These government ministers are retoxifying the Conservative Party

Stephen Timms

David Cameron became Conservative Party leader in December 2005. He set about detoxifying his party, changing its image from the one described by Theresa May in 2002 as “the nasty party”. He largely succeeded. But the party is now reverting to its old ways. The Tory tolerance for racism has been widely commented on recently, after both Boris Johnson and Priti Patel declined to criticise fans booing the England football team for its anti-racist stance.

There is no denying that David Cameron’s policies of austerity failed to adequately tackle racial inequality, and he certainly had a large role to play in the emergence of the Windrush scandal. But he did seem to make efforts in other areas to distance his party from racism. I watched him in the central lobby of parliament one day, soon after he became party leader, listening courteously to an asylum seeker describing his problems. It struck me then that former Conservative leaders would not have behaved in that way. The current party leader wouldn’t either.

The recent abandonment of the manifesto commitment to contribute at least 0.7% of GDP in overseas development assistance is another example of the post-Cameron approach. The Jubilee 2000 campaign, calling ahead of the millennium for cancellation of debts owed by the poorest countries, attracted mass support. Momentum was sustained by the Make Poverty History campaign ahead of the G8 summit under UK presidency at Gleneagles. 80% of the large numbers of people who turned out to support both those campaigns were from the churches. On becoming party leader later in 2005, Cameron embraced the 0.7% target.

The abandonment of Cameron’s attempted modernisation is not confined to the party’s attitude to race and overseas development. The work and pensions select committee has been conducting an inquiry into children in poverty. The inquiry has raised the question of how poverty should be measured, and the Conservative Party has changed its stance on that, too.

The measure used by the Labour government in which I was a minister and widely used internationally is relative poverty: the poor are people living in households with incomes below 60% of the median income for households of that size. The Tory Party historically tended to favour the alternative: absolute poverty, currently defined by reference to 60% of the median income as it was in 2010, uprated subsequently for inflation but not for rising living standards. It is generally lower.

David Cameron took a different view. A year after he became leader of the opposition, in November 2006, he delivered the Scarman lecture, saying: “In the past, we used to think of poverty only in absolute terms – meaning straightforward material deprivation. That’s not enough. We need to think of poverty in relative terms – the fact that some people lack those things that others in society take for granted. So I want this message to go out loud and clear: the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty.”

He went on: “We exist as part of a community, as members of society. Even if we are not destitute, we still experience poverty if we cannot afford things that society regards as essential… So poverty is relative – and those who pretend otherwise are wrong.” Interviewed on the radio the same day, he explicitly embraced the definition of relative poverty as having an income less than 60% of the current median, and said: “I think that is the right measure and I think it’s right to look at relative poverty and that’s what a Conservative government would do.”

But it isn’t what the current Conservative government does. In a letter to the select committee in March, Thérèse Coffey, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, wrote: “Absolute poverty is a better measure of living standards than relative poverty.” I asked her about this at the committee earlier this month. She told me: “The vast majority of the British population do not accept the concept of relative income being the driver of whether somebody is poor or not.”

The views of the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions are presumably a reasonable guide to the Conservative Party’s current thinking. It appears that it has reverted to its pre-Cameron position. I asked the minister what she thought of David Cameron’s views on measuring poverty. She replied that she couldn’t speak for Cameron, and wasn’t aware of his Scarman lecture.

This difference over definitions has dogged debates on poverty for a long time. I applaud the initiative since 2016 of the Social Metrics Commission, chaired by Philippa Stroud – now a Conservative peer but formerly Iain Duncan Smith’s special adviser at DWP. She brought together people from different perspectives to develop a consensus definition of poverty. In their report in 2018, they largely succeeded. It uses a relative poverty approach, looking at the resources a household has available over a three-year period.

The Social Metrics Commission definition requires collecting data on family resources that hasn’t been collected before – for example, on household debt. DWP minister Will Quince wrote in May 2019 that he was proud that one of the first steps he was taking having been appointed a minister was to announce the development of new statistics to measure poverty, drawing on the Social Metrics Commission methodology.

That work has now stopped. Initially, it was suspended because of urgent work to address the pandemic. Now, the Work and Pensions Secretary isn’t sure she wants to go down this road at all. Coffey told the committee that she had no plans to resume work on the Social Metrics Commission data “any time soon”.

I hope that this work will be resumed. With agreement on the measure, we can debate the goals we should be setting and the policies to deliver them – and there will be a wide variety of views on those – but avoid futile disputes about the data. For now, though, it appears that the Tory Party has reverted to its pre-2005 position.

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