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Opposing poverty: a job for the left, not the churches

When I give food to the poor, I’m propping up David Cameron’s Big Society programme. When I ask why the poor have no food, I sometimes wonder what I’m doing in the Labour Party any more.

Recent weeks have seen the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, 42 other Church of England bishops, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland and the Methodist and United Reformed churches all speak out against poverty, which for many people on the left is the very issue that galvanised them into political commitment in the first place.

Nothing wrong there. Every organisation in civil society has the right to express an opinion, of course, which will carry weight to the degree each listener accords it credibility.

Inevitably, there are elements of hypocrisy involved. The Vatican is fabulously wealthy and runs its own bank, which is famously somewhat less than incorruptible, and the CofE owns a £5.5bn investment portfolio, which has previously included substantial shareholdings in armaments manufacturers.

As to the financial affairs of the others, I know little. But none of these denominations seems to be in a mad rush to follow Jesus’s advice in Matthew 19:21, which was to sell that thou hast and then tip it into the alms plate of the nearest leper.

However, these churches deserve credit for highlighting what is perhaps the central fact of contemporary capitalist society, namely the contrast between Canary Wharf and the rest of Tower Hamlets, between the skyscrapers that dominate the City and the places in Hackney from which they can easily be seen.

That used to be the job of the political left, which had an analysis of what was wrong with capitalism and what it was they sought to put in its place.

The horizons of Labour leaders sporadically expanded beyond the obsessive desire to appeal to the prejudices of the Murdoch press and the need to appeal to the self-conceptualised ‘squeezed middle’.

Sometimes they would even proclaim their desire to eradicate poverty, simply because eradicating poverty is both entirely attainable and the right thing for a wealthy society to seek to achieve. However unfashionable it is to use the term, that constituted an admirable moral purpose.

It is one that Labour lost since circa 1994, when it got shot of intense anger about the millions of Britons that were dirt poor, and instead found itself reclining on the sunlounger of a Russian oligarch’s superyacht, intensely relaxed in the company of the filthy rich.

Behind the Labour Party was a self-confident trade union movement and an influential Communist Party and far left, none of them ready to accept that the text for each day’s lesson should always be Matthew 26:11: for ye have the poor always with you.

But whereas once they would be listened to, all these layers have been marginalised to the point where their voices are scarcely heard at all.

So it would be wrong simply to deride sincere Christian condemnation of social inequality, lacking in ultimate answers though it might be. Thank God someone is saying what they say, and still able to secure column inches in which to say it.

It all sounds positively radical in comparison to a Labour front bench that is prepared to abstain on something as basic as the retrospective legalisation of unpaid work on the part of benefit claimants.

After all, if even a cleric compromised by complicity with the Videla dictatorship can position himself alongside the world’s worst off, it should be a doddle for Ed Miliband.

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