” as “relative poverty”: the vast majority of people in work are not in poverty, and the vast majority who are not in work are in poverty.

Put in that way, and we can see immediately that work is absolutely fundamental to escaping poverty, however defined. This is not just because it provides an income, but it also provides self-esteem, social networks, and the potential for further aspiration – few to none of which are available to those trapped on out-of-work benefits. The primary gain of work is not financial, but social – anyone who doubts that, should read this article about an entire community of compensated jobless.

It is deeply troubling that those who claim to be on the “Left” refuse to see this obvious point. Rather than giving people a helping hand out of poverty, they merely want to compensate them for being in poverty and thus leave them trapped. It is pathetic.

Yet this dangerous nonsense is almost becoming mainstream. Even courses on advising people who are on benefits or in debt suggest that advisers should recommend “tapping up family members” before they suggest finding a job (or even a second job). The focus is entirely on where money can be attained rather than where it can be earned; this is bad for the taxpayer (or family member), but we need to be clear it is even worse for the individual concerned. To promote a dependency culture in this way is nothing short of callous.

(Oh, and as for “there are no jobs” – unemployment is only 6% and, here in Northern Ireland, one of our foremost companies, Almac, has just announced it cannot fill all the positions it is creating.)

Work is the route out of poverty. It is time the “Left” remembered it is supposed to stand up for workers!


11 thoughts on “Left has given up on working class

  1. owen gawith says:

    Ian, as usual you write well, although in somewhat American English (plain dangerous? As opposed to fancy, deorated or even hilly dangerous?).
    However you seem to equate the wish of those who want to see work paid for at an equitable rate with a wish to see everyone provided for by others.
    I agree with you that teaching those who don’t and perhaps won’t work to leech off others as if by right is plainly wrong, but saying that more than half of people in poverty are in work doees not in itself imply any more than that they are not properly remunerated.
    The campaign for a living wage is seen by some people in power as left wing and dangerous, but if successful it would then show the real difference between the fate and fortune of those who will work and those who cannot or will not.
    Claiming to be the champion of the working poor does not make it true, and it is quite possible that many on the left are being led by those who only claim the mantle. Certainly here the leaderships seem as intent on their own maintenance of power as they do on any actual help for those who reaaly do need it.

    • Hi Owen,

      Thanks for joining us!

      To be clear, *I* don’t make the equation you refer to; many on the Left do.

      Which leads exactly to the point you make.

      Promoting a welfare system which provides a safety net for those on low pay is one thing; promoting outright welfare dependency is quite another. The Left (particularly in NI) needs quickly to recognise that fundamental distinction.

      (You think I sound American, you should hear Rebecca, 12! Cotton candy, moving truck, batt-e-ry… it’s over, man!)

  2. ianchisnall says:

    As it is almost a weekly occurrence, that presumably means less than 50 times in the last year. I can recall many instances of Conservative party members in that time overlooking the failings of the last Government (2010-15) in order to blame the previous administration for matters that were not of their making. The problem with both sets of arguments is that neither gets higher incomes for poorly paid people which should be the objective of both sides of the Political divide?

    • I’m not sure I’ve understood your point.

      The article concerns the Left – the side which got trounced at the last General Election but the one which claims to be the good guys.

      Happy to discuss the Right elsewhere.

  3. Stephen Baker says:

    Your analysis is patronising, ignorant and ahistorical.

    First of all, I’m delighted that someone on the Right has made the connection between worklessness and the impoverishment of social and moral life. Of course, had you bothered to listen to the miners in the 1980s, you’d have heard them making exactly this point. But in those days they were branded ‘the enemy within’ by the Tories – now restyled as the ‘workers party’. No one on the Left needs a lesson in the consequences of unemployment, since many live in communities still struggling with terrible social legacy of the Thatcher years.

    I’ve been a trade unionist most of my working life and am a fully paid up member of the Left. I seem to have spent decades fighting to keep people in work and for better wages. I must have missed the memo that the TUC sent around instructing us that our objective was to make as many working class people as possible dependent upon welfare as possible. Or just maybe you conjured this notion out of thin air?

    Some historical points: work has had various forms and content throughout human history. And it doesn’t follow that work lifts people out of poverty. People have worked as slaves in the past. People have worked for a subsistence. Briefly, and only in some places, working for a living was a pretty good guarantee of a decent standard of living. But there is no reason why we should assume that work will always be the route to affluence for people.

    Work hasn’t always been associated with ideas of human dignity and fulfilment, either. In fact, some classes looked at work as something that was beneath them but good enough for the brown people labouring in their fields. It’s an attitude that seems to be back in fashion today when wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a very few people who don’t work in an real sense. Something else worth considering in this context is how attitudes to production and consumption have changed in recent times. For my father’s generation work provided a keen sense of identity. By the end of the 20th century work began to lose its purchase on people’s sense of self as consumer lifestyle choices and conspicuous forms consumption played a far greater role in defining who people thought they were.

    Work is and has often been experienced as coercive. Indeed, today with rising work related stress and depression, increasing reports of workplace bullying, the idea that work is a way to build an individual’s self-esteem isn’t necessarily true. Work can be alienating. Work can be boring. People can feel that their work is trivial or trivialised. I suspect a lot of graduates these days may be in jobs they feel overqualified for and hence this isn’t doing much for their self-esteem at all. But people still go to work because they need to money and they hope that it might lead to something better.
    In fact, people will work for nothing (internships, work placements) in an attempt to gain experience and impress upon employers their suitability for a job. There are even instances where people have paid employers and agencies for work experience. What a time to be alive!

    So, if you want to talk about work could you begin by clarifying the nature and conditions of the work that you envisage people doing? You could acknowledge the context within which that work is to be undertaken? And I can categorically confirm that the Left has never had any interest in promoting a ‘culture of dependency’. But in world of with rising precarious employment, underemployment and low pay you can depend up it that we’ll fight for appropriate welfare provision.

    • That’s total irrelevance, and is again skirting the point.

      The point is the Left now frequently contends there is a route out of poverty which does not include work. There isn’t.

      This has reached such a level now that entire courses on debt management run by parts of the voluntary sector do not even mention work as a route out, when in fact it is the only stable route out.

      Your obsession with who did what when is neither here nor there, frankly. The objective is to get people out of poverty. That won’t happen unless we get them into work – and stop making excuses for not doing so.

      I am more than happy to discuss how we get people into work. My issue is with people – including, as I say, even trainers in debt management – who pretend it doesn’t even need to be discussed.

  4. Stephen Baker says:

    In what way is an historical understanding of work in this instance an irrelevance? It simply does not follow that work necessarily lifts people out of poverty. There are people on this planet who will work their whole lives and never escape penury. It’s precisely because work doesn’t necessarily proved people with wage they can live on that welfare is necessary. Want to end welfare dependency – make employers pay a wage that lifts people out of poverty. Make work pay!

    I mean, the fact that we live in a society of we have trainers and courses in debt management is a screaming indictment of the current economic system. The Left aren’t responsible for that.

    • For some reason you are obsessed by who is responsible in the past.

      I’m obsessed by finding the solution in the present.

      The Left don’t help by suggesting there is a route out which doesn’t involve work. There isn’t.

  5. Stephen Baker says:

    What are you talking about? I have no obsession with the past. I’m interested in understanding how the nature and conditions of work has changed over time precisely to better understand the future. You seem to have some naive faith in the notion that simply putting people to work will get them out of poverty. I really wish that were the case. I wish we could go back to the 1950s when we’d never had it so good. When we had manufacturing and didn’t have an energy and climate crisis, before computerisation and the rise of new forms of economic life etc.. but we can’t. The nature of work is changing – Christ, I can’t believe I’m having to explain this to a Tory!

  6. […] of the things which struck me in the response to last week’s post on the Left’s abandonment of the actual working class was the unwillingness to engage by many Left-leaning respondents, to the extent that I came to […]

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