Someone tweeted at me yesterday: “The labels change but essentially our politics is always liberals vs conservatives. Party better at being one or other wins.” This got me thinking again about the election, about the Tory majority, the Lib Dem losses, the SNP “tsunami”. I found myself agreeing with the tweet completely upon reflection. The Tories appeared to offer the best of both conservatism and liberalism with only a few of the downsides of the conservative bit of the equation to have to contend with. Labour offered neither. The Lib Dems couldn’t get a majority and so were deemed an irrelevance. The SNP offered the hope of liberalism with the competence of conservatism (in terms of image, I wish to stress, if not execution), while Scottish Labour had nothing other than stopping the Tories as a campaigning communication device.
So I thought more about how the Left might be more liberal and thus be able to stand a chance of winning an election some time within the next two decades (if the conservatism v liberal axis is true, which like I say, I think it is). And it struck me that one question that politicians and thinkers of the left never ask themselves is this: why is poverty bad? This might seem a redundant question at first, sort of like asking why pain is bad. Because it just fundamentally is, right? But asking the question is worthwhile. Having spent some time in my life in a state of reasonably extreme poverty for an uncomfortably long enough period, when I reflect on what was really awful about it, the first thing I think about is the stress of it all. Worrying about having enough money to simply go on living, coupled with the fear of being homeless, your already bad life becoming worse, perhaps to the point of no return. But thinking about it further, what’s really awful about being poor comes down to something the Left never talks about to its detriment: the worst thing about poverty is the lack of choice it presents you with.
I recall having an argument with an avowed socialist I worked with for a time. He asked me what was more important, freedom or equality? I said freedom, of course. He responded that it was equality, surely. I then told him that without freedom, equality is rather meaningless. He couldn’t even understand my argument. This was because, having never living in poverty himself, he couldn’t comprehend that what makes poverty so terrible is that your life is a series of things you cannot control nor opt out of. You hate your terrible job in which you are ritually abused by your boss? Quitting means starvation as it would take you ages to get another job, if indeed that was even possible, so you keep working there. Live in a terrible flat in which the landlord abuses the lease? The costs of moving are beyond you, besides which you would struggle to have anyone rent to you in your current financial situation anyhow, and added to all of that, you’re three months behind on your rent. You owe everyone everything, seemingly, including your right to continue existing, and thus are entitled to nothing. Including the right to make real decisions regarding your own life and how it is lived.
There is a narrative around this the Left could use, which sadly for the moment, they are not even processing. This is why I think people see a lot of politicians as being out of touch – no one seems able to talk about poverty in any sort of meaningful sense. It’s just b-a-d, like famine or death, and so we must eradicate it. No idea how we do that, but surely we must. It strikes me that if you want a counter-narrative on poverty to balance the conservative outlook (which boils down to a sort of Calvinist, if you’re over eighteen and you’re poor you must deserve it at least a little), you have to come up with something that relates directly to why exactly it is so undesirable in the first place and thus how you ameliorate the bad stuff. Otherwise, the counter-narrative to that will just continue to win out.