Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Irish Labour's New Republic (1968)

From the October 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

Following its much-improved representation in the Dail Eireann at the last General Election, the Labour Party has increased its political activity and talks of a new approach to politics. Amidst an atmosphere of enthusiasm and inspired by increasing party membership, their leader Brendan Corish voiced his plans for the future in an address at the Labour Annual Conference in Dublin in October l967. This has been published as a pamphlet under the title The New Republic. The laying down of a definite policy together with the re-affiliation of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union has roused curiosity in all quarters and has paid-off by further swelling Labour's ranks.

There was no lack of optimism and speculation in the address. Indeed, Corish commenced by forecasting “the seventies will be socialist” for the people of Ireland. In July the Dail (parliamentary) members of the Labour Party met four hundred delegates from all over Ireland to draft a new manifesto and to consider the developments which had taken place since the last conference.

One new development that Labour has to face is the referendum due to be held later this year on the abolition of the Proportional Representation system of voting. Statistics suggest that if the referendum abolishes PR in favour of the single-member constituency system in England, it would perpetuate the Fianna Fail government for a further ten years. Also, it would probably reduce Labour representation in the Dail to a mere handful since most of Labour's members are elected on the second choice votes by pro-Fine Gael and anti-Fianna Fail supporters.

Even if PR were retained there is a ludicrous tinge in Corish's prediction. Though he has succeeded in doubling his party's numbers in the Dail (from ten to twenty), he would have to increase it by a further fifty to gain power. He has also to convince a politically hostile electorate—manifest in the way, except for two short periods of coalition government, they have continually returned Fianna Fail to power—of the desirability of his new republic—and he has to do this between now and November next year. With Ireland's biggest trade union, the ITGWIJ, now standing firmly behind the Labour Party Corish certainly has a chance of increasing his representation, but the chances of gaining power are very thin.

It would be impossible to gain a majority of seats in the Dail without the support of the farmers and since on the whole they are very conservative, Labour has not the appeal in the rural areas it has in the towns. The only probable way of ousting Fianna Fail is by forming a coalition with Fine Gael, the main opposition party. But after Labour's being the minor party in two previous and disastrous coalitions—with the consequent charge of selling out “socialist" principles—Corish has assured his members that Labour would not join another coalition. We shall see.

The Labour leader listed the major wrongs which, to a people who hide beneath the robe of Roman Catholicism rather than face the truth, were carefully worded so as not to provoke the ever-ready guillotine of the Church. He confronted people with what they already know and what many accept as the will of God. Old age pensioners are expected to survive on a few shillings a week. In the forty-seven years of Home Rule a million Irish men and women have emigrated. Ireland, he said, was “starved of employment". One after another Corish pointed out the problems which are not peculiar just to Irish workers but are common to workers everywhere—though his strong national-mindedness seems to have blinded Corish on this point. His particular grievance is that “£600m. of Irish capital is invested in the biggest money-market in the world" instead of invested in Ireland!

The solution which Corish says will solve these problems is the abolition of private enterprise, and the establishment of “socialism". Socialism, it is true, is the correct solution, but what according to the Labour leader is “socialism"? His excuse for failing to give a clear meaning is that “people who call themselves socialists differ in their definitions of the word". But since the Labour Party claims to accept the ideas of its founder, James Connolly, let us consult his writings to see how he used, or abused, the word.

Connolly's idea of “socialism” centred round the Irish Republic for which he and James Larkin tried to rally the workers to take up arms and fight. His Republic, he said, would not be like the United States where "the power of the purse established a new tyranny under the forms of freedom, one hundred years after the feet of the last British redcoat polluted the streets of Boston"—a remark which brings out Connolly’s nationalism and his hatred of the British. Connolly alleged that in his Republic the workers would enjoy the fruits of their labour. Maybe he would have changed his mind if he had lived long enough to witness the effects of the Russian revolution when they tried to set up “socialism" in one land.

When the first world war broke out De Valera and Connolly appealed to the workers not to follow John Redmond's support for Britain. Connolly quite rightly pointed out that the Irish workers' quarrel was not with the workers of another land (Germany), but he and De Valera were continually soliciting the Irish workers to go into battle with the British army in Ireland (consisting of course partly of Irish and partly of English workers).

Corish stated that in his new republic all Irish capital would come under the control of the state; that the banks would be brought under the direct control of the Dail, and that all capital would be invested in Ireland to build industries. If Labour comes to power and successfully executes these plans, he believes that the workers will no longer have to swell the labour forces of other countries. Then Ireland might wrongly be called “socialist", but it would be just another state capitalist country not more able to further the cause of Socialism than the existing ones which have tried and failed.
 Patrick Garvey

Votes for some Workers (1968)

From the November 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

November 1868 is a significant date in British working class history. For in that month was held the first general election in which the majority of electors were workers. Most workers, it is true, were still excluded but enough had the vote to elect a majority of socialist delegates had they wanted to. It is true also that the Second Reform Act of 1867 was a miserable compromise between the Tories and the Liberals, both of whom were opposed to democracy and afraid of giving the vote to too many workers.

In 1832 the workers had been tricked into backing their employers' demand for a share with the landed aristocrats, big merchants and bankers in running the government. The First Reform Act was framed so as deliberately to exclude workers and in fact, in some cases, they were actually disfranchised. This was not an experience they easily forgot. The manufacturers had used the threat of a workers' uprising to scare the governing classes into sharing power with them. One of the first acts of the government elected under the new franchise was to reform the Poor Law system: they made it harsher in order to drive people into the factories (or, as they would say today, to encourage “mobility of labour”). Partly as a result of this for the next decade or so the government was, in Chartism, faced with the real threat of a workers’ uprising.

Chartism, the first independent workers’ political party in the world, was an expression of general discontent with early capitalism. Their six-point charter, which included universal manhood suffrage, added up to a demand for a democratic state. They were convinced that with democracy the workers could reshape society in their own interests. This was well expressed in the words of one of their songs: “We will get the land, when we get the Charter”. It was this emphasis on the need for winning political power that commended Chartism to Marx and Engels and it taught them that the workers’ class struggle must become political. The Chartists in fact failed to achieve any of their aims. Their last monster demonstration in 1848 failed ignominiously. Faced with the choice of passively accepting parliament’s rejection of the Charter or insurrection they backed down. The more determined kept up the struggle for a few more years coming to absorb the ideas of the French utopian communists like Babeuf and Blanqui and even those of Marx and Engels.

By the 1860’s the trade unions, after years of syndicalist-type opposition to “wage-slavery”, came to accept the wages system and put forward the conservative slogan of “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.” Their leaders were rejecting violent overthrow of the the government in favour of working for small improvements within the system.

The manufacturers, who were the gainers from 1832, were now eager to push out the old landed aristocracy and have the state machine all to themselves. The successful Anti-Corn Law campaign led by Cobden and Bright had whetted their appetite. They saw as one way of increasing their control to extend the suffrage to their workers who they knew would vote for them. So despite the failure of Chartism the Reform issue was raised from time to time after 1850. However, the restricted franchise did not allow the radicals their due weight inside the Liberal party. The Whigs, themselves landed aristocrats, still had a great say and Lord Palmerston refused to allow a Reform bill. When he died the way was clear and in March 1866 Gladstone introduced a Bill which by lowering the property qualification would have given the vote to many workers. But the Whigs had their last fling. Some forty of them voted with the Tories against the bill. The government resigned and a minority Tory one took over. Almost immediately they were faced with a country-wide Reform agitation. Bright on behalf of the manufacturers’ National Reform Union called for ratepayers’ suffrage while the trade unions and the First International backed the Reform League which, like the Chartists, stood for universal manhood suffrage. It was the League that organised a great demonstration for 23 July at Hyde Park which the government banned. The organisers refused to accept this and the demonstration went on. The crowds pulled down the railings at Hyde Park and swarmed in. The fear of insurrection and a revival of Chartism, suggested by this, scared the government and Disraeli introduced his own Reform bill, more radical even than Gladstone's, in order, as he said, “to dish the Whigs”.

Marx commented favourably on the tactic of playing off one section of the governing classes against another which the workers had used to get factory laws. The passing of the Second Reform Act presented the same spectacle. The Tories proposed to give the vote to all ratepayers in the towns, while the Liberals wanted a steadily falling property qualification. Since the Liberals had a majority in parliament the actual Act, which with similar ones for Scotland and Ireland increased the electorate from 1,350,000 to 2,470,000, was a compromise.

If Disraeli had hoped to gain the new voters' gratitude and so dish the Whigs he must have been disappointed. The 1868 election returned Gladstone with a big majority. The new government then set about stripping the aristocrats of more of their privileges: they reformed the civil service and the universities; they disestablished the Church in Ireland; they brought in compulsory elementary education. Once again the workers had been used by the manufacturing capitalists as tools in their fight against the landed aristocracy. But this time it was voluntary. The workers allowed themselves to be used in this way. The new voters of 1868 set an unfortunate precedent which has been followed at every election since: they used their votes to hand over political power to the capitalist class.

One of three Tory Ministers to resign was Lord Cranbourne (who later as Lord Salisbury was three times Prime Minister). His complaint was that power was being transferred to
those who have no other property than the labour of their hands. The omnipotence of Parliament is theirs.
Marx and Engels took a similar view. Writing on the Chartists in the 1850's they had pointed out that universal suffrage in Britain would amount to political power for a class-conscious working class. They seem to have regarded the Second Reform Act as a “radical sham” and a travesty on democracy, as indeed it was. But, although fearing a “pro-slavery rebellion", Marx knew its significance as he showed in his famous speech at the Hague in 1872 when he stated that in America, Britain and perhaps Holland the workers could win power for Socialism peacefully, by winning a majority in a general election.

The government extended the franchise to workers in Britain under pressure, partly from the workers themselves and partly from some capitalists who saw this was in their interests. The workers' vote is a real gain, a potential class weapon which should, in Marx’s phrase, be used as “an instrument of emancipation". The government could not, as some claim, now suddenly suspend democracy, for besides being essential to the smooth running of modern capitalism, it is part of the political consciousness of the working class. By their past actions, from Chartism to pushing down the railings in Hyde Park, they have forced governments to take their views into account. Nor is universal suffrage a fraud, as these same people claim, a trick to convince us we have some say in the running of social affairs while the real decisions are made elsewhere. Parliament does control how the state machine is used—whether troops stay East of Suez or fight in Aden, what the police should do to control riots outside the American embassy, what laws the Courts should enforce—and universal suffrage does allow workers to choose who shall sit in Parliament..
Adam Buick

The Dangers of Leadership (1968)

From the December 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

At first glance the theory of vanguard action by a highly disciplined minority to achieve Socialism might seem to have a lot to recommend it. In a pre-revolutionary period, revolutionaries are always confronted by the twin obstacles of a ruling class armed with state power and the apathy of the masses. So any theory which suggests that the mass of the people has only a minor role to play, that their inertia can somehow be circumvented, is obviously very attractive. Like most modern political ideas this theory has its roots in the French revolution, but it was Lenin who first systematically organised a political party on this principle.

Today there are numerous organisations which, to a varying degree, draw their political inspiration from the Bolsheviks. Despite bitter disputes over the minutia of their faith, they all conform to a common pattern. Each adopts a programme of immediate demands which are designed as bait to attract working class support. It also seems to be a general rule that groups which start with a theory that the party must lead the masses, end up by developing a highly centralised leadership within the party, with the rank and file members progressively subordinated to a sort of inner party.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain from its inception has rejected this form of organisation and its related theory. The experiences of our early members in the Social Democratic Federation before the Socialist Party was set up taught them the dangers inherent in a reform programme. Inevitably a party which attracts support on this basis finds people joining it and identifying themselves with it who have no interest in getting rid of capitalism, but who are simply concerned with reforming and modifying the present social system. Faced with this situation, the party can develop in two ways. It either becomes an openly reformist organisation and the genuine socialists inside it are reduced to a minority or it may still manage to adhere to its original principles—but only at the expense of democracy, by a dictatorial clique concentrating power in its own hands.

The “International Socialism” group is worth looking at from this point of view since it clearly shows these tendencies and it also has members within its ranks intelligent enough to be conscious of their dilemma. In fact, the I.S. group and the Socialist Party are of roughly similar size and to a superficial observer there might seem to be certain similarities in our ideas (when pressed by socialists the l.S. leadership will concede that there is state capitalism in Russia and the Socialism will eventually—their emphasis—be a moneyless economy based on free distribution). Up till 1967 l.S. took the form of a loose-knit group with very little formal organisation inside the Labour Party and Labour Party Young Socialists With the slump in the government’s popularity, however, it has noisily proclaimed its independence from Labour [1]  and has been growing rapidly over the last few months, with an influx of young people—mainly university students — into its ranks.

I.S. sees its immediate task, as does the Socialist Party, as one of developing class consciousness among the workers. But there is an important distinction between the two concepts of “consciousness". The Socialist Party is convinced that there is no basis for going forward from capitalism until a majority of people understand what Socialism entails and are prepared to take conscious action to establish it. By contrast, the level of understanding which at least some members of I.S. expect the working class to reach is indicated by the following passage, taken from one of the internal documents circulating inside their organisation prior to their recent bi-annual conference:
It is irrelevant what the working class ‘thinks’; it is even more irrelevant what individual workers think; what, ultimately, will determine the outcome of class struggle is what the working class is forced to do, and what it decides to do. (their emphasis)
Naturally, this different interpretation of consciousness gives rise to a completely different approach to the question of presenting socialist ideas to the working class. While the Socialist Party supports the efforts of workers to improve their wages and working conditions by trade union activity, we do not as a party immerse ourselves in such work. We see our job as essentially one of drawing attention to the fact that the individual problems which make working class life a misery are all rooted in the capitalist system. Against this we pose the alternative of a world socialist community. I. S. takes a different line. Their strategy is to become involved in particular struggles over rents, wages or redundancy and—so the theory goes—support gained on local issues in this way will gradually blossom out into a fully developed grasp of Socialism among those who accept I.S. leadership.

Certain elements within I.S. now seem to be seriously questioning the value of these tactics. One lesson which a number of them seem to have drawn from their involvement in the “day to day struggle" is that the idea of the working class eagerly waiting for some group of self-appointed leaders to turn up and start leading them has no existence outside of Bolshevik mythology. At their recent conference there were various rueful accounts of tenants and others telling I.S. members in no uncertain terms where they could stick their leadership. These provoked the conclusion from one faction at the conference that “the working class is not as stupid as some people think”.

An equally important development has been the analysis which other I.S. members have been making of the shortcomings of their organisational structure. Some of them are worried by the trend towards the “bolshevising” of their movement:
. . .  we are in the process of creating inside IS. an organisation based on ‘leadership’ where the leadership is to be trusted with central power for the sake of efficiency.
But this tendency cannot simply be explained away by references to the growth of their group and the consequent centralisation in the interests of efficiency. Its roots go deeper, down into the theoretical basis from which I.S. operates.
After all if there is a theory of a working class which needs an external leadership, the obverse organisational theory of a rank and file membership needing a strong leadership, will lake hold—at the top.
Alongside this they outline the organisational form which a socialist party should take:
What is required for a really efficient challenge to capitalism is the building up of a REVOLUTIONARY ORGANISATION OF EQUAL PARTICIPANTS IN DECISION AND POLICY-MAKING, (their emphasis)
The Socialist Party of Great Britain, of course, is organised along these lines. It is because we reject all leadership and restrict our membership to socialists alone that we can afford to be uncompromisingly democratic. Some of those who in the past have sneered at our “impossibilism” are perhaps now starting to realise that what we have succeeded in building up is the nucleus of the type of mass party which the working class can use to liberate itself. We certainly do not have any of the glamour which makes organisations like I.S. so attractive to their romantic revolutionary elements, but to those interested in the serious work of achieving Socialism we do represent a party where they will be welcomed as comrades and equals.
John Crump

[1] Too much should not be made of this. At least some l.S. leaders (e.g. Michael Kidron) have taken the precaution of quietly remaining on the Labour Party’s books. For details of their previous commitment to Labour see Socialist Standard, August 1968.

The Australian Labour Party. (1911)

From the January 1911 issue of the Socialist Standard

The following extracts from a letter from a friend in South Australia may be of interest at the present moment:
   “Politics here are worse than dead—they are buried. So far as the worker is concerned the Labour Party is a calamitous failure. Even the most conservative of capitalist Governments could not have been more concerned about the rights of “property” than was Verran's Government in the Asphalters’ strike a few weeks ago. Most of the South Australian Labour M.P.s are wowsers (Wesleyans) of the virulent type, bound hand and foot to one or another little Bethel, and when it comes to a question of conventional or unconventional procedure, the wowseristic instinct comes uppermost, and the wowser feeling is ever for 'Plute,’ who keeps the chapels going. A few of the present Government are marked down for smash next election,—their vera religious pandering will prove their political undoing.’ 
“You will have read of the Labour victory in New South Wales. They have a better type of men there than we have in South Australia, as they are not so thoroughly tied up to the Gospel-mongers. We have a phalanx of saints with Verran as archangel.”
John A. Dawson

More Miners Murdered. (1911)

Editorial from the February 1911 issue of the Socialist Standard

Once again the murderous nature of capitalism finds glaring exemplification in a wholesale slaughter of workers, and 344 miners (including a child of 13) are deliberately sacrificed on the altar of Cheapness. Scarce had the tragedy of Whitehaven ceased to occupy men’s thoughts when, at Westhaughton, near Bolton, an even more dastardly outrage was perpetrated on the working class. As with Whitehaven, the first thing to be noted is the fact that several warnings had been published before the disaster, regarding the dangerous atmospheric conditions and the consequent likelihood of escapes of gas in the mines. In such circumstances a sane system of society would have suspended mining operations, but capitalist idlers must have their profits regardless of who perish. MONEY BEFORE MEN is their motto, and the workers must do and die or starve and die. That the gas was there the miners knew. Fear of the “sack ” and the boycott kept them quiet, and fear of a hungry Christmas for wife and child kept them at work.

Of course we are told that this particular pit was “one of the best” and considered very “safe,” but the men knew otherwise. “In this respect ” says the Bolton Chronicle (14.1.11) “the fact that men have long known that this reputedly ‘safe’ mine was in reality a centre of peril and have not conveyed the information to those who would listen is disquieting.”

But who would listen? Not the owners—full well they know the dangerous conditions under which they exploit the men ; full well they know that “regulations” are ignored, because the interests of the dividend hunters must not be sacrificed to provide safety conditions for Labour.

Equally futile would it have been to approach the Labour “leaders”—these gentlemen are more concerned with the House of Lords, and boosting up Free Trade Liberalism, with the hope of Government jobs for themselves, than with the enforcement of Mines Regulations Acts in the interest of those from whose beggarly pittance, earned under awful conditions and at appalling risk, they meantime draw their comfortable salaries.

And so those martyrs of the mine went down to their doom, consciously daring death by explosion because to speak their fears meant the terrors of the boycott.

From the evidence given at the inquest on some of the victims we quote the following :
    “ Robert Boardman, Seddon-st., Westhoughton, identified his brother, George (23), who had worked on the conveyor. He said he had complained of gas, and came home twice a week for it. It was only a fortnight before that he was carried out because of it."     “ Edith Seddon, Cemetery-st., Westhoughton, testified to her husband James Seddon (23), who, she said, had come home every night unable to eat because of gas."
Many other witnesses testified to complaints of gas in the mine during the three weeks prior to the disaster while others had complained of sparks flying from the conveyor. It thus seems clear that an explosion of gas took place, but at the meeting of the Westhoughton District Council one of the councillors declared : “In this case and in every case where there had been an explosion, if the first general rule had been carried out, there could have been no explosion. He spoke rather feelingly, but the first general rule said that ‘an adequate amount of ventilation shall he constantly produced in every mine to dilute and render harmless noxious gas, so that the workings, etc., shall be in a fit state for working and passing therein.”

Again at the Conference of the Colliery Engine Winders’ Federation, held in Manchester, Mr. Forshaw, the President, said :
    “They must make the public realise that a great proportion of accidents were preventible. After nearly every explosion they got evidence that for weeks and sometimes months before the explosion the gas produced in the mines had not been dealt with and rendered harmless in accordance with the Mines’ Act. If the rules were strictly adhered to explosions through gas would be impossible. The ventilation of some working places in many mines compared to what it should be under the rule was simply disgraceful”
Here, then, is clearly shown the double danger and futility of “reforms.” These are passed and serve to make popular those who pass them. Their existence on the Statute Book lulls the workers into fancied security—from which explosions serve only to temporarily awaken them—they are “administered,” or quietly ignored, as best suits the interests of the master class. Further striking proof of this is found in the alarming increase of “accidents” in the mines. In 1909 there were 1493 fatal accidents, an increase of 148 over 1908, while non fatal accidents were 154,268, an increase of 11,482. In 1910 the fatal accidents total 1769. Thus in every working day more than five men are killed procuring coal which might be got as safely as digging potatoes—only it would not pay.

Could greater condemnation of this cursed capitalist system be pronounced than this —men are murdered because it pays ? Answer, you Liberal and Tory, anti-Socialist working men! Can you look one of those bereaved of Bolton in the face without shame, knowing that you have voted into office the supporters of production for profit—the murderers of their loved ones—and will again? Will you never understand that these “regrettable incidents” are the inevitable fruits of the brutal system you sanction at the ballot-box, and that you are therefore jointly responsible for those callous crimes against your class? Or is the philosophy of capitalism—“One man dead is another man’s bread ’’— good enough for you?

Coming so soon after the Whitehaven horror, and amid the “ unrest ” in the coalfields generally, there was the possibility that this affair might be the signal for trouble, or, more serious still, that the survivors might arrive at class-consciousness by brooding over their lot. So in the interest of “law and order,” the preservation of profit and property, the thoughts of the sufferers had to be diverted from the cause of their grief. The aid of charity and religion was invoked; pennies and prayers were lavishly distributed and countless eulogies delivered on the devotion of the dead and the loyalty of the living. A relief fund was opened so that 
           “the charitable sneak
To lull the cry of toil might spare a trifle
           from the spoil
He had wrung from the wreckage of the weak.”
£50,000 was asked for, but so great was the alarm felt by the master class that over £100,000 was quickly subscribed, and the fund had to be closed. Meanwhile the representatives of the Church, in the sordid interest of their capitalist paymasters, strained every nerve to prove that God was responsible for the disaster,and that the money-grabbing mine-owners were the most innocent and loving of men. From the deluge of demoralising drivel directed on this doubly unfortunate people we quote, in extenso, the following letter from the Bishop of Manchester:
      “My Dear Friends,—Being unable to be present with you at your memorial services, I am writing to express in a few words what I should have tried to say if I had been with you. It has pleased God to suffer an overwhelming affliction to fall upon you. Your homes are desolate and your hearts are broken and your eyes have witnessed sights too horrible for words. Almost all the ordinary consolations of death and bereavement have been denied you, but in all this trial God has been with you, granting such a full measure of faith, patience, and courage to overcome your sorrow that has been a wonder to all, and especially to those who have been trying to minister to you. For this we can all thank God. He who has given you this supplication will not fail you, not even in the long dark hours that lie before many of you. He will comfort the widows, the sweethearts, brothers, sisters, and fatherless children in their sorrow; the grief is there and no words of ours can take it away, but you will try to trust him more and more and to believe that promise .‘WHAT I DO THOU KNOWEST NOT NOW, BUT THOU SHALT KNOW HEREAFTER.’ May God be with you all and bless you. Yours in deepest sympathy and respect, E.A. Manchester.”
Evidently the clergy did their dirty work well, for the vicar is able to say in the January issue of the “Westhoughton Parish Magazine,” “We cannot but thank God for the spirit of submission and resignation which has been shown by the bereaved."

And no doubt the mine-owners again loll comfortably in their clubs, while the miners again go down to the death-traps. Meantime, let us do well the work of enlightening our fellow-workers to the necessity of replacing the present murderous social system by one in which life shall be valued above coal. Our work for this end is the measure of the only genuine sympathy for the sorrow-stricken of Bolton and the poor oppressed slaves of capitalism everywhere. From the supporters of capitalism charity is an insult and sympathy a mockery. Stupified with the chloroform of religious cant and humbug, misled and ignorant through the teaching of their false friends the Labour “leaders” and professional politicians, some of the workers may forget and forgive; but we place it on record that the Bolton butchery is another of those brutal incidents in the infamous career of capitalism which shall neither be forgotten nor forgiven save in the day of Revolution and the triumph of Socialism.

Child Poverty: Not Just Being Poor (2017)

From the August 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
Child poverty in Britain is at its highest level since 2010 (Guardian 16 March). Around 100,000 children fell into relative poverty in 2015–6, and four million children, around thirty percent, are classed as poor. The head of Oxfam’s UK programme was quoted as saying, ‘There are now more people in poverty in the UK than there have been for almost 20 years and a million more than at the beginning of the decade.’ Nearly half of children growing up in single-parent households are poor, while two-thirds of children in poverty are in households with at least one parent who is in work.
Poverty for children does not just mean going without possessions, living in sub-standard housing, not having a proper holiday. Mere survival is an issue too: in So You Think You Know about Britain?, Danny Dorling observes that infant mortality in London can depend on whether a child is born in a wealthier or poorer area. He also notes that one cemetery in Bradford has eight times as many recent graves of infants and children as the equivalent cemetery near Hampstead in London. There are many factors involved in deaths at a very young age, including pre-term births, weight at birth and mother’s age and health, but poverty is clearly involved as well (and may be connected to some of these other causes).
Fatal injuries of various kinds are also correlated with poverty: ‘a child from the lowest social class in the United Kingdom is 16 times more likely to die in a house fire than one from a wealthy family’ (World Health Organisation report, Injuries and Violence, 2014).
In 2010 a government review of health inequalities in England, Fair Society, Healthy Lives, presented as its main recommendation ‘Give every child the best start in life’. They noted that children with low ‘cognitive scores’ at 22 months but who come from better-off families increase their scores by the age of ten. But children with high cognitive scores at 22 months who come from badly-off families have lower scores by age ten. There may well be reservations about just what is being measured here, but the existence of some relation between economic status and educational achievement seems highly likely. This will then feed in to the qualifications gained, the jobs followed and so to health and life expectancy.
There is in fact other fairly strong evidence for the effect of poverty on educational attainment. For instance, as a proportion just over half as many children in receipt of free school meals gain top grades in GCSE as children in the whole population. It is often claimed that poorer parents have lower aspirations for their children, but this seems in fact not to be the case, with the same (and very high) proportion of parents of seven-year-olds wanting their children to attend university, irrespective of their own status as poor or non-poor. Parents’ own education is a better predictor than income of how well their children will do at school, but this does not mean that income plays no role.
In February the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health produced a comprehensive report State of Child Health, which, among other topics, examined the links between health and poverty among children. Infant mortality, as we have seen, was correlated with living in a low-income household, as also were the risk of tooth decay or dying in an accident or developing a chronic condition such as asthma. The report also noted that many effects of childhood ill-health can continue into adulthood:
'the risk of death in adulthood increases for many conditions including coronary heart disease, respiratory disease, injuries, and cancer. In addition, mental health conditions in childhood are more likely to persist into adulthood.'
Giving every child the best start in life is a fine principle, but one hard to put into practice in a society riven with inequality and privilege. 
Paul Bennett