Dead Men Left

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Poor old David Aaronovitch

This article from cuddly former Stalinist David Aaronovitch has attracted a peculiar amount of attention out there in blogland, not least because (reading between the lines) it seems the poor darling doesn't get invited to the better sort of social occasions any more.

Meanwhile, in shuttered dining-rooms in Holland Park, Highbury and Kennington, in converted barns in Herefordshire and flagged kitchens in Brittany, in the pages of the London Review of Books and at publishing parties, the British intelligentsia collectively creates, reproduces and conforms to its own, narrow narrative of what is happening on the planet.

...and then on, past John Lanchester, Ted Honderich, Richard Eyre and other denizens of the "stinking ninth category": the chattering classes, the deracinated intellectuals, the whole airy-fairy witless do-gooding stupid crowd of Sunday newspaper readers who have the temerity to question the Great Helmsman's wisdom. Aaronovitch, man of the people, is there to prove them all wrong in his Sunday newspaper column:

The same applies to the government's mission. Perverse headlining hid one of last week's most encouraging stories. Buried in the tale about the small possible fall in household incomes, was the news about reductions in relative poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed that the incomes of the poorest people in Britain grew between 2003 and 2004, partly because of new, more generous tax credits. The incomes of the richest fifth of households fell by about 1 per cent, but the incomes of the poorest fifth rose by about 1 per cent. 'As a result, overall,' said the IFS 'the gap between Britain's rich and poor shrank for the third successive year.'

This is untrue. The decline in income inequality over the last three years that the IFS report is not statistically significant. This means that we can't, under conventional reporting standards, claim that the "gap between Britain's rich and poor shrank for the third successive year." Even if we disregard this rather glaring problem, the decline in inequality over the last three years still means that Britain is a more unequal society now than it was in 1997.

Just make sure you get that straight. New Labour's Britain is a more unequal society than that overseen by Major and Thatcher. Whilst Thatcher presided over and encouraged an historically-unprecedented widening of the gap between rich and poor, John Major, Conservative Prime Minister from 1990-1997, has at least as good a claim as Blair to have reversed this rise in inequality.

Child poverty fell by 100,000, less than the government target, but the fall may well be larger and the IFS thought that the government could still eventually meet its target. At the same time, 'pensioner poverty continues to fall dramatically', dropping by a tenth in a single year (2002/03), and by over a quarter since 1998/99.

Child poverty has indeed fallen by less than was expected. The IFS estimate that the level of child poverty (after housing costs) needed to fall by 500,000 in one year to meet the 2004/2005 target and think that "nothing more can be done" to achieve this (p.29). The IFS blame problems in the administration and operation of the tax credit system for failing to deliver - precisely the system Aaronovitch is so keen to flag up. Pensioner poverty has also fallen, as previously discussed here, though the extent of that decline is nowhere near as substantial as the sharp decreases in pensioner poverty occurring under Major and Thatcher.

What should ring alarm bells, however, is the dire situation of those neither very young nor very old. Poverty amongst those in work but without children, and so denied access to additional benefits, has hit record levels. Evidence from the DWP suggests that the incomes of the poorest 10% have actually declined over the last year. (Excel file. Again, this arrives with the proviso that the results are not statistically significant; but if Aaronovitch is prepared to overlook that standard when considering inequality, he should overlook it here, too.)

Aaronovitch is asking us to swap pensioners out of poverty, for the young workless in: a Hobson's choice of the kind familiar after eight years of New Labour, but a choice that highlights exactly the problem of endless, unco-ordinated targetting.

There is no NHS beds disaster, there is no teacher shortage (the Jamie Oliver phenomenon partly testifies to the lack of a crisis in other areas of school resources), waiting lists are ... No, enough. I will not play this game. Because however much money goes into public services, the Dinner Party is dissatisfied. It is unhappy with targets which disrupt the autonomy of professionals, it is unhappy with any kind of private involvement, it is unhappy with any notion of choice.

With both Tories and Labour keen to talk up their public spending commitments, Labour's real increases in public expenditure do not provide a compelling reason to support the party. Indeed, since both main parties are committed to delivering public expenditure through disastrous PFI schemes and partial privatisations, and in both cases increased expenditure is dependent on optimistic forecasts about economic growth, there is little to choose between the two on these grounds. "Choice," the Blairite's weasel-word of the moment, doesn't come into it. Alyson Pollock, Professor of Public Health Policy at UCL, has described PFI in quite the opposite terms, as a denial of democracy and accountability:

All of this raises serious issues about the accountability of parliament to its people. But so too does the way in which the government is using politically loaded tests to justify its policy of handing over public assets and services to the private sector. The government claims that PFI deals cannot be signed unless they show value for money. However in the absence of public capital there is simply no alternative to PFI and the only way of getting the necessary investment is by signing PFI deal. The value for money test is far from straightforward. It comprises a politically loaded series of judgements weighted towards the private sector, that are used to disguise the real costs of PFI. Thus a government committed to value for money would ensure that public bodies published the unadjusted cash comparisons of the public sector comparator and the PFI before the politically loaded judgements of discount rates and risk transfer are added in. That it does not do so is because the public sector is cheaper and because the real risks of public service failure can never be transferred to the private sector. After all, the private sector can always walk away.

And then, of course, there's Iraq. Aaronovitch, in unusually contrite mode, admits a "huge mistake" occurred over the war, but essentially pleads with us to allow that to pass. He offers us a bargain. New Labour's glorious reforms come at a price, which is accepting the 100,000 dead as a result of the invasion. This is not a "price worth paying". There should be no backsliding on this: New Labour has been an utter catastrophe, and it is only the most shocking foreshortening of ambition that allows anyone on the "left" to claim otherwise.