Pinching yourself about poverty

PJ White
Thursday, May 9, 2013

Picture the parliamentarians gathered amid pomp and ceremony for yesterday’s Queen’s Speech. What connection do they have with the lives of those with little power and no privilege? What do they know, for instance, of the reality of child poverty?

The answer for at least one MP is... quite a lot. Alan Johnson knows more than most, and more than anyone should. Over the past week journalists have been reviewing his newly published childhood memoir This Boy.  Experienced hacks shared their sense of disbelief at the Johnson family’s poverty. “I sometimes had to pinch myself to recall that Johnson is writing about a period within my lifetime, which marked the beginnings of ‘the affluent society’, not about the 1930s or 1890s”, wrote Peter Wilby in The Guardian.

Lynn Barber of The Sunday Times also had the need for a good self-pinch. “I had to keep pinching myself to remember that Alan Johnson, a former cabinet minister once touted as a future Labour leader, is younger than me. He was born in 1950, but the childhood he describes in this haunting memoir sounds almost Dickensian – the constant gnawing hunger, the slop bucket in the bedroom, the hiding from the tallyman, the gas lamps in the street.”

It is worrying if people’s instinctive reaction to the poverty Johnson and his older sister Linda experienced is to think of it as historic. What do they think happens to children now in a comparable situation – an absent father and a chronically ill mother  who works, when she isn’t in hospital, in a series of part-time, low-paid jobs? One wants to ask the journalists – if there are children in the UK today who are permanently hungry, wearing second-hand clothes, living in damp squalid conditions, with few presents or comforts and the family harassed by creditors, how would you know? 

To which the answer is that they wouldn’t, because poverty of that kind is hidden. It is the opposite of the wealth and power on display at the opening of parliament. It is not proud and confident; it is shameful and furtive. 

I’ve been having crazy fantasies about how that might change. Here’s a radical proposal. We need a parliament that truly represents the people it serves. So rather than just having a handful of MPs who, like Alan Johnson, have direct experience of poverty, there would be nearly one in four – matching the current forecast for the number of children living in poverty by the end of this decade. 

As a result, someone like Linda Johnson, who started part-time jobs aged 12 and as a young teenager cooked, cleaned, managed the household finances, negotiated better housing with the council, and cared for her dying mother and younger brother could end up, should end up, as Prime Minister. I’d have to pinch myself.

PJ White is editor of Youth Money