I went from poverty to the heart of government—here’s what Theresa May must do to help others

I went from poverty to the heart of government—here’s what Theresa May must do to help others
Prospect Magazine, by Alan Johnson


When I was asked to present the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Prospect’s annual poverty lecture, I was a Member of Parliament and the next general election was three years away.


The British people, having decided in 2015 to elect a Conservative government with a small majority for a five-year fixed term have just been asked to decide again, Theresa May having become a convert to repeat referendums. As a result, the small majority has vanished and as for a five-year term there is some doubt as to whether this government will last five weeks. 


You will recall that when she stood outside No.10 to surprise the nation by calling a snap election, Mrs May made the ludicrous comment that the country was united but Westminster was divided. Westminster, as you may have noticed, is designed to be disunited. Now just about the only thing that unites the country is the low regard in which the Prime Minister is held. 


I decided not to fight this election and to spend more time with my family—having checked carefully that they were prepared to spend more time with me.


As a result, I had very little involvement in the election other than as an interested observer. And it was in this capacity that I was left baffled and disturbed by the absence of any real focus on the rising levels of poverty caused by the most brutal cut in benefits since the creation of the welfare state.


Overall poverty, which hit 12.5 million in the 80’s and 14 million in the mid-90’s before going into decline under Labour is now set to reach a new high this year rising to over 15 million by 2022.


According to the House of Commons Library these overall trends mask striking differences between age groups. The proportion of pensioners in poverty is much lower now than during the 1960’s, when consistent data began to be collected; but the poverty rates for children and working age adults are higher than they were 50 years ago. 


This year inflation is set to hit 3% but the freeze on working age benefits will continue and would probably not have been unfrozen to any great degree if Jeremy Corbyn had become Prime Minister. In essence therefore, whilst the focus was on threats to pensioner’s income, both main political parties in the election supported a real term pay cut for the working age poor.


With wages stagnant, the “just about managing” are soon to be the “just about sinking”—yet their predicament barely figured in the election beyond platitudinous references to the need for “fairness”.


An unpopular concern


Whilst concern for the poor is commonly expressed, taking measures to improve their condition has rarely been seen as a recipe for winning a general election. 


This is largely because of the scandalous misrepresentation of poverty as being some kind of lifestyle choice. This artifice reached a new and disgraceful zenith under the Cameron/Osborne regime. The poor are powerless to fight back against this propaganda. Being poor means being powerless. Those who are poor don’t wish to be defined by their poverty. There is no solidarity amongst the impoverished; no National Union of Poor Workers – but there is the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. 


The JRF has spent more than a century grappling with conundrums like this and seeking to understand the root causes of poverty to better construct policies for its alleviation and eventual eradication.


Of course, you don’t have to have been poor to understand the causes of poverty or to care about its eradication; indeed, in my experience, some of those who have exchanged rags for riches become the severest critics of those they left behind.


But my background does confer on me the ability to speak from lived experience.


Speaking of poverty


Here are three quotes about poverty, each of which has a personal link.


The first because it’s by my namesake, Samuel Johnson, who in a letter to Boswell gave this piece of advice:


“Resolve not to be poor: Whatever you have, spend less. Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult.”


That was Johnson in the 18th century. Here is the poet Philip Larkin in the 20th century, looking down from one of the upper floors of Hull Royal Infirmary in what was until recently my constituency, onto the slums below that had yet to be cleared and writing that this place was:


“Where kids chalk games and


girls with hair do’s,


Fetch their separates from the




O world, your loves, your chances,


are beyond the stretch


of anyone from here.” 


My final quote is from a nameless man who I describe in my childhood memoir This Boy as “the Real Mod.” 


I met him just once when he came to our house with a bunch of my older sister’s friends but he it was who told me the philosophy of the 1960’s West London mod. “You may be poor,” he cautioned, “but don’t show poor.”


I find these quotes instructive. Dr Johnson suggested that being poor was something a person could choose to be and therefore be careful to avoid, whilst Larkin, whose poetry I love, seems to be sneering at working class culture, rather than railing against the conditions in which some working class people lived.


As for the ‘Real Mod’, there was a defiance in his advice to me which epitomised the social revolution of the 1960’s when working-class musicians, actors, models and photographers set out to prove that the world’s “loves and chances” were not “beyond the stretch of anyone from here.”


A different class


This is the point at which we need to differentiate between social class and economic status. 


Whilst not all the working-class are poor, it is invariably the case that the poor are working-class.


In the 1950a, great photo-journalist Roger Mayne came to our street, Southam Street, in North Kensington, London, W10, and took the photographs for which he was most famous. They capture the conditions I was born into and the street where I spent the first nine years of my life. 


What you see is the crumbling exterior of houses never well built in the first place, which were condemned as unfit for human habitation in the 1930’s, twenty-five years before these photographs were taken of humans still inhabiting houses in conditions that Dickens would have been familiar with. 


Roger Mayne captures the vibrancy of street-life, but thinking back and re-examining this photographic record of my youth I’m struck by a simple fact. Whilst everybody in these photographs lived in appalling conditions they weren’t all poor, either relatively or absolutely. Mr Bishop who lived on the first floor at 123 Southam Street worked for the Gas Board earning a good wage. Mr Hughes round the corner became the first person we knew with a car.


This was certainly a working-class community but it wasn’t collectively “in poverty.” The people in these photographs would soon be dispersed to the suburbs.


Of course, living in this kind of degradation was a stark form of deprivation but my family—my mother, sister and me—felt no shame about our housing conditions because everybody around us lived in similar circumstances.


But we were ashamed of our poverty—about pretending we weren’t at home when the man from the Provy came to collect the instalments my mother couldn’t pay; about asking the grocer, Mr Berriman in the corner shop, if we could have the goods he’d just carefully packed for us “on tick” (thus providing us with an early version of a food bank, albeit with a mounting debt); about having to announce to the class that we were on “free school meals, sir” when the teacher called out the names of his charges in alphabetical order so that they could walk to his desk and pay their dinner money; about having our gas and electric cut off because the bills weren’t paid.


The stigma attached to poverty was as strong in our working-class community as anywhere else.




And the accident of birth which placed us into these terrible conditions didn’t mysteriously rob us of the desire to improve our lives as Larkin suggested. Neither did it breed envy. My sister and I were appalled to hear that the prosperous families my mother cle


aned for at the Holland Park end of the Portobello Road sent their children to Boarding School from a very young age. That, to my sister and me, would have qualified as true deprivation—had we ever known the word.


For Larkin, looking down literally and metaphorically onto the slums of West Hull, it is the culture that he appears to bemoan—the girls with their hair in rollers getting ready for a night out; the children chalking out a hopscotch grid.


It’s an attitude that in some parts of society transferred a healthy abhorrence of the slums to a less understandable distaste for the council estates that replaced them. 


Dr Johnson was correct: poverty is the great enemy to human happiness. But for us, resolving not to be poor, as he urged Boswell to do, would have been futile.


It would have been like resolving not to be cold in the winter.


A better future


Mayne’s photographs capture the gradual process underway by the mid-50s. The evolutionary effect that visionaries like Rowntree and Beveridge were having on society, albeit slowly. 


Most of the children in these photographs would go on to experience the liberation of the sixties, the social mobility of the seventies, the home-owning eighties, and the pension-accruing nineties, right up to their freedom-pass-wielding, triple-locked retirement today.


My generation was fortunate compared to the ones that preceded it—and, if we’re not careful, the generations to come.


As politicians debate, there is a tendency to focus on what might work in the future rather than refining and resourcing what has worked in the past. We look for new solutions while those that are tried and tested rust in a scrapyard of previous initiatives condemned, because they cannot be described at fresh thinking or because, in the language of political tribalism, “they weren’t invented here.”


Some old ideas eventually manage to take root.


The National Minimum wage is one of them. Its introduction via the Low Pay Commission was necessarily careful and gradual but it’s now a fundamental bedrock of the fight against poverty. It is, in effect, part of the modern welfare state which demonstrated its importance during the aftermath of Leeman Brothers.


As Tom Clark, editor of Prospect, has pointed out, when the crash of 2008 happened the welfare system came into its own. 


Although more GDP vanished than in any previous post-war slump, inequality didn’t immediately increase. Indeed, for a brief period it actually fell: far fewer jobs were lost and not as many evictions occurred than in the more modest dip of the 1990s.


That’s largely because the automatic stabilisers kicked in, maintaining spending power in recession-lashed communities. But there was an important addition.  As well as payment for the temporarily unemployed and child benefit, there was now the tax credit system to top up shrinking pay and bespoke tweaks to income support to help jobless families pay the mortgage. 


The government of Gordon Brown and for a short period the Coalition notched up benefits in line with inflation, the formula accepted by governments of all political persuasions for as long as anybody could remember.


A safety net unwoven


The response to this demonstrable success of a system built and improved by successive governments was to begin to dismantle it.


Prosperous politicians disgracefully traduced the poor as people living in households where the blinds stayed down in the early morning while their neighbours went off to work.


Television programmes like Benefits Street began to portray the welfare state not as a means of overcoming the problems caused by the banks, but as a problem in itself.


On the left, we began to explore the idea of introducing a Universal Basic Income, apparently oblivious to the fact that tax credits were introduced specifically to provide a secure stream of income for families with children whether in or out of work.


Why don’t we resolve to ensure this works properly before looking for solutions in the expensive world of fantasy politics?
Five things to do


As always, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is a haven of good sense and muscular practicality. They published their long-term plan to eradicate poverty last September and its five-points are fully grounded in reality. 


Point one is to boost incomes and reduce costs by investing in our infrastructure. They give the example of building 80,000 genuinely affordable homes to rent and buy in England each year. 


Point Two is to deliver an effective benefits system which reverses cuts to the work allowance under Universal Credit, setting it at a level that provides a decent safety net. 


Point Three is to improve education standards and raise skills – closing the attainment gap and giving five million adults who lack basic reading, writing and numeracy skills the training they need.


Point Four is to strengthen families and communities by building a family hub in every area so parents and families can access parenting support. Perhaps we should call them Sure Start Centres.


Point Five is to promote long-term and inclusive growth through genuine devolution – giving mayors and council leaders the powers, incentives and budgets to generate growth that reaches everyone in their boroughs.


An achievable world


Society has improved dramatically since Roger Mayne took those photographs.  The 50s was to me a brutal decade. I saw those signs in shop windows advertising rooms to let “no dogs, no Irish, no blacks.” 


Those happy days when domestic violence was rife and went unchallenged.


The days when married women weren’t allowed to rent a telly or buy something on Hire Purchase without their husband being present to countersign the paperwork. 


The era when a war hero such as Alan Turing could be chemically castrated by the state for being homosexual.


When only a tiny elite of young people (2% when I was born) was given access to higher education.


The horrendous conditions of Southam Street and its equivalents across the country had almost entirely been swept away by the late1960s, but today, a new housing crisis is affecting the children and grandchildren of those populating Mayne’s photographs.


And the rising living standards that we baby-boomers enjoyed have been in reverse for almost ten years.


The core of the Labour Party


I have always believed that the Labour Party has two objectives: greater equality and the eradication of poverty.


All other policies are means towards those ends; which is why, as well as adopting the JRT five-point plan, I want government to get serious about tackling health inequalities. 


We have long passed the point where even the concept of health inequalities was politically contentious. Indeed, Theresa May chose to place tackling them at the centre of her first utterances as our Prime Minister when she pledged to fight against “the burning injustice that, if you’re poor, you will die an average nine years earlier than others.”


The social detriments of health through which those obscene statistics can be measured and scientifically addressed have very little to do with the health service. 


They are predominantly affected by housing, education, employment opportunities and of course, income.


It is because of this diversity of causation that the issue often becomes lost in a confusion of ministerial departments. 


Tackling health inequalities is where the eradication of poverty and greater equality assume a scientific as well as political form. 


To succeed it needs to be adopted as a Prime Ministerial responsibility with its own cabinet committee.


These are dangerous and uncertain times for everyone but for the poorest in our society, as always, the difficulties and dangers are magnified.


I am reminded of the words of RH Tawney who said; 


“The goodness we have reached is a house built on piles, driven into the black slime and always slipping down into it unless we are building night and day.” 


The JRF has never stopped building out of the slime. It’s time for the rest of us to lend a hand.