Tsunami disaster Charity needn’t end here

Polly Toynbee:

The horror of the tsunami drowns optimistic new year thoughts. Images of human flotsam and jetsam prompt nihilistic thoughts of meaninglessness. (If only there was a God to blame...) The only people trying to make sense of it are raving mad such as the regular emailer who declares this is the sign of “God’s wrath over one billion abortions.’’ More tentative religious messages see this as an opportunity to count our blessings, tempus fugit, carpe diem, and so on. Look at the way the world shows its common humanity in the relief effort. But prayers in all faiths fall on earthquake-wrecked ground.

All previous experience suggests too little help will be promised and even less given. A year ago response to the Bam earthquake offered a new openness with Iran: but the non-arrival of pledged cash only added to suspicion of the wicked west. Meanwhile in Iraq, that ongoing calamity for which we are directly responsible, the news that 28 more have been blown up fades into the inside pages.

But the new year is for optimism, if you can manage it. Both Tony Blair and and the UK’s finance minister Gordon Brown look to 2005 as Britain’s big chance at the helm of the G8 to engage the rich with debt relief, aid, fair trade, carbon emissions and Aids-crippled Africa. On debt and trade Blair’s Labour Party has done well, but it is difficult to believe great strides will be taken in redistributing power and wealth in a world in which economic and intellectual forces are pushing in the wrong direction and the wealth gap widens. Social democracy and global cooperation are struggling under the tsunami of US neoconservatism.

“Charity begins at home’’ is the mean-minded dictum of the right, unwilling to spend on foreigners, unwilling to spend on those outside the family fortress at home, either. But there may be a lot of truth in the old maxim. Countries that tolerate vast wealth gaps are unlikely to concern themselves greatly about the poor even further from their door. Countries that give most — the Nordics — are the ones that have created the most socially equal societies at home first. Can America be anything but unjust in dealing with foreigners when it cares so little about the third world poverty within its own borders?

Britain has yet to confront honestly the scale of its own dysfunctional inequality. Labour still has not found a language of redistribution and fairness that it dares to use when talking to voters. In public, both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are at ease with the language of global injustice, but not with talking about domestic poverty. “Africa”, in Blair’s speeches, is a noble cause more than a real place, sanitised by distance. The fewer details he sees, the easier it is to express the “scar” on our conscience. Brown attacks debt abroad, yet debt at astronomic interest rates still cripples poor families here.

Seen close up, the poor at home are politically difficult. Their children get into trouble and their parenting skills may be questionable; too many are on invalidity benefit with various intractable difficulties. “You can’t just throw money at them’’ is the official stance — while quietly redistributing a lot in tax credits and benefits. Labour has not begun to turn the poor into an unequivocally good cause. Far-away orphans are easier: poor children at home arouse ambiguous political feelings.

This is pitiful cowardice. There have been glimmers of hope that the next manifesto really will put social justice first, summoning back disaffected Labour voters. But then a sharp backward step is taken to triangulate any such hope.

But what does Labour mean by “ordinary” people when only five per cent of estates of dead people reach the inheritance tax threshold? Virtually all inheritance tax is levied on those with shares: it is a rich man’s tax. But social justice is supposed to be Labour’s great third-term theme. If so, Labour must not match Tory tax-cutting and civil-service slashing. Clarity of purpose is what any PR adviser would say Labour lacks most: a good record on delivery lacks the red thread to make that story believed.

The only (remote) threat of Labour losing is if too many Labour voters stay home. Every time Woodward opens his mouth, he will make that more likely.

Labour’s great chance to be “at its best when at its boldest” now happens to be its best electoral strategy, too: take a risk, be brave, talk loud and often about its mission to abolish child poverty. Be honest about how it will be paid for, the good it will do, the vision of a country and a world without poverty. Take the big risk of losing some middle England votes for the gain of plainly doing the right thing. That’s what political trust is made of.

If this seems to have travelled a fair distance from the tsunami, it hasn’t. Charity begins at home because people’s basic good instinct for generosity and decency has to be nurtured by leaders brave enough to take the risk to appeal to altruism, at home and abroad.

Optimism is the great progressive virtue: things can and must get better; hope is the great political energiser. Pessimism is the conservative state of mind: fear all change, self-interest is the only reliable human motivator. Tsunamis may be inevitable; human failure to minimise suffering and share wealth is not. — The Guardian