It is a pleasure to speak in this debate on behalf of my constituents, and I am going to draw on some of the words of one of my greatest constituents, Robert Noonan, better known as Robert Tressell, buried in a pauper’s grave in Rice Lane City Farm in my constituency of Liverpool, Walton. He is the author of that great socialist manuscript “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”, which tells the story of a group of painters and decorators—as he was himself—struggling to make ends meet in a rigged system. His work has been credited with helping the Labour party win the 1945 post-war election.
This Budget is full of modern-day money tricks, which I will come on to, but the great money trick in “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” starts with the characters, painters and decorators working at the turn of the last century discussing the causes of poverty. The painter Frank Owen intervenes. “Money”, he says,
“is the cause of poverty”,
and what follows is a demonstration of “the money trick”, one of the finest passages of comic political prose in English literature.
Owen takes his slices of bread from his lunch basket and asks all the men for their bread, which he places in a heap, saying
“These…represent the raw materials which exist naturally”.
He pulls out some pocket-knives, and says that they are the means of production. Owen says:
“I represent the landlord and capitalist class. That is to say, all these raw materials belong to me... Now you”— maybe the Members opposite—
“represent the working class: you have nothing.”
But, he goes on, in order to turn his raw materials into something of use, we need work:
“I have invented the Money Trick to make you work for me.”
Owen hands the bread and knives to the men. They cut the bread into blocks, and return them to Owen. The workers receive their wages—of £1. The money they earn is their own, to do with as they like, and the things they produce are now the property of the capitalist class. Owen says of his blocks of bread:
“These blocks represent the necessaries of life. You can’t live without some of these things, but as they belong to me, you will have to buy them from me: my price for these blocks is—one pound each.”
The cycle continues: Owen’s blocks of bread—his profits—pile up, the rich getting richer, while the poor exchange their wages for the necessities of life, all the time staying poor. In Tressell’s masterpiece, the workers are the “philanthropists,” giving the value of their work to the rich who benefit from a rigged system.
Since those words were first written more than 100 years ago, there have been huge steps forward for working-class people and their rights, hard-won by the struggle of trade unions and the Labour movement. But the truth is the same today as it was then, because working people are not responsible for poverty. This is a broken system, that inflicts poverty, inequality and human misery, and it needs reform. We have had the longest squeeze on wages since the Napoleonic wars. Today’s young people are set to be poorer than their parents for the first time in modern history.
This week, we heard the Chancellor come up with some of his own money tricks to mask this Government’s economic failure. He suggested that Labour had caused the global financial crisis. There have always been deficits and borrowing; the Tories ran them for 18 years when they were in government. The 2008 global financial crisis caused a global recession. It was not investment in schools and hospitals that crashed the economy; it was the greed and recklessness of a deregulated financial sector. Let us take another example: the so-called jobs miracle. This involved boasting of record levels of employment while saying nothing about the phenomenon of insecure, low-paid and bogus self-employment. Wages are lower today than they were 10 years ago, and some of my constituents are doing three, four or five of those jobs to make ends meet. Today, the majority of people in poverty in this country are also in work. What an absolute disgrace!
This Government cannot trick their way out of this crisis. Poverty and deprivation can be seen on the streets of Liverpool every single day. Robert Tressell’s novel is full of tragedy and despair, but it also offers a glimmer of hope. In a chapter entitled “The Great Oration”, Tressell describes the creation of a new kind of society: the co-operative commonwealth, based on shared ownership and worker self-management. I think that the shadow Chancellor has read it. That is called socialism, and it is about time we redoubled our efforts to attain it.