Marginalised masses, can it be that your time has come?

Social exclusion
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair may not think of himself as more radical than Ken Livingstone, but on Monday he opened a political Pandora's box that dwarfs the revolt over benefits. The name "Social Exclusion Unit" suggests that the dozen or so civil servants involved will now concentrate their attention on ensuring that upper-crust dinner parties have the requisite quota of black single mothers.

I'm all for that. It would certainly be pleasingly annoying to some people. But it is a policy to be carried out by a social secretary, not a Secretary of State. However, the launch of the unit signals a chance for a genuine revolution, beside which the demand to retain all lone parent benefits is a timid, Menshevik thing. You would expect the dangerous lefties to be focused on the former, yet the left seems to have forgotten the point of being left-wing. The revolt on benefits for lone parents was never going to achieve fundamental change.

It was bound to fail, since the Tories had made it clear that they would back the Government. Have Ken and Co forgotten the words of General Giap, the great tactician who won the Vietnam war? "Fight to win; fight only if victory is certain." The upshot of this week's exercise looks like being a Government victory, followed by a period of savage revenge against the rebels. In exchange for what? Two days' headlines.

But the Government could have done better. Work is preferable to benefit; but it looks careless to devise a system by which women risk losing benefit if they do work, and then, through no fault of their own, lose their jobs.

It also seems overly harsh to turn down an exemption for the parents of under-fives. Do we really want to compel mothers to work in those first, vital years? Close parental attention may well be the only way to break the tragic cycle of underachievement that is the true mark of the underclass, and which ends up costing the rest of us billions in remedial education, crime control and further welfare benefits.

All that said, if the level of ambition of the most radical Labour MPs is to safeguard a tenner a week for a relatively small number of families, then the ruling classes have little to worry about. If I were an aristocrat or a powerful plutocrat, I would be happily sipping my favourite tipple and reflecting on what a jolly good thing this socialism lark can be, when practised properly.

I might, however, be kept awake at nights if the Social Exclusion Unit turned out to be a lively infant. There could be a truly revolutionary agenda for the unit. But first, we need to understand what is meant by social exclusion. For this is not solely about poverty, or even about race; it is about power.

What people are being excluded from is the ability to take decisions about their own lives. Poverty certainly can produce that result - but is not the only path to alienation. In modern Britain, it isn't even the most common route. Take, for example, the result of some work carried out by (inevitably) the think-tank Demos last year. It showed that the most alienated and powerless group of people in our society was not young, black, unemployed men, as you might expect; it was young, employed women in the C2 economic bracket.

When you translate that into secretaries, typists and receptionists, you begin to see why. These young women hear all the time that they are the coming thing, yet their working lives are ruled entirely by the whims of their bosses; there's not a lot of Girl Power in the average workplace. At home their lives are constrained by the demands of their male partners, by their children, and, increasingly, by the needs of their ageing parents. In all sorts of ways, they are socially excluded. No amount of money available from the state could empower them individually. These people don't need redistribution of wealth. What they need is a workplace that gives them freedom to take initiatives and to use their talents.

Then there is exclusion driven by snobbery and tradition. We all know that there are clubs which we cannot join; some of them literally are clubs, to which women are not admitted. But, more broadly, there are networks, to which most of us could not gain admission no matter how much money we had, and no matter how brilliant we were - that is, assuming we even knew they existed.

The unit might, for example, consider the extent to which the senior ranks of the Civil Service are dominated by Oxbridge graduates; there would be a basis for the PM to force mandarins to search more widely for its new mandarins. We might say the same for the clubs of public schoolboys who run our armed forces, or the political parties that exert a stranglehold on our local democracy.

Think, too, of the millions who are excluded by thoughtless bureaucracy or prejudice. Most of us now take for granted that you can get cash out of a hole in the wall, or that you can pay bills by cheque; increasingly, both private and public sector take it for granted that customers have bank accounts, and privilege them for using their accounts - discounts for direct debit, for example. But what if you can't get a bank account? You may have had a prison sentence; or you may not, in these days of portfolio working, be able to show six months' regular income. Everyday tasks become more difficult; you are greeted by suspicion, and you can be crippled by your inability to use any money you do earn. That's social exclusion.

Then there is fear; how can an elderly person trapped in his home play a part in our society? Many of these people are by no means poverty-stricken; but they are cut out of the social involvement most of us take for granted, because they are frail and scared. That's social exclusion. They don't need more money; they need families or caring neighbours. It probably needs volunteers, not cash. Similarly, those who cannot read properly are left outside the loop. That's social exclusion, often caused by bad teaching.

The question for the Prime Minister is whether he and his unit can see beyond the many demands for dosh that are no doubt already landing on the mat. One good sign is that the unit has no money of its own; a budget would merely encourage officials to find ways of spending it. Instead they need to find better ways of spending the money that is already in ministers' hands.

Mr Blair is severely disabled in appreciating the extent of the task; he was born with talent and material advantage, and he is a white, male professional; there is nothing in his make-up that allows him to know what it feels like to be an outsider, and certainly it is some time since he will have felt powerless. We will know whether he is a great politician or just a nice one, if his genuine empathy for the excluded goes beyond the hand-outs for the poor; and if he finds a way to smash down the closed circles of power that dominate our society.