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Prioritising Profit: Poverty In A Land Of Plenty


Child Poverty? Who Cares!According to recent British government figures, a staggering 3.6 million children are living in poverty in the UK. The official definition of ‘poverty’ refers to families earning less than 60 per cent of average income.

Between 1979 and 2003, the proportion of poor children in the UK rose from 1 in 10, to almost 1 in 3. This is a genuine scandal that any responsible journalist would mention every time a government minister boasts of Britain’s ‘healthy economy’.

A report titled ‘Poverty in a land of plenty’, published earlier this year by End Child Poverty, a coalition of social justice groups, reveals the tragedy that: “A baby born into poverty [in the UK] is more than twice as likely to die in the first year as a child born to better-off parents and as many as 1,400 lives would be saved if poverty were eradicated.” (www.ecpc.org.uk/publications.asp)

In April 2004, the organisation Shelter (www.shelter.org.uk) launched the biggest campaign in its history aimed at ending the devastating impact of the housing crisis on British children. The campaign was marked by the publication of ‘Toying with their future’, a major exposé which reveals for the first time that over a million children are growing up in overcrowded, unfit or emergency housing, and that they are suffering from serious health problems, poor education, and blighted futures.

The report points out that one in twelve children in Britain are more likely to develop diseases such as bronchitis, tuberculosis or asthma because of bad housing. Homeless children also lose out on a quarter of their schooling.

The standard liberal media response to these horrors is to look the other way, or to echo government propaganda that Labour is “tackling deprivation” and is mounting a “concerted attack on child poverty”, as Charlotte Denny and Larry Elliott wrote in The Guardian. (‘The uphill struggle against child poverty. Labour is tackling deprivation but inequality is rising’, Charlotte Denny and Larry Elliott, The Guardian, March 31, 2004)In the same Guardian article, the reader is told that the government “has failed to prevent the gap between rich and poor in Britain becoming even wider than it was under the Conservatives”.

The phrase “failed to prevent” is standard rhetoric. The notion that government policies might have actually contributed to rising inequality is left unexplored. The closest we get to this truth is the anodyne observation that “inequality was still higher in 2002 than when Labour came to power even though it had fallen slightly from the record gap reached in 2000.”

The figure of 3.6 million British children living in poverty represents a fall of 200,000 on last year. Clearly this, in itself, is good news.

As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation points out, the government has introduced a number of measures that have had beneficial impacts, including the national minimum wage, working families tax credit and income support changes targeted on children (replaced and enhanced by child tax credit and working tax credit), minimum income guarantee for pensioners (replaced and enhanced by the pension credit), and winter fuel payments. (www.jrf.org.uk/knowledge/findings/socialpolicy/043.asp) The media have reported that many charities and campaigning organisations, and poor families themselves, have applauded such initiatives. However, the fundamental question of whether such a piecemeal approach of tax credits and one-off payments is no more than a ‘sticky plaster’ ameliorative measure to deep-rooted social, economic and political problems is left unasked. At best, government policy is akin to giving a sick child an inhaler to help with her asthma, rather than tackling the root causes of the illness.

At worst, it perpetuates a grievous and tragic system of social inequality. Meanwhile, mainstream media remain uninterested in exploring alternative models – such as parecon – for organising society in ways that would not lead to endemic poverty, unlike corporate capitalism. Even in conventional terms, government measures to reduce poverty may well have run their course.

As Jonathan Stearn, End Child Poverty (ECP) director, points out: “The government has pledged to end child poverty by 2020 and these latest figures show that it is making steady progress. But they also show the magnitude of the task ahead.” (ECP press release, March 30, 2004, www.ecpc.org.uk)

Indeed, ECP cautions that: “We don’t really see the Government as having a sense that the task is going to get harder, and that is worrying.” The campaigning group estimates that the Government needs to invest £6.8bn in services if it is to close the income gap. “That is affordable,” said a spokeswoman.

“It is just one-tenth of the annual amount spent on the NHS and one sixth of that spent on defence.” (‘Living below the poverty line: 3.5m children’, Maxine Frith, Social Affairs Correspondent, The Independent, March 31, 2004)

The government’s real, pro-corporate agendaHidden beneath standard media news coverage and analysis is an unpalatable truth: with few exceptions, this Labour government has been notable for its consistent promotion of corporate interests over human rights, social justice, and environmental protection. Whether at home or abroad, government policies systematically favour corporate power at public expense – literally. George Monbiot’s excellent book, ‘Captive State’ (Macmillan, London, 2001), details a host of examples of socialism for the rich, and capitalism for the rest of us: town ‘development’ for the benefit of private business; the pushing of GM technology in the face of massive public scepticism; supermarket expansion; the Skye Road Bridge; promotion of ‘free trade’; corporate infiltration of the National Health Service and the country’s science base.

And then there’s the arms trade. In 2002, based on detailed work by the Oxford Research Group and Saferworld, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade estimated that the British taxpayer pays the ‘defence’ industry a net annual subsidy of £763 million. (http://www.caat.org.uk/information/publications/economics/subsidies-factsheet-0202.pdf)

The British citizen is not only funding the production of weapons that cause terrible deaths, injuries and misery, but siphoning off treasury funds that could be used to eradicate poverty at home.

Blair has consistently shown that he understands the ‘need’ to support Britain’s role as the world’s second biggest exporter of arms. Human rights are fine when it comes to grandiloquent speeches on ‘spreading freedom’ and conducting the ‘war against terror’, but human rights must not be allowed to interfere with corporate profits in ‘the real world’. John Kampfner, the New Statesman’s political editor, notes that when Blair was in opposition: “His comments on arms sales and human rights did not extend beyond generalities.”

(Kampfner, ‘Blair’s Wars’, The Free Press, 2003, p.7)

During his tenure as Prime Minister, Blair has ensured that the arms industry has had ready access to the highest reaches of government and accompanying subsidies from the public purse. Kampfner again:

“From his first day in office Blair was eager not to antagonise British arms companies, and BAE Systems in particular, which developed extremely close relationships with senior figures in Downing Street. Its Chairman, Dick Evans, was one of a very small group of outsiders whose requests to see Blair were always granted.”(Kampfner, ibid, p.15)

Last summer, with tension between India and Pakistan running dangerously high, it was revealed that Blair and senior government ministers had been acting as aggressive arms salesmen on behalf of British corporate interests:

“In what has become a rags to riches story for BAE’s factory in Brough, Humberside, this will be the second big order for Hawks after the UK Government last week promised to spend £800m….. The deal comes after intense lobbying by the British Government, with Prime Minister Tony Blair, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw taking it in turns to persuade the Indians to buy the jets.” (‘BAE to enjoy Indian summer with £1bn order for Hawk jets’, Clayton Hirst, Independent on Sunday, August 3, 2003)

Imagine that the mainstream media really were to perform their mythical public duty as the ‘fourth estate’. Imagine that editors and journalists did not take their cue for the ‘news of the day’ from the incessant flood of press releases emanating from government departments, corporate press offices and PR agencies.

Imagine that newspapers and broadcasters actually dug beneath the veneer of respectable government and ‘wealth-generating’ private enterprise, to reveal the real costs – in environmental and human terms – of present policies. If such reporting were done consistently, repeatedly and systematically, the public would see through the myth that the government is committed to promoting human rights and tackling poverty and inequality, whether at home and abroad.

As things stand, however, we are supposed to swallow the deception that our benevolent leaders are standing astride the world stage, battling for a future where everyone lives in a free, democratic society and where nobody goes hungry. Thus we have “millennium goals”, such as the target to reduce global child poverty by half by 2020. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown recently warned, with due media deferential attention:

“If we let things slip, the millennium goals will become just another dream we once had, and we will indeed be sitting back on our sofas and switching on our TVs and, I am afraid, watching people die on our screens for the rest of our lives. We will be the generation that betrayed its own heart.”(‘Brown: We are 150 years off our targets in tackling world poverty’, Ben Russell and Philip Thornton, The Independent, February 17, 2004)

As ever, we have to go to a non-governmental organisation to get a more accurate picture of the reality that underlies such pious and utterly misleading government rhetoric. The World Development Movement (www.wdm.org.uk), based in London, points out that just ten out of 42 eligible poor countries have had significant debt stock cancelled (rather than just “pledged”), amounting to $26 billion out of a total debt burden of $260bn.

Most of these ten countries have been left with unsustainable and rising burdens, because even at completion point, the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) does not cancel enough of their debt. Research shows that if the UN Millennium Development Goals are to be achieved, 100 per cent debt relief to all low income countries will be required.

WDM warns that: “Equally important is ensuring that any reduction in the chains of debt is not accompanied by the imposition of even heavier chains in terms of economic conditions… However, currently the threat of withholding debt relief is being used by the IMF and World Bank to force poor countries to adopt the same discredited policies that harmed the poor in the past through Structural Adjustment Programmes.”

WDM continues: “It is now well-documented, including by the IMF and World Bank themselves, that the introduction of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) has not changed the types of macroeconomic policies being imposed, which is why they have been described as ‘old wine in new bottles’.”

Gordon Brown may well speak with impressive passion on the plight of the poor. However, the policies that he – and, more generally, the Blair government – is pursuing amount to no more than the old wine of neo-colonialism and corporate profit being poured into bright new bottles of ‘debt cancellation’, ‘transparency’ and ‘democratic governance’.

‘Democracy’ is whatever governments end up doing

In summary, then, the UK has a government that systematically promotes corporate and elite interests over those of the public and the global environment. And yet, some commentators would have us believe that the Labour government, and Blair himself, is somehow magically untainted by dogmatic ideology. Thus, according to Sunder Katwala, the general secretary of the Fabian Society:

“Labour’s pragmatic, ideology-lite approach has been a successful political strategy in winning and regaining office… The New Labour plan was always to start cautiously, gain trust and credibility and become more radical in office.”

(‘The road to a third term starts here. Tony Blair must reject calls for consolidation and prove that this government has not run out of steam’, Sunder Katwala, The Guardian, September 29, 2003)

Last July, the Guardian gave editorial space to the Prime Minister to champion himself as a leader of “centre-left politicians and policy-makers” ahead of a “progressive governance conference”. Blair was on an evangelical mission to explain how “the policy we have pursued over Iraq fits squarely with our vision of progressive politics”.

(Tony Blair, ‘The left should not weep if Saddam is toppled: We have to redefine centre-left politics to cope with a more insecure world’, The Guardian, February 10, 2003)

In reality, few mainstream journalists are prepared – or are even equipped – to expose Blair, his government and New Labour, as systematic promoters of corporate over public welfare. But then following well-established, but absurd, conventions is what the mainstream media is all about.

As media analyst Lance Bennett has pointed out: “The media have helped create a political world that is, culturally speaking, upside-down. It is a world in which governments are able to define their own publics and where ‘democracy’ becomes whatever the government ends up doing.” (Quoted in ‘Too Polemical or Too Critical for the Mainstream? Chomsky on the Manufacture of Consent for US Foreign Policy’, Eric Herring and Piers Robinson, Review of International Studies, Volume 29, page 557, 2003)

David Cromwell is co-editor of Media Lens (www.medialens.org). He is also co-founder of the Crisis Forum (www.crisis-forum.org.uk).

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