Mr Darling's holistic approach to social policy

`He has said that poverty is not just a welfare issue. This is an important psychological step'
Click to follow
THERE ARE few village shops any more, and the banks have retreated from the high streets of many small towns. The signs at the disused bus stops dangle, creaking in the wind. But it seems that everywhere you go there's an alternative therapist advertising on the parish noticeboard or operating from above the healthfood shop. For this is holistic Britain, a country which increasingly understands that it's the entire body that needs to be treated properly, not just the bit that hurts.

It's appropriate, therefore, that we now have the first holistic Social Security secretary, in the attractively two-tone, Munsterish guise of Mr Alastair Darling. His strategy to reduce poverty, published yesterday, represents the most coherent social policy seen in this country since the end of the war, and it achieves its objectives by treating the problem of deprivation as an issue for all departments and agencies, rather than just those dealing in welfare. Mr Darling intends to lay his hands on all parts of the national body, and to rub soothing oils into every muscle.

Naturally he lays claims to the greatest rethinking of the Welfare State since Beveridge. Given that all governments for the last 20 years have - every 18 months or so - announced their intention to surpass the great Liberal, Mr Darling could hardly have done less. This will lead disappointed academics to point out that the vasty principles established by Beveridge have neither been renounced nor replaced by Darling, and that no completely new system of welfare has been put in the place of the one he created. I anticipate that we will be told repeatedly in the next few months that there is less to this than meets the eye. But I wonder.

The first thing that Mr Darling has said is that poverty is not solely - not even primarily - a welfare issue. This is an important psychological step. It implicates the education system, the transport services, the police, local communities, the NHS, the voluntary sector, broadcasters - you name 'em, they're there - in the enterprise of breaking the cycle of deprivation. From Sure Start to extra nursery places, through improvements in literacy and numeracy, to increases in Child Benefit, the minimum wage, the Working Family Tax Credit, the list of government policies - which, together, might make an impact on poverty - seems pretty impressive.

It's when you put these together that you get the 32 Virtuous Indicators. Now, I know that lots of people hate indicators. The danger with setting targets - as the Russians found out with their five-year plans - is that they can be abused. If you are required to produce a million pairs of felt boots, and that is the sole measure of your worth, you may not care that you waste enough energy to light up Verkhoyansk for a century in order to accomplish your task. Indicators/schmindicators: waiting lists for operations turn into waiting times to see consultants; SATs tests at school metamorphose into examinations.

And there are some incongruities in Mr Darling's list. The idea that cocaine use is a measure of deprivation will come as quite a surprise to the inhabitants of Beverly Hills. And you cannot help wondering what the relevant minister will do if he or she discovers, with an election looming, that the teenage conception rate is a tad high. Rush around nightclubs with a bucket full of prophylactics, I imagine.

Nevertheless, as many managers know, no measurement means no action. Those who most fear their results being quantified are usually those who know they are failing. It is highly likely that if Mr Darling's 32 Indicators were all going the right way, then we would indeed be reducing poverty. Which is more than could be said were there merely to be fewer people in families earning less than half the average wage, the official definition of poverty. Last week one newspaper reported from an area where nearly everyone met this financial qualification for poverty, and yet none of these people thought they were poor. Were they wrong?

It was slightly depressing, then, to hear the new leader of the Liberal Democrats yesterday effectively damning the Darling strategy as being insufficiently redistributive. If New Labour can sound suspiciously like a New Age homoeopath sometimes, Mr Kennedy reminded me of a leech doctor. The issue for him appeared to be entirely a matter of taking money from the middle classes as ostentatiously as possible (ie through direct taxation) and ladling it out to the poor as direct subventions. If I have misunderstood him, however, I apologise and invite a clarification in our Right To Reply column by return of email.

Cynicism about politics and politicians is not only fashionable, it is now the only kind of intellectual clothing on sale. It's risky, then, for me to say that I believe Mr Darling and his colleagues when they call the war on poverty their great crusade. I'd be on safer ground talking about spin-doctors and lack of principles. But, folks, I think they mean it. So I do not accept the dinner party nostrum that Tony Blair is just another Tory.

For a kick-off, we have some real Tories with whom to compare him. During the Widdecombe summer we have had no word from the Hagueites on poverty. The excellent David Willetts nitpicks elegantly, but has nothing to say. We know that the party wants lower direct taxation for those already relatively comfortably off, bigger incentives for savers, longer prison sentences for drug dealers, asylum seekers sent home and cuts to the welfare budget. We also understand that the Conservatives desire greater deregulation, are opposed to the minimum wage and believe that the state should spend less on everyone except farmers (and - to be fair - the NHS). Presumably they still adhere to the formula: lower taxes, more jobs, less poverty - ie trickledown. Is everybody 'appy? You bet yer life we are!

This is not an unseductive argument for those in whose interests it is to believe it. New Labour is still scarred by the experience of the 1992 election, in which it scored ahead of the Tories on health, education and unemployment, but were well behind on taxes. The lesson is a stark one: there can be no war on poverty if Middle Britain does not want to fight it. Selling the crusade to them, breaking through what JK Galbraith called the culture of contentment, is essential. Everything else is piss and wind.

Middle Britain is not, however, stupid. Some of its objections to being taxed have had to do with the uses to which the money has been put. It can distinguish between those who can and should be helped to help themselves, and those who simply cannot. Those suffering from severe mental illnesses, for instance, may never be be fully independent - and a civilised country would make significant provision for them. What the others really need is the opportunity to work for decent pay, to live without the fear of crime and violence and for their children to attend a good school. And it does mean treating them, as the great aromatherapist in Downing Street seems to have realised, as something other than just "poor".