The New New Poor Law

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A society with inequalities is and always has been the rational product of Conservative Governments. History shows this to be true. Tory ideology is built upon a very traditional and somewhat feudal vision of a “grand scheme of things”, a “natural order”, which is extremely hierarchical.

The New Poor Law of 1834 was based on the “principle of less eligibility,” which stipulated that the condition of the “able-bodied pauper” on relief be less “eligible” – that is, less desirable, less favourable – than the condition of the very poorest independent labourer. “Less-eligibility” meant not only that “the pauper” receive less by way of relief than the labourer did from his wages but also that he receive it in such a way (in the workhouse) that made pauperism (being in absolute poverty) less respectable than work – to stigmatise it. Thus the labourer would be discouraged from lapsing into a state of “dependency” on poor relief and the pauper would be “encouraged” to work.

The Poor Law “made work pay”, in other words.

The Poor Law Commission report, presented in March 1834, was largely the work of two of the Commissioners, Nassau Senior and Edwin Chadwick. The report took the outline that poverty was essentially caused by the indigence of the character and morality of individuals rather than arising because of inequality and the prevailing political, economic and social conditions. The general view that informed the New Poor Law was that: “Paupers claim relief regardless of his merits: large families get most, which encourages improvident marriages; women claim relief for bastards, which encourages immorality; labourers have no incentive to work; employers keep wages artificially low as workers are subsidised from the poor rate.”

I am sure that the commissioners have descendants that now write for the Daily Mail.

The Victorian era has made a deep impact upon Tory thinking, which had always tended towards nostalgia and tradition. Margaret Thatcher said that during the 1800s, “not only did our country become great internationally, also so much advance was made in this country … As our people prospered so they used their independence and initiative to prosper others, not compulsion by the state”.

There she makes an inference to the twin peaks of callous laissez-faire and the mythical and largely implied  “trickle down” effect. Yet history taught us only too well that both ideas were inextricably linked with an unforgivable and catastrophic increase in destitution, poverty and suffering for so many, for the purpose of extending profit for a few.

Writing in the 1840s, Engels observed that Manchester was a source of immense profit for a few capitalists. Yet none of this significantly improved the lives of those who created this wealth. Engels documents the medical and scientific reports that show how human life was stunted and deformed by the repetitive, back breaking work in The Condition Of The Working Class In England. Constantly in his text, we find Engels raging at those responsible for the wretched lives of the workers. He observed the horror of death by starvation, mass alienation, gross exploitation and unbearable, unremitting, grinding poverty.

The great Victorian empire was built while the completely unconscientious, harsh and punitive attitude of the Government further impoverished and caused distress to a great many. It was a Government that created poverty and also made it somehow dishonourable to be poor. While Britain became great, much of the population lived in squalid, disease-ridden and overcrowded slums, and endured the most appalling living conditions. Many poor families lived crammed in single-room accommodations without sanitation and proper ventilation. That’s unless they were unlucky enough to become absolutely destitute and face the horrors of the workhouse. It was a country of startling contrasts. New building and affluent development went hand in hand with so many people living in the worst conditions imaginable.

Michael Gove has written: For some of us Victorian costume dramas are not merely agreeable ways to while away Sunday evening but enactments of our inner fantasies … I don’t think there has been a better time in our history”  in “Alas, I was born far too late for my inner era”.

A better time for what, precisely? Child labour, desperation? Prostitution? Low life expectancy, disease, illiteracy, workhouses? Or was it the deferential protestant work ethic reserved only for the poor, the pre-destiny of the aristocracy, and “the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate”?

In a speech to the Confederarion of British Industry, (CBI) George Osborne argued that both parties in the Coalition had revitalised themselves by revisiting their 19th-century roots. He should have stayed there.

When Liberal Democrat David Laws gave his first speech to the Commons as the secretary to the Treasury, Tory MP Edward Leigh said: “I welcome the return to the Treasury of stern, unbending Gladstonian Liberalism”, and  Laws recognised the comparison to the Liberal prime minister, and said: “I hope that this is not only Gladstonian Liberalism, but liberalism tinged with the social liberalism about which my party is so passionate”.

The Coalition may certainly be described as “stern and unbending”, if one is feeling mild and generous. I usually prefer to describe them as “retro-authoritarian”.

We know that the 19th-century Conservative party would have lost the election had it not been rescued by Benjamin Disraeli, a “one-nation” Tory who won working-class votes only because he recognised the need and demand for essential social reform. Laissez-faire, competitive individualism and social Darwinism gave way to an interventionist, collectivist and more redistributive, egalitarian Keynesian paradigm.

There’s something that this Government have completely missed: the welfare state arose precisely because of the social problems and dire living conditions created in the 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th centuryies The 19th century also saw the beginnings of the Labour Party. By pushing against the oppressions of the Conservative Victorian period, and by demanding reform, they built the welfare state and the public services that the current Government is now so intent on dismantling.

The UK Government’s welfare “reform” programme represents the greatest changes to welfare since its inception. These changes will impact on the poorest and the most vulnerable people in our society. It will further alienate already marginalised social groups. In particular, women rely on state support to a greater extent than men and will be disproportionately and adversely affected by benefit cuts. Disabled people even more so.

Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith (who didn’t manage to lead his party to an election due to losing a motion of no confidence) is largely responsible for this blitzkreig of apparent moral rigour, a right wing permutation of “social justice” rhetoric and harsh Victorian orthodoxy. Work is being conflated with social justice and social mobility. However, people in work are also queuing at food banks because they can’t meet their basic needs. Reducing welfare simply creates a reserve army of labour that also serves to drive the value of wages down. It creates a downward spiral of living standrads for everyone.

The Government asserts that its welfare “reform” strategy is aimed at breaking the cycle of “worklessness” and dependency on the welfare system in the UK’s poorest families. Poor Law rhetoric. There’s no such thing as “worklessness”, it’s simply a blame apportioning word, made up by the Tories to hide the fact that they have destroyed the employment market, as they always do. It’s happened under every Tory government. At least Thatcher’s administration were honest about it. Her government admitted that they were prepared to tolerate high levels of unemployment in order to bring inflation down. Instead the UK ended up with high unemployment, low wages AND high inflation. The end result was recession.

The “reforms” (cuts) consist of 39 individual changes to welfare payments, eligibility, sanctions and timescales for payment and are intended to save the exchequer around £18 billion. How remarkable that the Department for Work and Pensions claim that such cuts to welfare spending will reduce poverty. I have never yet heard of a single case of someone who is poor actually benefitting from someone else reducing an amount from what little money they have. You can’t punish people out of poverty by making them more poor. That idea is simply absurd and cruel.

There’s nothing quite so diabolical as the shock of the abysmally expected: the brisk and brazen Tory lie, grotesquely untrue. Such reckless and Orwellian rhetoric permeates Government placations for the “reforms”.

The “reforms” were hammered through despite widespread protest, and when the House of Lords said “no“, the Tories deployed a rarely used and ancient parliamentary device, claimed “financial privilege” asserting that only the Commons had the right to make decisions on bills that have large financial implications. Determined to get their own way, despite the fact no-one welcomed their policy, the Tories took the rare jackbooted, authoritarian step to direct peers they have no constitutional right to challenge the Commons’ decisions further. Under these circumstances, what could possibly go right?

That marked the start of a very antidemocratic slippery slope.

The punitive approach to poverty didn’t work during the last century, it unfortnately simply stripped disadvanted citizens of their dignity and diverted people, for a while, from recognising the real cause of poverty. It isn’t about individual inadequacies: poor people do not cause poverty, but rather, Conservative Governments do via their hierarchical worldview, ideological incentives, policies and economic decision-making.

Conservative by name and retrogressive by nature.

This was taken from a larger piece of work: welfare reforms and the language of flowers: the Tory gender agenda

Related posts:

Largest study of UK poverty shows full-time work is no safeguard against deprivation

The link between Trade Unionism and equality

Follow the Money: Tory Ideology is all about handouts to the wealthy that are funded by the poor

The Poverty of Responsibility and the Politics of Blame

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Many thanks to Robert Livingstone

55 thoughts on “The New New Poor Law

  1. Clear, precise, researched, logical and written with eloquence that even the so-called ‘plebs’ can understand and support. Awesome as ever Kitty..you enunciate what I agree with but haven’t the skills as yourself..to state. Well done..(Listen up Daily Heil…THIS is REAL Journalism!..Read n learn!!)

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  2. I agree what people in general haven’t cottoned onto – is that we are as much under threat from “economic Fascism” – as I term it – as we were under the militaritic domination of Hitlers version of the same ideological approach.

    The term of a New World Order has been fashionable ever since Eisenhower wittered on about it from his presidency in 1952….

    ..I find it strange how he was able to recoin a fascist phraseology only 7 years after the Americans had also paid the price in blood and lives to defeat its birthplace. You look at the unholy tory trinity of Cameron, Osbourne and Ducan-smith you can see they have no sense of nationhood, loyalty to the popoulace or respect for community. As they percieve themselves to have transcended to a higher existance…an existence in which they think they can trade along side the dominant presence of the Rothchilds and rockerfellers of this world…when their ham-fisted adpoption of this purpose must be a serious embaressment to the real globalisers…they are to New World Order what the three stooges were to serious Shakesperian thesbianism.

    a quick thought about the dissappearing welfare system and NHS…weren’t these given to the working class as a reward inperpatuity for all the lives lost in corperately invoked world wars?

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  3. Boris Johnson, speaking at the Tory Party Conference, said that Jamie Oliver told him we need migrants in this country to work in our restaurants because the ‘young British’ are too ‘work shy’ or words to that effect! Nope, not work shy, just not willing to work for less than the minimum wage which many migrant workers are doing. It’s slave labour! Also, there was no mention of the wider unemployment problem for ALL age groups. What we have in this country is a Totalitarian government. Unyielding, unreasonable, non-negotiating and Self-Deluding! It’s all about ‘Control’ and ‘Manipulation’. By shifting blame onto the poorer in society and those in receipt of benefits (the so-called ‘scroungers’) DC, IDS etc can sit back looking like the good guys. Everything they say and do is, in their distorted view of reality, justifiable. Snakes in Suits!

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  4. Since the Tories first brought in their draconian benefit cuts for the disabled, I’ve said that they want to bring the workhouses back. I’m more and more convinced of this as time goes by.

    I’m so glad I found your blog; keep up the good work Kitty.

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  5. The Old and the New Poor Law (before and after the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834) have long been the subjects of many debates among professional historians. For those less interested in the complexities of careful non-ideological analyses of the many types of poor law records, the subject of the poor law has been a convenient weapon and stage device to bolster contemporary political and social causes.

    It might be important to know which of the works of (other) recent contemporary historians this author most relies upon.

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    1. Both of the Poor Laws were a product of the prevailing ideologies of the time. We know that The Poor Law Amendment Act was based on the social Darwinist ideas of Herbert Spencer and Thomas Malthus, amongst others. It is difficult to analyse the latter in particular without referencing the Zeitgeist – the “spirit of the age”. Policies don’t happen in cultural and political vacuums, after all. It’s always interested me how some key ideas of an era become central to belief systems which then shape our social world. Others are overlooked, or dismissed because they don’t fit the dominant paradigm.

      The work of Roger Gomm interested me in this respect, as he discusses how Darwinism fitted well with laissez faire, competitive individualism, and the ideas of Spencer and Malthus. Writing at the same time Darwin, Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid” was about animal co-operation and he generally reflected a more socialist view, which contradicted the spirit of the age, so he was not allowed to garner any academic credibility at the time. Yet his book is as carefully and convincingly argued and evidenced as Darwin’s was.

      Gomm argues that social research (and my approach is rather more sociological than purely historical) always has social and moral implications. Therefore sociology inevitably has a political nature. For the sociologists to attempt to divorce him/herself from the consequences of his/her research findings is simply an evasion of responsibility. Gomm further suggests that when the sociologist attempts to divorce himself from his own values to be scientific, to become a ‘professional sociologist’ he is merely adopting another set of values – not miraculously becoming ‘value free’.As critical thinkers, we know that the is/ought distinction has a valuable place in any debate regarding social policies – historical or otherwise.

      The parallels with the Poor Law Reform Act – particularly “the principle of less eligibility”, and the contemporary conservative claim of “making work pay” were my own observations and commentary, and I don’t rely on any particular contemporary historian as such, although I did study social policy at undergraduate level, and again when studying on a social work Masters program, a few years back. This particular blog focusses on the ideological content of the Reform Act, and draws parallels with current Conservative-led narratives in the UK. If I use any quotes or ideas that I know are someone elses’ I do cite the authors, or hyperlink their work/a source.

      I know that other commentators have drawn parallels with the Tories’punitive approach to welfare and poverty and the Reform Act, but the blogs tend to be my own ad hoc commentaries: I have written previously about the “blaming the victim” approach – here for example -https://kittysjones.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/the-poverty-of-responsibility-and-the-politics-of-blame/

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  6. the trouble is they are learning from history…Hitler and thatcher showed that clearly, they brought Greed to a whole new level…whatever opposition to these Darwinian social policies that ensued was done so to re-establish and reinforce the status quo…surely?..
    ‘Status quo’ is the balance between greed and penury that allows the continued extraction of surplus value to the exception and detriment of all other ‘noble’ human traits…therefore Greed has to be the key to all of this?…they squeeze and we oppose..?, a conflict of opposites?
    what we are seeing now is the rebalancing of the Status quo, the rationalisation of the planet, of global capitalism, not unlike the work a farmer carries out to maintain the efficiency of his farm…Profit is devoid of the normal everyday compassion that most of us experience, they too are learning, But they also, are subject to the phenomena that is named ‘revolution’ alas and driven by the latest crisis they have decided in their wisdom to make ‘hard decisions’…to encourage natural wastage through denial of basic needs rather than building death camps to get rid of unproductive citizens, again not unlike the ‘hard decsisions that a farmer would make…So to infer that the elitists will ‘forget it all an cock it up again’ is to infer that they had equitable intentions and is incorrect..what we are seeing is #GenocideByDenial here at the very least if not another ‘final solution’ revamped for the 21st century…

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  7. Mr Griffin: I am struggling to understand the thrust of your comment. Are you in agreement or disagreement with K Jones, or with anyone else above, including myself? Or did some language, somewhere above, just excite you?

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  8. Reblogged this on Remember Maree and commented:
    That has been tat the mission of many since at least since Labour abolished the work house before the war against the Nazi,but they have regressed and and wish to revert to the transportation policy of 200 years ago!

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  9. we can talk forever and be ignored ONLY MONEY TALKS AND THEY HAVE IT ALL AND WE ARE ALL TO GUTLESS TO STOP ALL WORK EVERYWHERE AT THE SAME TIME WE DESERVE WHAT WE GET FUNNY REALLY THEY HAVE MADE IT ILEGAL TO COMMIT SUICIDE BUT WANT US ALL TO DIE LOL I WOULD BE HAPPY TO MAKE THEM KILL ME WHILE PROTESTING OR A REVOLOUTION
    ANOTHER THING I FIND AMUSING IF YOUR A HEROIN ADDICT YOU GET NEEDLE EXCHANGE BUT CANT BUY ONE TO BUMP YOURSELF OFF HAVE TO STEAL AN ADDICTS TO DO THE JOB HAAAHAAA AND HOW COME ITS OK FOR THEM TO REPLACE HEROIN FOR METHADONE THEY DONT GIVE REPLACEMENTS FOR COKE CRACK AND ALL THE OTHER DRUGS OR IS THAT WHAT THE LEGAL HIGHS ARE FOR THAT ARE NOT TO BE USED AS DRUGS AS THAT IS NOT LEGAL SO THEY SHOULDNT BE CALLED LEGAL HIGHS BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT LEGAL

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