Deborah Orr: Labour promised social justice along with economic competence. It failed ...

Whatever the statistics, voters know that 10 years ago children were not being shot dead every week

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Labour modernisers yesterday warned Gordon Brown that he must wake up to the threat that "economic competence alone" will not be enough to win an election against a "socially more liberal" Conservative Party.

They are wrong. "Economic competence alone" probably would be enough to see off the Conservatives, if only because people would be afraid of rocking a boat that was chugging manfully forward. One trouble is that Labour's economic competence is no longer something that is easily illustrated. But it is by no means the only, or the most important, one.

The real point is that Labour's intention over the past decade was to demonstrate that an emphasis on "economic competence", in the hands of a left-of-centre political party, would deliver social justice. More wealth would be generated, and this wealth would benefit everybody. Specifically, this wealth would "lift children out of poverty".

Yet here we are, 10 years on, and collectively much richer. Families with two working adults, however, can still find themselves stuck in the poverty trap, unable to move out of the social housing that compels them to live among the "socially excluded"; and unable to access schools that would protect their children from being educated among the "socially excluded". Not surprisingly, people do feel the "deep social pessimism", but not in the imagined way that the report suggests.

That isn't the only phrase in the report hinting it is the electorate that is the difficulty, rather than the leadership. "While voters demand ambitious policy ends," the report says, "they are increasingly resistant to the means to reach [them]." What are those means, though?

Of course voters are resistant to such ideas as allocating school places by lottery. What the comprehensive system ignores, and the academies system only superficially addresses, is that different sorts of educational approaches suit different sorts of children. How could eradicating parents' attempts to find the best schools for their children be greeted with popular support?

Of course, voters are resistant to the idea that Labour's record on crime is a triumph. Whatever the statistics, voters know that 10 years ago children were not being shot dead every week of the year. The report is keen to emphasise that people's "deep social pessimism" stands in contrast to "the optimism people feel about their own lives". But that isn't a paradoxical view.

People may not fear that their own children are going to be shot. But they despair of the knowledge that other people's children are. What the wonks appear to be arguing here is that the individual's views should be based entirely on their own experience, rather than on their wider knowledge of what is happening in their society. This is the opposite of a progressive view, and hardly the stuff that prompts people to rush out and vote Labour.

It certainly wasn't what prompted them to rush out and vote Labour in 1997. Yes, the thing that finally finished the Conservatives was the loss of their reputation for economic competence. But there was also grave concern about the portion of the population that even then was referred to as "the underclass". Can Labour, with its hand on its heart, really say that these 10 years of economic plenty have made much of a dent in this hateful problem? Labour's "policy" is to insist that it has. It is either deluded, or simply lying.

The most tragic thing is that Labour's failure all along has been its lack of boldness in its pursuit of its progressive beliefs. It was plain to see that one of the consequences of the Conservative aim to create a property-owning democracy was that while decent social housing stock was sold, those least equipped to join the happy democracy were being ghettoised. Now gangs are defending their postcodes, because they are all that they perceive themselves as having.

Labour did nothing to reverse the trend whereby the least advantaged found themselves herded together and social problems festered. Yesterday, they compounded their error by suggesting that voters were wrong to be concerned about the consequences of such a calamitous dereliction.

* Ah, the lovely Dita Von Teese. She does for lap-dancing what Belle de Jour does for prostitution. Except that she does it much better. This week saw her join a long line of female celebrities who since 1992 have accompanied 75-year-old Austrian property magnate Richard Lugner to the opening of the Vienna Opera Ball, above. She was looking like the classy sort of arm candy one would except to see in the 1940s, a period the burlesque star admires, and presumably making an old man very happy, just as beautiful young women were primarily expected to back then too. Adorable, I'm sure. Sexual nostalgia has been good for von Teese, who, of course, is not just a woman with a nicely coquettish strip routine, but is also a brand. She has been seen in her bra so often that Gossard has asked her to design some for the company – and for us, in turn.

Perhaps if she keeps up the escorting job, she'll be asked to design some fetching 75-year-old Austrian property magnates for us as well. We can but hope.

The brain works in mysterious ways

It may seem like more news from the University of the Totally Obvious, this new research confirming that we scratch itches because it feels good. But I find the discoveries of doctors at Wake Forest University in North Carolina to be quite fascinating. They have found that the act of scratching numbs the part of the brain that is linked to unpleasant thoughts and memories, while at the same time raising activity in parts of the brain related to compulsion.

What's really interesting is that when one questions some of the young women who self-harm, they tend to claim that cutting their skin numbs their emotional distress, and that they depend on hurting themselves as an emotional crutch.

Self-harm is often dismissed as attention-seeking or copycat behaviour, especially as some young women claim to resort to such measures in response to upsets as trivial to older heads as unrequited crushes. But research such as this tends to suggest that the reports of temporary relief from trauma or distress are neurologically sound and based in physical fact. All the more reason to take seriously the prevalence of such self-destructive behaviour, and understand that it needs to be addressed.

* The National Secular Society has written to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, claiming that the Scout movement discriminates against atheists by asking children to pledge allegiance to God. "Two-thirds of teenagers define themselves as non-religious," says Keith Porteous Wood, "and the only way they can join the Scouts is to lie." Wow, what a non-religious lunatic he must be.

I was a teenager who quite definitely didn't believe in God. But I still managed to love being in the Guides. I said the dreaded words, but I didn't lie. I just pledged allegiance to an entity that didn't exist. Saying words you consider meaningless isn't lying. It's just being polite to the nice people who have organised the activities you want to take part in.

Demanding that a busy government quango take time to deal with your hair-splitting commitment to religious non-tolerance, on the other hand, is rude. This fool insists that the Scouts discriminate because they are "the sole youth organisation in many areas". Maybe the Secular Society should come up with an alternative, rather than harry people who are bothering to make a positive effort. It's funny how a strong belief in not-God can make people just as foolish as blind believers in anything else can be.

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