“Conservatives Don’t Care About Poor Children”

Britain’s Labour Party struggles to see the ruling Conservatives’ policy on poverty as anything but cruel.

Labour's Stephen Timms attends an event in London, October 17, 2012
Labour’s Stephen Timms attends an event in London, October 17, 2012 (The Institute of Physics/Mark Earthy)

Surely one of the most annoying things that can happen in politics is when one’s very humanity is called into question by an opponent. Leftwingers seem to be guilty of this more often than those on the right, seeing conservative policies as cruel or uncaring whereas conservatives just think lefties are wrong.

Charles Krauthammer, an American columnist, observed as much more than a decade ago, writing, “Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.”

This is not just true for the United States. Replace “liberal” for “leftist” and his statement works in Europe as well.

Case in point: Stephen Timms, a Labour representative for East Ham, London, writing in the New Statesman that the ruling Conservative Party no longer has any intention of eliminating child poverty.

Conservatives not caring about poor children — that sounds pretty damning, especially when it turns out that all the government is proposing to do is change the way poverty is measured and eliminate an advisory body on child poverty.

In a speech last week, Prime Minister David Cameron lamented that because the government measures poverty in relative terms, “we are in the absurd situation where if we increase the state pension, child poverty actually goes up.”

This goes to an old argument between the left and the right. The former believes that relative poverty matters because it means some people are still richer than others. The latter argue that if poverty is measured in relative terms, there will always be poor people unless and until there is total income inequality — something most modern leftists deny they want.

Conservatives are more comfortable about income inequality anyway, believing that effort, enterprise and old-fashioned hard work should pay off. A person who paid and studied for more than a decade to become a brain surgeon or an entrepreneur who took the risk of starting a company and succeeded deserve to earn more than those who dropped out of high school or prefer the security of a public-sector job. People make choices in their lives and those choices involve tradeoffs, including on income. Conservatives believe that’s only fair.

Lefties don’t and some are incapable of empathizing with their opponents. As Krauthammer put it, “They think conservatives are mean.”

How can conservatives believe in the things they do — self-reliance, self-discipline, competition, military power — without being soulless? How to understand the conservative desire to actually abolish welfare, if it is not to punish the poor? The argument that it would increase self-reliance and thus ultimately reduce poverty is dismissed as meanness rationalized.

Which is precisely what Timms does.

Worse, he sees Conservatives’ different approach on eradicating child poverty as only the first step in an “attack on the low paid.”

There can only be reasonable political debate if we trust one another’s intentions. To believe that Britain’s Conservatives not only don’t care about the poor and low paid but actually want to hurt — that is just ugly. The only thing this tells us is how Labourites like Timms see the world.

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