King Tony, look over the palace gates

Suzanne Moore on labour do-gooding

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For some time I have been expecting the announcement. Clearly Charles is too old and William is too young and there is no other viable option. I can just see Blair, humility oozing from every pore, his voice cracking with emotion, telling conference: "Aw, guys, you know I never really wanted to do this but as the people have spoken, I guess it's my duty. Yes, I will become King." The coronation of the Lion King cannot be far off and King Tony, the moderniser's moderniser, may as well become monarch if we believe what we read in the papers.

Actually I am hoping that the New Downing Sreet Social Exclusion Unit does home visits because I feel socially and spiritually excluded from not only the style but the contents of this week's conference. Only three things have cheered me up: Tony Banks' crimes against good taste; Mandelson's little disappointment; and the fact that the only person who finds Alastair Campbell attractive is a paranoid manic depressive in the grip of a wild delusion.

With the media largely operating as cheerleaders for the Government, it is easy enough to think that the people's politician holds the nation in his hands, that, though there may be the odd hiccup, everything is going to plan. Is this really the case? The overwhelming relief that the Tories have gone is being read as overwhelming support for everything this Labour government does. But it is not the same thing at all.

There is a strong sense of politics happening elsewhere. Even the TV pundits seem to admit it. After Diana they are less smug than before about what really matters...

"I'll be asking Mark Mardell [Newsnight's political correspondent] why he bothers?" declared a languid Paxman in a TV studio in Brighton this week. He was referring to the lack of conflict at the conference. This could be spun as a sign of the new inclusive politics. After all, isn't it an indication of maturity that we all now agree with each other and the Government about everything?

Well, no it isn't. For while the popular will and "the people" are invoked over and over again, this is a process taking place from the top down and not the bottom up.

This is nowhere more evident than in the discussions about poverty, about which we are all suddenly dreadfully concerned. The language of these discussions is entirely that of Charles Murray "underclass" theory. He made no secret of the fact that the underclass were scum. So now instead of poor people being people without enough money we now talk confidently of the underclass as though they were an entirely different species, a lumpen mass. They live in "anti-social neighbourhoods", according to Blair's speech, and they are just desperate for a bit of do-gooding.

Murray also wrote of the rise of "the rabble" and the "New Victorians" and there is something horribly Victorian about the way in which these debates on poverty proceed: "the poor" may at times be divided into bite- size chunks - single mothers, pensioners, the long-term unemployed - but there remains little understanding of the poor as people, let alone citizens.

Work - low-paid, part-time, unstimulating work - is the great cure-all. From work, we are expected to believe everything else will flow - self- esteem, educational achievement, a more stable family life. Yet it is the changing nature of work that is largely responsible for the breakdown of older forms of family life in the first place.

The fundamental changes that have resulted in the negotiation between men and women of new roles for themselves isn't being addressed. Talking of "the poor" or "the underclass " also ignores the play of gender throughout our lives. Women move in and out of poverty in different ways from men because their relationship to the employment market is not the same,

Yet for all this government's "radicalism", the parameters of this debate are very narrow. Redistribution, already ruled out, is only ever talked of in terms of the tax system. There are other ways to look at this. Many of these ideas are coming from outside the Labour Party which, while preaching self-sufficiency, exists alongside a realm where these ideals are actually practised - namely, DIY, direct-action politics. Those involved in such politics are doing the things the Government talks of so wistfully. They are trying to take responsibility and control over their lives and many of them have the time to do so precisely because they are unemployed.

Some of "the people" invoked so many times this week by the Labour Party will have little faith in this government or any government to represent them. That does not mean they do not recognise that many issues that will impact on their lives will be decided by Parliament, it's just that they cannot accept that the only agenda worth having is the one set by the Government, even, praise their souls, this one. Money in your pocket contributes to the quality of life but other things such as fulfilling work, a clean environment and a lively community also figure in surveys that ask people what defines a decent standard of living.

Denise Searle's book, Gathering Force DIY Culture - Radical Action for those tired of waiting, sees the issue of land as "the underlying factor lurking beneath the surface of many single issues" from homelessness to the rebuilding of communities to the loss of public space to the destruction of the countryside, the insecurity of home-owners facing negative equity.

"Access to land for living, providing food and recreation is an essential determinant of our quality of life, yet about 75 per cent of British land is owned by 1 per cent of its people." The reclaiming of land, even temporarily , is a vital part of DIY culture which does not bother waiting for such redistribution from on high.

Thankfully "the rabble" itself is generating ideas about how to deal with poverty from Local Economy Trading Systems (LETS), credit unions in areas where no bank would dare to venture and neighbourhood food supply networks. They are not waiting for policies to be handed out to them but rather create their own policies, to force a response from the Government. The underclass as a forum for ideas and debate and radical action - now there's a queer notion in the court of King Tony.

There is more than one kind of poverty, more than one kind of solution and more than one way of talking about "the poor". Compassion will not stop the effects of globalisation. But something has got to give in this giving era and if you want to include people you might have to actually talk to them instead of talking down to them. Still that is what governments are for and we all know, don't we, that you only talk down to those you assume won't answer back?

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