Over the Haagen-Dazs the talk is all of the end of poverty

Polly Toynbee the real agenda

Related Topics
There is only one game in town - the "underclass" and how to kill it off, throttle it at birth, ethnically cleanse it into oblivion. The ideas buzz through every airless corridor and jam-packed bar.

Wherever two or more people are gathered together, wherever clumps and cabals cluster around ministers, the key words waft up into the air as you pass by - sink estates, homelessness, crime, unemployment deserts, out-of-control children, poor pensioners. Words like welfare, Wisconsin, worklessness are sprinkled with the latest statistics. Newest pilot scheme results are swapped eagerly. What works? How do you do it? How do you pay for it? It's all they want to talk about.

And all this is from a Labour Party said to have lost its soul in the attempt to keep Middle England and the Daily Mail happy. They have performed this trick by talking publicly about "the family" or crime to satisfy the punitive and moralising tendency, while in reality working to end poverty. Talk loudly, but carry a very small stick.

But this is no longer an age for big political ideas or sweeping grand plans. It is pocket calculator politics, micro-policies, micro-management - what works, only what works. Each "underclass" denizen must be helped into work, cajoled, coerced, encouraged back into mainstream life. Not in the old ways with giant imaginary levers of policy devised by macro- economists to alter hypothetical patterns of human behaviour. It's about each person having a personal adviser on the ground, someone to see them through the fog of hopelessness and the maze of over-lapping bureaucracies.

I came across a plethora of ideas and plans from virtually every department. Ministers and their juniors talk breathlessly like newly trained social workers, starry-eyed, full of hope that leaves some wise old heads worried about the dangers of their future disillusion.

First there is the new Downing Street Social Exclusion Unit, designed to drive policies across departments, partly in Whitehall but mainly knocking heads together on the ground. They will target the nation's 1,370 worst estates, where 40 per cent of all crime is committed. Unemployment is no longer regional, but in such small, local jobless blackspots. Each now has been invited to bid to become Employment Zones and Health Action Zones, to embrace everything that moves and breathes in one area - jobs, training, buses to work, health, crime, drugs and sink schools. In their eyes you see the visions of new Jerusalems rising from the ashes of hell- hole estates. Great if it works, but it won't be easy.

But at least after all these years of governments massaging figures to reduce the size of the unemployed register, this government is actively seeking out those not on it. That means setting themselves far higher targets of numbers into work - among them the million extra people Harriet Harman says are now claiming sickness benefit. People have become no iller in the last decade: many of these are men in their forties and fifties, the hidden unemployed pushed off the register to waste their lives on sickness benefit at a cost of millions.

Yet it may not be easy to get them to return to work in the way that the single parents have been persuaded. (Pilots apparently show that one in three single parents is returning to work after just one interview.) Can the same be done for the sick? Gordon Brown's surprise new target of full employment will mean creating government jobs in intractable areas. What sort of jobs? One plan is for the police to run local crime prevention teams, enlisting local people on estates to patrol and protect their own area, under police training and management. If it sounds alarmingly like Guardian Angels or vigilantes, you are reassured with the insistence that it works in Holland.

There is plenty of the unthinkable too. Whispering lest Barbara Castle hears, there are those who dare suggest that the whole national insurance paraphernalia is a vastly expensive anachronism, invented 50 years ago for a very different society. Not now, but some time it may be right to take the state pension away from the richer pensioners to give to the grindingly poor. And isn't it time to filch the fat tax relief on pensions for the rich? No, behind the scenes they are not faint-hearted.

There was something vaguely threatening about the tone of Tony Blair's announcement of a new ministerial group on the family, yet behind the scenes the talk is of a radical scheme to tax partners together again, redistribute the savings and double the rate of child benefit - which would offer the biggest single step out of unemployment for many women.

All this and more is in the air, some happening soon, some later, some maybe never. Meanwhile trouble has blown up over Frank Field's role. He has taken upon himself an almost impossible task - to devise a grand overarching welfare reform that smacks more of the old politics than the new. Divesting himself of all other tasks, he is spending night and day drafting a Green Paper that may (or may not) appear next Christmas. He is saying nothing to anyone (not even his colleagues, alarmingly) about what's in it. He told me, he wants it to be a Big Bang. It will be, he says, a "philosophy of welfare".

Yet as he writes, that philosophy is being written on the ground all around him, his pen racing to keep up with what everyone else is actually doing. That may be why he has been dangerously, publicly thrashing around of late, having promised magic big solutions in a micro policy world. What works is all that counts now.

In all this, the government is taking a noble but high risk strategy: these social problems are deep-seated, expensive and from the experience of other Labour governments, profoundly intractable. The Government is asking to be judged on its ability to transform the people who are the most difficult to change. Huge effort makes small change in the underclass. Will they keep up their infectious enthusiasm when some schemes fail miserably? Do they have the stamina to pick themselves up and start all over again and again and again? At least if the economy is half as good as promised, then they have the best chance ever of succeeding.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£13676.46 - £15864.28 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Re...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Tessa fizzes with ideas; she has all the warmth in the world but a core of steel  

Why Tessa Jowell gets my vote for London Mayor

Alan Johnson
Was this the game when the public started to fall back in love with English cricket?  

How can anyone say Test match cricket is dying after this glorious, complex battle?

Matthew Norman
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

Hanging with the Hoff

Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

Hipsters of Arabia

Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

The cult of Roger Federer

What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

Malaysian munchies

With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
10 best festival beauty

Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

A Different League

Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

Steve Bunce on Boxing

Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf