Steve Richards: Suddenly, the campaign to make poverty history in Britain has become fashionable

The Tories are perceived as nasty. Yet here they are toiling away on behalf of the poor
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The Independent Online

How to address poverty in Britain? The question is posed rarely in a public arena. Yet soon there will be a noisy debate as the main parties compete to come up with some convincing answers. Indeed, in terms of its symbolic importance I predict the debate over poverty will be more intense and highly charged than the vacuous clash over newly fashionable green issues.

Almost ignored in the recent ministerial reshuffle, a new cabinet post was created. The former chief whip Hilary Armstrong is now responsible for policies aimed at addressing social exclusion. At least in theory, the poor are represented at the cabinet table. Joining Ms Armstrong is Ed Miliband, who has worked for Gordon Brown, and Pat McFadden, who spent his political apprenticeship serving Tony Blair. Bringing them together could be seen as an act of a deranged troublemaker. More probably, Mr Blair seeks a rare ministerial synthesis between Downing Street and the Treasury, aware that this is essential if the renewed focus on the poor is to get anywhere.

One of the reasons for the urgency within government is the new interest from the Tory party. Still obsessed with the Conservatives, Mr Blair acts always to block their moves. In this case, the moves are being made by an unlikely figure. With a real commitment, their former leader Iain Duncan Smith is chairing his party's social justice commission. Mr Duncan Smith made few waves as leader of his party, but now an entire government department is formed to counter his interest in addressing poverty.

He is one of the more interesting figures in British politics. As leader of his party, he began to travel around the country and became genuinely shocked by the levels of poverty in parts of Britain. After his ruthless removal from the leadership, he set up his own think tank. He tells me he remains active in politics solely to address questions relating to poverty. He will make proposals to Mr Cameron in a year's time as part of the new leader's policy review.

As far as Mr Cameron is concerned, the symbolism could not be more helpful. The Conservatives are perceived as nasty and uncaring. Yet here they are toiling away on behalf of the poor. More than any other policy area, an interest in poverty has cathartic potential, purging images of the selfish 1980s.

On this issue, at least, there is some substance behind the symbolism. As a shadow cabinet minister, long before the leadership beckoned, Mr Cameron showed an interest in ways in which the so-called third sector could be expanded to deliver policies for the poor. The third sector is the uninspiring term for charities and other voluntary groups. I chaired a conference for the third sector three years ago in which Mr Cameron was much the best speaker, enthusing about the potential for these groups to do more. Mr Duncan Smith shares Mr Cameron's enthusiasm.

But the Government will get there first. With at least one eye on the activities of the Conservative Party, it plans to announce new proposals this autumn on social exclusion with renewed emphasis on the importance of the third sector. Already the newly appointed trio Ms Armstrong, liberated from the whips' office, Messrs Miliband and Mcfadden, seeking to make their mark in their first ministerial posts, are working 18-hour days as they get to grips with their new policy area. Yesterday it was announced that a new office for the third sector was being set up in Ms Armstrong's department.

In some ways, the Government has acted already. In the early days, Gordon Brown used to say that he was prudent for a purpose. At the time everyone was mesmerised by the extreme prudence and paid less interest in the purpose. Only a close textual analysis showed that Mr Brown's overwhelming political purpose was the alleviation of poverty. He has sought to achieve his purpose on several fronts, and has done so without too many squeals from the middle classes. The recent fuss about the cock-ups in the payment of tax credits should not obscure the fact that this has been the most redistributive of all the Labour governments.

Not that most voters realise it. One of the oddities about British politics is that both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats claim to support redistribution while contemplating iniquitous tax cuts. The Government has redistributed widely, and never dares to mention the term. As Robin Cook used to point out, the poor assume they are better off because of technical adjustments by the Inland Revenue. The Government was too scared to highlight the improvements.

Now Mr Cameron opens the door for the defensive incumbents in power. He makes respectable what they were frightened to speak of. For the Conservatives, it is one of the dangers in Mr Cameron's otherwise astute strategy. He adopts the language that New Labour has been too afraid to use. But quite often it is Labour that has the policies to flesh out his progressive aspirations.

Whatever their differing paths, the Conservatives and the Government arrive now at the same place. Mr Duncan Smith agonises about those that are left behind, the ones that no agency seems to be able to touch. So do Mr Blair and Mr Brown. In the recent innovative "Let's Talk" exercise, Mr Blair spoke with candid insight about the dilemma: the people who come to Sure Start or make use of other government initiatives have decided to act. How to get to those incapable of acting? Late at night, more than any other topic Mr Brown and his close allies pose the same question. In Ms Armstrong's new department they estimate that up to one million people are still socially excluded.

There are reasons for extreme wariness as the parties compete to make waves over poverty. The issue of tax remains a great taboo. One of the reasons why Mr Brown treads warily is that he knows that before very long tax issues might have to be addressed for policies to be truly effective. More disingenuously, the Tories are promising vaguely to cut taxes, and the timid Liberal Democrats have dropped their proposal for a top rate on high earners and plan now to cut income tax. Ominously, the new political fashion to care for the poor takes place as a tough public spending round moves into view. Charities and voluntary groups can be inefficient, too. Some voluntary groups are superbly innovative, but there is no guarantee that if the state steps back others will deliver more effectively.

Still, let us be optimistic for a moment. For reasons of expediency and conviction, the plight of the socially excluded is about to be one of the great themes of our times. Governments might have no choice but to act. Attitudes to global poverty have changed dramatically. There is a small chance it will become fashionable to make poverty history in Britain, too.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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