Why New Labour is out to lunch at Oscar's

Faith & Reason Gordon Brown cannot escape poverty by taking refuge in Bournemouth's smartest restaurants - as seven marchers will remind him
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ON 15 AUGUST seven walkers set out from the island of Iona for London, protesting at the persistence of poverty in Britain. They are from the Christian pressure group Church Action on Poverty and they have told their story at events all through the North. Look out for them in Manchester tonight; they arrive in London on 17 October.

They disagree sharply with present Government policy. They value new Labour's single-minded desire to get more people into work, but they deny that this is enough. They accept the validity of the official slogan "work for those who can, security for those who can't". But they insist that "those who can't" are much more numerous than the Government imagines. They know that joined-up thinking is necessary to any anti-poverty strategy, but now they want joined-up expenditure.

The Government wants to give poor people more work; the walkers want them to give poor people more money. They welcome Alistair Darling's approach in this week's policy document, "Opportunity for All" but that promises is simply to measure poverty, whereas the point is to change it. Yet there are clear signals from the Treasury that the cash is not forthcoming, and so the measurements will be fudged. And there is a fundamental fear that welfare policy expects far too much from labour market solutions.

There is a deep divide in Christian opinion here, almost as profound as during the Thatcher years. The marchers belong in that broad tradition which embraces Christian Socialism and Catholic Social Teaching - of William Temple and Leo XIII, George MacLeod and Donald Soper. And this tradition has been reshaped in the contemporary church. The ecumenical report "Unemployment and the Future of Work" acknowledged the virtues of the labour market, but also called eloquently for the improvement of public services thought the expansion of public sector employment, funded by tax increases. The Catholic document The Common Good, warned bluntly that growing inequality risks putting the rich in control.

But New Labour seems to lean more heavily on the sage of Kirkcaldy, Adam Smith, or at least on one reading of him. He it was who first taught us to see the market as a blessing rather than a curse. And Kirkcaldy's second most famous son is Gordon Brown, who appears to share the same conviction; that the common good is more likely to be served by employers spending money on wages than by the state exacting taxes to pay for services. Money levied in taxes can't be spent by employers on wages - and so public expenditure has to be scrutinised with the fiercest rigour.

I was mulling over these conflicting views while on my own pilgrimage to the Castlemilk Estate in Glasgow last week. There I met John Miller, a Church of Scotland minister, who has been here a remarkable 25 years. This is one of Britain's toughest estates, built in the late Fifties. John says: "I still meet people who moved here from the Gorbals and described the place as a paradise - but it's not a paradise now." The reasons are the usual ones. Since the Seventies, the population has collapsed from 50,000 to 15,000, which skews any kind of community. The proportion of single parent families is very high. Yet people manage to live a normal life here, especially after recent housing improvements. But a central reason for the flight from these estates is parents' fears for their children, both on the streets and in the schools. But the new Scottish Executive cannot crack these problems within its present budget.

None of this will be thrashed out at the Labour Party Conference next week, for the Kirkcaldy Tendency runs the show. Blackpool is supposedly "too tacky" for the People's Party, so we are all going to Bournemouth. The Conference Directory invites us to Oscar's and offers: "Impeccable cuisine, serious wines. Dress well and expect to be pampered!" The less sophisticated will be entertained at events sponsored by Camelot and Sky News, while trying to resist their corporate messages.

But modern poverty cannot be so easily fled. Catherine O'Sullivan manages the Citizens' Advice Bureau here. She says: "It's very pleasant here. But behind the seaside facade and the towers of the booming financial centre lies a different reality. There are neighbourhoods inhabited by substance abusing youth, and estates where single parent families are trapped in poverty." Bournemouth is no Castlemilk, but it bears those same marks of deprivation that are even more common in Brighton and Hastings.

So there is an issue of principle involved in the controversy over poverty in Britain today. But there is very little effective debate. The Christian convictions of those who see salvation in the labour market must be respected. But so should the convictions of those who claim that the problem of poverty is much more complex, and much more costly to solve than the Government will admit - and we all need to listen to one another. The fear is that the Government may have adopted too many of Middle England's preoccupations, and no longer speaks for the poor out of felt experience - that Labour is permanently out to lunch at Oscar's. If this is so, then the voice of Christian protest needs to be heard even more attentively. Church Action on Poverty is raising that voice for us, and it is doing so from the centre of the modern Christian concern for social justice.